Archive for Better Off Undead

BETTER OFF UNDEAD: Chapter 1, “Mirror, Mirror”

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Chapter 1

 

Mirror, Mirror

 

Mirror, mirror, on the wall. Who’s the deadest of them all?

There I was lying on the bed on another sticky summer afternoon, examining my reflection in a hand mirror. I pondered the first day of middle school, just four days away, and gazed at my decomposing face.

It wasn’t too bad, considering the fact I was dead. When you took into account that minor detail, and then compared me to all the other dead people in the world, hey, I was doing all right. Better than all right! Go ahead, dig up a grave, stick the corpse into a wicker chair next to me, then compare and contrast. Do a Venn diagram for all I care. I’ll win that beauty contest eight days a week, twice on Sunday.

That’s me, Adrian Lazarus: way hotter than most dead people.

Compared to living folks, the ones who aren’t full-on zombies, maybe I don’t look so great. Mine was a face only a mother could love, though I was beginning to have my doubts about that. After all, how could she? The whole zombie thing had been tough on Mom. She hadn’t bargained for a zombie with bad breath, body odor, and a hunger for braaaaains. Just kidding about the dietary issues. I’m pretty satisfied with an undercooked burger and greasy fries. Never super hungry these days.

A fly touched down on the windowsill near my bare feet. It lifted off again like a barnstorming pilot, performed a few dives, loop-the-loops, and barrel rolls over my exposed flesh. It buzzed my face before squeezing out a hole in the window screen. Probably just an advance scout for the coming swarm. It will tell the other flies they hit the jackpot. That’s one of the downsides of zombie life –- ha, there’s a phrase, zombie life: an oxymoron, like plastic glass and jumbo shrimp and cafeteria food — I attract flies. They follow me in black clouds like I’m the pied piper. Kneel down before me, for I am the true Lord of the Flies!

I was basking in my misery when the door opened. As usual, my little brother Dane was itching to enter my inner sanctum. As if the closed door meant nothing, and the words KEEP OUT! signaled an open invitation. Dane poked his chubby-cheeked, pug-nosed face into the room. His head was seemingly squished from forehead to chin so that it resembled an old, soft orange. To me, Dane’s smooth, dark, elastic cheeks made him look like a living garden gnome, hideous and adorable at the same time.

Dane was four years old. And unlike his big brother, very much alive.

“Hi,” Dane said. “What are you doing?”

I was doing exactly nothing, but I told him I was reading a comic book. A believable lie since I often flipped through comic books and graphic novels. There were a few comics scattered by my pillow. Reading was doing something, a way of being alone and yet totally (amazingly) connected to something other, something else, some far-away place called anywhere but here, which is where I longed to be. Without turning around, I grabbed a comic book and held it up for Dane.

“See,” I said, swiveling my head, back still to him.

“The Sandman,” Dane murmured with awe. He stepped into the room, emboldened. Dane wore red shorts held up by an elastic waistband. He had on his favorite t-shirt –- the one with a picture of the scarecrow from “The Wizard of Oz.” Inspired by his favorite movie character, Dane often stumbled around the house, prat-falling like the boneless, brainless man of straw, wind-milling his stubby arms, humming the tune from the movie. If I only had a brain.

Concern creased Dane’s face. “Can I come in?” he asked, already in.

I shrugged. All I wanted was to be left alone. But Dane needed to be near, I knew that, even a dope like me can see when he’s loved. It’s better than nothing, by a lot.

“Where’s Mom? Yoga class? Work?” I asked.

“She’s on the phone, talking to somebody about periodic rate caps,” Dane explained, without a flicker of comprehension as to what he was saying. He could join the club. I didn’t know what periodic rate caps were either. That was Mom’s work. Flipping houses, skimming a percentage off the top, moving on like a shark in bloody waters. Buying and selling.

After my father went overseas with Corporate to fight in the Water Wars, and kept re-enlisting, Mom reinvented herself. Today she’s a successful real estate agent. I couldn’t walk three blocks in town without her face beaming out from a FOR SALE sign. “Rosie Lazarus, an agent you can trust.”

