Archive for Better Off Undead

BEES IN BOOKS: “Anna Karenina” & Jen the Beekeeper

 

Illustration by Stephen Gilpin from BEE THE CHANGE, which is the third book in  “The Big Idea Gang” series.

We all have them, those books we feel that we “should” read . . . someday. For me, one such book was Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

I am pleased to formally announce to my Nation of Readers that I finally got around to it. And I enjoyed the book, too. Tolstoy gives each character a full interior life, and allows them the room to inhabit contradictions and complexity. Good writer, he might make it!

The book’s hero is Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin, an educated landowner in touch with the rhythms of the natural world. I was charmed when at the end of the book, sometime after page 800, we learn about Levin’s “new interest in bees.” It came out of the blue. Levin even takes his guests to visit the apiary. This is a clear sign — from Tolstoy — directly to me — that Levin is truly a good guy. He gets bees.

I admire bees, too. They’ve crept into my books of late. A bee plays a pivotal role in Better Off Undead, and (bizarrely) delivers the key line of the book, “It all connects.” In addition, a small group of students and a wonderful science teacher keep a hive on the grounds of the middle school. Bees are a theme that buzz through the book.

Here’s Jen now, smoking the hive to settle things down.

I borrowed the hive idea from a local science teacher and beekeeper, Jennifer Ford, who teaches at nearby Farnsworth Middle School in Guilderland. Jennifer met with me, answered my questions, and even took me to commune with the hive at the middle school garden. Jen’s beekeeping activities extend beyond the school where she teaches; Jen and her partner Keith have run the Bees of the Woods Apiary in Altamont, NY, since 2008. They currently have about 20 chemical-free hives and produce beeswax candles, honey, and mead (honey wine).

For the third book of “The Big Idea Gang” series, Bee the Change, the narrative centered around honeybees. Lizzy and Kym visit with a beekeeper, learn some things about pesticides and colony collapse disorder, and become inspired to make a difference in their local community. These are characters who ask, “What can we do to help the honeybees?” Essentially the story revolves around the specific things they do to make positive change, concluding with the creation of a bee-friendly garden at their elementary school.

It’s funny how it works with books and reading and life in general. Once our antennae is up, we receive all kinds of signals that we’d have otherwise missed. If I read Anna Karenina even five years ago, I would have missed Levin’s bee infatuation. I’m glad I caught it.

In Praise of Extremely Short Chapters

I remember in college reading William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. It contained an extremely short chapter that kind of blew my mind: 

My mother is a fish.

That was all, just five words — a playful idea that appealed to me enormously. I’m not sure why, because you could easily dismiss it as gimmicky. But to me, then and now, I thought of it as clever and refreshing.

Last week, I was in the midst of finishing up a middle-grade novel (a prequel/sequel to Bystander). During this late stage, the work was all-consuming. For example, last week I woke up at 3:40 AM, rolled over and jotted down additional notes toward the chapter that I intended to write later that morning. For this upcoming chapter, I had a clear idea about what I hoped to accomplish: I had notes, scribbled lines of dialogue, established goals. At the end of the chapter, there was going to be a brief but crucial exchange between siblings. I wondered if I should separate it, give that moment it’s very own short chapter. It would break from the format of the book — with chapters coming in around 1,000 words each — further highlighting its importance. But I fretted that it might be jarring and disruptive. Decisions, decisions.

For the record, I did fulfill a writing ambition with an extremely short chapter in Better Off Undead. The previous chapter, “Fight,” describes a confrontation between Adrian (who is a zombie) and a group of tough kids. The next chapter is titled, “Not Really.” The entire contents of that chapter: 

Kidding.

That’s it, one word.

The next chapter is titled “Actually,” which goes on to describe what really happened. Hopefully a reader finds it all playful and amusing, in the same way Faulker’s short chapter pleased me. 

Top that, Bill Faulkner!

What about you, Dear Reader? Can you think of other examples of extremely short chapters in literature?

I’ll give you one more favorite. This is from Stephen King’s It

Nothing much happened for the next two weeks.

Ha!

 

That Time I Went Full “Robocop” and Spoofed Protection Masks in BETTER OFF UNDEAD

In 2017, I wrote a middle-grade novel (grades 4-7) that was set in the “not-so-distant future,” titled Better Off Undead. As backdrop to the main narrative, the story quietly speculated on various environmental issues. I even took inspiration from the original “Robocop” movie, which brilliantly spoofed popular culture by featuring a variety of advertisements within the story. 

