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.”
“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.
“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.
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