Dane reached into his pocket and produced two sour apple candies. My little brother knew the way to my heart — through the gap in my rotten teeth and down into the cavities. He offered both to me.

I took one, told him to keep one for himself, pulled on the twisted ends of the crinkly wrapper, and popped the hard candy into my mouth. I grunted thanks and returned to my horrible mirror.

“I might run away,” I sighed. I could see Dane standing behind me now, reflected in the mirror, pressing closer. I felt his sticky fingers on my back, heard the hard candy rattling against his teeth.

“Don’t go to California, it’s on fire,” Dane said.

“Not all of it,” I said. After years of draught, the wildfires had started up and kept spreading. Nobody was running away to California anymore.

“Oh,” he said, blinking. Dane considered the news in silence. “Can I have your room?”

“Dane!”

His head pivoted on his shoulders as he eyed the walls and sloped ceiling, redecorating in his imagination. He’d probably fill it with Legos. Dane caught my eye in the mirror’s reflection. “Mom would be mad if you ran away.”

Maybe mad, I thought. Or relieved. “You hungry?”

The sweet boy with fat cheeks and loose curls nodded, yes, he was hungry. Dane was always hungry.

I sat up and put my feet on the carpet for the first time in hours. My toes were numb, like dull weights, lead sinkers on a fishing line. No nerve endings. I could take an axe and chop them off, from big toe to little toe, and never feel a thing. Pop ‘em off like grapes from the stem.

Dane took my cold, clammy hand. “Come,” he said, and tugged, dragging me from my dark room into the light.

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Better Off Undead will be published in October, 2017 by Macmillan. Grades 4-8, 275 pages.

Check Out These 5 Jigsaw Jones Books . . . Coming August 8th!

Look what came in the mail yesterday . . .

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I’m happy to announce that on August 8th these five Jigsaw Jones books will be available in stores for the first time in years. Published by Feiwel & Friends at Macmillan.

Leading off, The Case from Outer Space: A brand-new, never-before-published story for a new generation of young readers. Librarians please note that it’s also available in hardcover, a first for Jigsaw.

Plus these four classroom classics that have been previously unavailable, newly revised and updated:

 

The Case of the Glow-in-the-Dark Ghost

The Case of the Mummy Mystery

The Case of the Bicycle Bandit

The Case of the Smelly Sneaker

 

Coming in November . . .

 

The Case of the Million-Dollar Mystery

The Case of the Disappearing Dinosaur

The Case of the Best Pet Ever

The Case of the Buried Treasure

Lastly, older readers (grades 4-7) might be excited about my upcoming hardcover book due out in October, a zombie-goes-to-middle-school story titled Better Off Undead (Macmillan, 275 pages, October 2017). Talk about misfits. Adrian Lazarus is the ultimate outsider. But slowly Adrian makes a small but fascinating group of friends: the bee-obsessed Zander Donnelly; the seventh-grade sleuth, Talal Mirwani; and the mysterious Gia Demeter, who just might be able to see into the future. After they discover that someone has been spying on Adrian with a birdlike drone, the mystery deepens. The clues led Adrian to two powerful corporate mogals . . . and a thrilling conclusion.

 

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #246: Baseball, Mostly, and the Undead

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Let’s do this people. Here’s Nate from Haverford:

 

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I replied:

Dear Nate,

Thank you for your letter all the way from Haverford, PA. It’s an honor to be thought of as your favorite author.

Am I good at baseball? Ha, well, not particularly. But I do love the game, and I still love playing it. I now play in a ridiculous 55-up men’s hardball league. Imagine very old guys who can barely move attempting to play baseball — like trying to walk through a room full of Jell-O — and that’s us. But there we are under the sun, playing in the green fields of the mind, as if we were boys again. I can still steal a base, I can still break off a pretty good curveball (okay, it rolls in like a tumbleweed), I can still hit.

paperback-cover-six-inningsThe other part I love is the competition. As a hitter, to come up in that big spot and try my absolute best to beat the other guy. And that feeling when the ball jumps off the sweet spot of the bat into the left-center gap? I love that. I’ll play for as long as I’m able. Why not?