            

I bring this up because of the coronavirus and all the protection masks we’re seeing in our daily newsfeed. The images are everywhere. Below, a very brief scene that features the commercial I imagined. For context, I don’t think you need much. Adrian is a high-functioning 7th grade zombie and he has returned home after school. He makes his younger brother, Dane, a hamburger.

Booklist gave this book a starred review and called it “Hilarious.” For what that’s worth! 

 

   

 

I leaned against the counter while he munched happily, idly watching the TV by the sink. One of Dane’s favorite commercials came on, some company selling gas masks. A series of shots showed various models walking around wearing the masks -– while shopping at the mall, standing in an elevator, moving down a crowded hallway, even at a cocktail party. Anytime there were lots of people around, they showed a gorgeous body in a gas mask. The commercial cut to a close-up of a blonde actress. She yanked off her mask and smiled at us.

“EarthFirst Gas Masks,” she announced. “Sleek and stylish and eighty-percent more effective than ordinary surgical masks for protection against air pollution and other contagion!”

Her white teeth gleamed, her glossy red lips glistened, and something inside me stirred. Next a handsome actor with flecks of gray in his hair stepped beside her. “That’s right, Vanna. These masks will keep you safe from airborne diseases like dengue fever and super-duper-flu and,” he paused to shake his head, winking mischievously, “who knows what other germs are floating around out there nowadays! I know I’m not taking chances!”

Vanna laughed. Ho, ho, ho.

I snapped off the TV.

“Hey,” Dane protested.

“You don’t need to watch that stuff,” I said, “It’ll fry your brains.”

“I want one for Christmas,” Dane said.

“Christmas? Already? Let’s get past Halloween first. Then you can write to Santa,” I said. “I think there’s a new line of masks coming out just for kids. I read there’s even going to be a Darth Vadar mask.”

Dane sat swinging his feet in the air, munching silently, probably imagining himself in a Darth Vadar gas mask. He stopped chewing and looked at me with a funny expression. “Shouldn’t you cook it first?” he asked. He pointed at the package of raw hamburger meat.

I discovered that I had a hunk of raw meat in my hand . . . and in my mouth. I immediately spat it into the sink -– disgusting! -– and rinsed my mouth with water. “What the heck?!” I said, bringing a hand to my suddenly churning stomach. I saw that almost all of the raw meat from the package was gone. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner? I didn’t know I was eating it.”

Dane bit into his burger. A trickle of grease rolled down his chin, shimmering in the light. “I didn’t know people could eat hamburger meat without cooking it.”

“Don’t tell Mom, okay? I don’t want her to get more freaked out than she already is.”

Dane nodded.

“Remember to put the dishes in the sink when you’re done,” I reminded him. “I’m going up to my room.”

I trudged up the stairs, head spinning. What was happening to me?

 

SOME REVIEWS . . . 

“This uproarious middle grade call to action has considerable kid appeal and a timely message. A strong addition to school and public library collections.” — School Library Journal.

Preller stylishly delivers a supernatural tale of a middle-schooler who craves normalcy, and environmental issues with some currency make the story even more relatable. Espionage, mystery, and the undead make for a satisfying experience for readers, and they’ll be glad of the hint at a follow-up.Bulletin for the Center of Children’s Books.

“The author sets his tale in a near-future world in which climate change and pandemics are wreaking odd paranormal phenomena as well as predictable havoc. Having inexplicably survived a fatal hit-and-run accident over the summer, aptly named Adrian Lazarus is off to seventh grade, sporting a hoodie to hide his increasing facial disfigurement and lunching on formaldehyde smoothies to keep himself together. Simultaneously resenting and yet understanding the varied reactions of his schoolmates—which range from shunning to all-too-close attention from a particularly persistent bully—Adrian is also surprised and pleased to discover that he has allies, notably Gia Demeter, a new girl with a peculiar ability to foretell certain events. Preller might have played this as a light comedy (and there are some hilarious bits), but he goes instead for darker inflections. Even as Adrian sees himself becoming ominously aggressive (while developing tastes for roadkill and raw meat), his discovery that fabulously powerful data miners Kalvin and Kristoff Bork are ruthlessly scheming to put him under the knife in search of the secret to his longevity cranks the suspense up another notch. Nonetheless, in a series of splendidly lurid exploits, Adrian beats the odds as he fights for a well-earned happy ending.” — Booklist, Starred Review

“Preller takes the physical and emotional awkwardness of middle school to grisly levels . . . [and] thoughtfully chronicles the anxieties of middle school, using a blend of comedy and horror, to send a message of empowerment and acceptance.” — Publishers Weekly.

