Tag Archive for Better Off Undead Preller

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!

Fun Idea for Author Visits: Decorating Doors

You’ve heard of the Doors of Dublin? You know about Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception? This is like that, in the sense that, okay, there are doors.

But instead of Jim Morrison, you get . . . The Doors of James Preller!

To celebrate my recent visit, a grades 3-5 elementary school had a contest where classes could “win a classroom visit” with author James Preller. The idea, I gather, was to decorate a door by encouraging (innocent!) passers-by to read any one of my books.

Here’s a few highlights . . .

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Now Scheduling Free Skype Visits

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To be honest, I haven’t fully embraced Skype visits in the past. I’m not great at technology and I’ve had some headaches with it. I’m kind of an “old guy” in that respect. But at the same time, I’ve had some really nice experiences, too.

So I’ve decided: Yes.

However, there are stipulations . . .

I will agree to a 20-minute, book-specific Q & A session with any classroom where the students have all read the same book. For example, the class reads The Courage Test, or Bystander, or Better Off Undead, or The Case from Outer Space. That kind of thing.

If you are all in, if you have enthusiasm for sharing a particular book, then I’d love to Skype with your students, answer questions, connect. I’ve decided not to charge anything in the hope that schools might use that money, if they have it, to purchase books for the classroom.

Please email me at jamespreller@aol.com, type “SKYPE” in the subject heading, and we can figure out the next step.

Or not!

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9780312547967   CourageTestFrontCvr

Outer Space_FC   9781250090546.IN01

paperback-cover-six-innings   OneEyedDoll_cvr_lorez