Have you read my book Six Innings? I poured all my love for baseball into that book.

As the youngest in a large family, I always sought those quiet places, tucked out of the way. I did a lot of jigsaw puzzles (thus: “Jigsaw Jones”), invented games with dice, drew pictures, and read (a little bit). Reading didn’t come on strong until later. Making comics just happened naturally. I think creative people are like that. We can’t help but make things, throw ideas up into the sky just to see what falls.

IMG_2295This October I have a new book coming out, Better Off Undead, that’s set in the not-too-distant future. It might be right for a reader like you. To sum it up in one sentence: After becoming undead, Adrian Lazarus has to survive middle school. The book is also concerned with bees and bullies and spy drones and climate change, and there are “thriller/detective” elements and evil billionaires too. I’m excited about it. The book’s not scary, but I do hope it’s smart, timely, and wildly entertaining.

My best,

James Preller

P.S. Thank you for the SASE, very considerate & much appreciated!

Epigraph Page: BETTER OFF UNDEAD

Today I thought I’d share the epigraph page from my upcoming middle grade novel, Better Off Undead (Macmillan, October 2017, grades 4-8).

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The top quote was with me during the years of writing this book (yeah, it took some time). That sense of outrage and astonishment over the state of things, “What a world, what a world!” Early on, I decided on a minor sub-theme where this story mirrors certain key scenes with the Wizard in the classic film, “The Wizard of Oz.”

The second quote came later, around the time of Leonard Cohen’s passing. I’ve long been a fan. And this quote gave me exactly what I needed, the darkness but also the light. The world does feel cracked and broken, particularly where it concerns environmental issues. But as Cohen beautifully reminds us, “That’s how the light gets in.”

What precipitated today’s post is that I’ve been going through the typeset proofs for the book. It’s already been shaped into an “uncorrected” advance review copy (an ARC, in the parlance), and these pages represent my last chance before letting it fly.

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I’ve slowly, slowly read through these 275 pages two more times, pen in hand, making mostly minor edits. A slashed word here and there, done with a flick of the wrist, like a blade across a neck. But also, there’s a couple of sections where I’ve taken a blunter axe to the proceedings. Second thoughts! Third thoughts! Tenth thoughts! I hope my editor — Hi, Liz! — doesn’t mind. We have a phone meeting set up for next week, where we’ll go through it all, page by page, comma by comma. Yes, we enjoy walks on the beach and long, romantic conversations about punctuation.

That famous Oscar Wilde quote, “Books are never finished, merely abandoned.”

Ah, you see, getting a book published is a long process. Across almost 9 years, this blog has always been motivated by the idea of pulling back the curtain to reveal the inner workings of how a book is made. In this case, as in all cases, yes, please: pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

Here’s the arc that will go out to various book review services:

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Looks like fun, right?

For more on epigraphs, click here.

COVER REVEAL: “Better Off Undead”

After becoming undead, 

Adrian Lazarus 

has to survive middle school.

 

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ADRIAN LAZARUS has met with a curious fate. He’s returned from the dead (after a bad bike accident, no helmet), yet not a lot has changed. He still has to attend middle school. Adrian has always been something of a misfit. But it’s not just being a zombie that makes Adrian feel like an outcast. He notices the world has changed, too: bees are vanishing, forest fires are burning, seas are rising, super-flus are spreading. Even so, the holographic advertisements in the night sky assure people that all is well. But Adrian and his friends –- a beekeeping boy, a mysterious new girl who just might see into the future, and Talal, a seventh-grade sleuth –- aren’t convinced. When they discover a birdlike drone has been spying on Adrian, the clues lead to two shadowy corporate billionaires. What could they possibly want with Adrian?

 

PUB DETAILS: Macmillan, October, 2017, Ages 10-up.

Cover illustration by Andrew Arnold.