NOW AVAILABLE IN PAPERBACK AND CHEAP!

Hey, Amazon: How’d You Know?!

Amazon found something they thought I might like, presumably because I wrote it. Hey, Amazon, don’t you know anything about writers? It doesn’t work that way! (Actually, I bought a dozen copies; you know, to pump up the numbers. Not really.)

 

After writing this book, which is set in the not-so-distant future, I realized that it fit into an interesting subgenre, CLI-FI, or climate change fiction. Adrian Lazarus is a high-functioning, 7th grade zombie in a world gone wrong. I got a lot of help with the bees from my friend, science teacher Jennifer Ford,  who I (sort of, very loosely) made a character in the book: Ms. Fjord.

“Preller takes the physical and emotional awkwardness of middle school to grisly levels . . . [and] thoughtfully chronicles the anxieties of middle school, using a blend of comedy and horror, to send a message of empowerment and acceptance.” — Publishers Weekly.
“The author sets his tale in a near-future world in which climate change and pandemics are wreaking odd paranormal phenomena as well as predictable havoc.” — Booklist, Starred Review

“This uproarious middle grade call to action has considerable kid appeal and a timely message. A strong addition to school and public library collections.” — School Library Journal.

Preller stylishly delivers a supernatural tale of a middle-schooler who craves normalcy, and environmental issues with some currency make the story even more relatable. Espionage, mystery, and the undead make for a satisfying experience for readers.Bulletin for the Center of Children’s Books.

 

 

GUILTY AS CHARGED: “The Wizard of Oz” named most influential movie of all time

According to the researchers at the University of Turin in Italy, The Wizard of Oz has been named the most influential movie of all time. This was determined by the amount of references made to it in other movies (47,000 were reportedly taken into account in the study).

Rounding out the Top Ten were:

1. The Wizard of Oz

2. Star Wars

3. Psycho

4. King Kong

5. 2001: A Space Odyssey

6. Metropolis

7. Citizen Kane

8. The Birth of a Nation

9. Frankenstein

10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

 

One thing that happens to a writer after a lifetime of words have been spilled — in my case, I published my first book in 1986 at age 25 — you begin to see patterns in the work. Sometimes it’s a worrying thing, falling back on familiar phrases or images, a troubling sense that you might be repeating yourself. That’s a sign of a lazy mind, returning to the old bag of tricks, and I try to be vigilant against it. And yet at the same time it makes perfect sense. If a writer is drawn to water images, for example, and spent a lifetime moved by water, heart filled with water, it only makes sense that watery imagery would leak into the writing.

I can see that with references in my books to The Wizard of Oz, which I’m sure I’ve done multiple times. Most recently, in Better Off Undead, I borrowed the basic plot structure from the film and loosely applied it to my story: the assembled characters going to meet the Wizard.

Here’s a page from The Fall, a book that’s based on a boy’s journal entries. This page contains the entire chapter:

I’m sure I’ve casually sprinkled references to the iconic movie in other books — did I ever use it in Jigsaw Jones? I can’t remember — though none spring immediately to mind. Oh, wait, there’s a brief reference in The Courage Test, page 169: “She leans into the camera. Her face looms larger, Oz-like.”

So many huge, iconic moments in that film. Think of the yellow brick road. The wicked witch. Dorothy’s quest to return home. Clicking her heels together three times. Flying monkeys and fierce, apple-tossing trees. A tin man absent a heart. The quest, the mission, the dark passage. What a story!

And my favorite: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” That line kills me every time. Maybe I’ve said it a hundred times. Probably more. It’s an idea that comes up a lot, perfectly illustrated in that one revealing scene.

Oh yes, for me, there’s no question: The Wizard of Oz is clearly the most influential movie of my life.

Lastly, okay, I admit the list is pretty ridiculous and not an accurate measurement of a film’s “influence” on popular culture. Metropolis over Jaws? The Birth of a Nation more influential than The Godfather?

Oh well. As long as The Wizard of Oz comes out on top, I’m good with it.