Tag Archive for Better Off Undead

How There’s a Touch of “M.A.S.H.” in My Book, BETTER OFF UNDEAD

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My parents rarely took the whole family to movies. In fact, they rarely took themselves. Money was tight and with seven children covering a twelve-year span, a night at the movies was an expensive, unrealistic outing. However, I do recall a few family outings to the theater and can still name each movie: “The Immigrants” with Liv Ullman (I was too young and bored out of my mind), “Little Big Man” with Dustin Hoffman (politically incorrect but I love it to this day), “The Godfather,” “Frenzy” (Hitchcock!), and “M.A.S.H.” And that’s it, the sum total of all the films I saw with my parents in the theater.

In particular, Robert Altman’s “M.A.S.H.” stuck with me — it felt wild and irreverant — and then the popular television series further reinforced its influence on me. Without consciously thinking of the source, I borrowed a technique from the movie for my middle-grade novel, Better Off Undead.

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I am thinking of the absurdist, omniscient P.A. announcements sprinkled throughout the film and, later, the series. What a brilliant device for satire and social comment. And not only that idea, but visually the way Altman fixed the camera on speaker. No reaction shots from beloved characters. We don’t even know the source of the voice who gives the announcements; it’s as if the words had fallen from the skies.

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And on and on it goes. Here’s a great source for announcements from the television series. Please check it out, I’m sure you’ll find some favorites.

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For my part, I believe young people experience this absurdity in a unique way each school day. Suddenly the voice blares on, interrupting whatever might be happening at any time during the day. I decided to feature the school principal in this manner. For example, the “Morning Announcements” chapter that begins on page 104:

On top of everything else, our principal was losing his mind. Maybe it was the job, I don’t know. There were days when our school felt like a madhouse — and the students weren’t the loony ones. Take today’s morning announcements for example, which began as usual with an ear-splitting buzz:

Kkccchh. “Is this on?” Kkccchh. Tap-tap, TAP-TAP. “Miss Shen? Is this thing” — whirr — “hey-ho, ouch! — What the . . . ? Good mooooorningggg, Nixon Middle School! This is your principal, Mr. Rouster!”

pa-speakersFrom my seat in the back corner of my homeroom class, I watched as everyone turned to the loudspeaker in listless silence.

The substitute teacher, Mrs. Perez, never looked up from her smartphone. Principal Rouster crowed. “All righty, then! I’ve got some good news, some bad news, and some really bad news. First, the good news! Our school recently received a large federal grant involving enormous sums of taxpayers’ money. I’m please to announce that there will be construction going on throughout the school. You may be inconvenienced by the occasional disruption.”

On cue, a series of loud noises — banging, chiseling, and the vibrating cacophony of a jackhammer — erupted out in the hallway. Next came a calamitous crash, a thud, and a muffled “Oops.”

Principal Rouster chattered on in a nasal voice, unruffled. “The bad news is that the construction will cause changes to our normal schedule. Until further notice, the cafeteria will be moved to the gymnasium. But P.E. will go on as scheduled. Just don’t confuse the meatballs with the dodgeballs! Heh-heh. The Choir Club will share a room with the Chess Club; they will both meet in the science lab. On Tuesday we’ll follow the Wednesday schedule, except for band members, who will adhere to their Thursday schedules — but only on Mondays. Lastly, the literacy center will be closed because of the asbestos problem recently brought to our attention by Janitor McConnell’s alarming rash. Get better soon, Mike!”

The girl next to me, Desiree Reynolds, muttered, “I wonder what the really bad news is.”

Principal Rouster continued, “The really bad news is that all bathroom privileges have been temporarily suspended. This should last only a few hours. In case of emergency, a temporary porta-potty has been set up in the mail hallway. I don’t have to tell you that with seven hundred students in the school, we’ll require a high level of cooperation and an almost Zen-like self-control of your bodily functions. Please avoid all liquids, and I strongly suggest that you tread lightly on today’s lunch special, the New Orleans gumbo. That stuff runs right through you.

“Thank you and happy learning!” 

I had originally intended to do more of this kind of thing throughout the book, but over time I felt it interrupted the pace of the story. I decided that a little bit would go a long way. That was my hope anyway! Here’s another quick bit, later in the book:

On Friday, the day of the “Halloween Fandango” — don’t look at me, I don’t name these things — Principal Rouster made another major announcement:

Kkkccchh. Kkkccchh. Tap-tap. TAP-TAP — SQUAAAWWWKKK. “Good afternoon, Nixon Middle School! Due to the recent discovery of toxic mold in various locations around the school, the Department of Health has temporarily shut down gymnasium B, our proposed setting for tonight’s Halloween Fandango! < snip > Not to worry! We’ve moved the dance to . . . THE PIT!”

Churlish screams, anguished cries, and wails of despair filled the room. “Not the pit, anything but the pit!” Desiree Reynolds moaned. 

“It smells like stale cheese!” groaned Arnie Chang.

“I got sick in the pit last year,” little Jessica Timmons confessed in her tiny voice, “and they still haven’t mopped it up.”

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Oh, one final note of appreciation. At the end of the film, in a truly meta moment, the PA announcement is used to break through the fourth wall. It closes with this message:

“Tonight’s movie has been M*A*S*H.”

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Better Off Undead: It’s Available at Last!

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Today is publication day for my middle-grade novel, BETTER OFF UNDEAD (grades 4-7). The reviews have been kind: “Hilarious . . . splendidly lurid,” Booklist, starred review. “This uproarious middle grade call to action has considerable kid appeal and a timely message,” School LIbrary Journal. “Preller stylishly delivers a supernatural tale . . . Espionage, mystery, and the undead make for a satisfying experience for readers,” Bulletin for the Center of Children’s Books. “A message of empowerment and acceptance,” Publishers Weekly.

Ask for it at your local independent bookstore, your library, or wherever you prefer to buy books. In today’s cluttered world, the best thing you can do is to share the good news. If you like the book, please tell a friend, write a review on Amazon, say something nice on GoodReads, shout it from the mountain tops. Thank you for your support. This is a hard business and books so easily get lost in the wilderness.

Click here to read an excerpt.

The Koch Brothers, The Wizard of Oz, and the “Data Collectors” in BETTER OFF UNDEAD

The Koch brothers were my initial inspiration for the evil billionaires in my new middle-grade novel, Better Off Undead (Macmillan, 10/31/17). I simply thought of the worst people I could possibly imagine and there they appeared in my daily news feed, a pair of oligarchs lusting for power. It didn’t {FE179E59-DB84-4875-A683-EAA5722C0587}Img400take a huge leap of the imagination from there. To me, the Koch brothers represent the most dangerous qualities of corporate greed and excess, using their unfathomable wealth to undermine the ideals of American democracy by pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into elections, buying political favor, and influencing policy for their own personal gain.

But my book characters, the Borks, are not merely stand-ins for the Koch brothers. There are other troubling forces in the world today. While the Koch brothers made their fortune from fossil fuels, I took a tip from the social media and decided to turn the Borks into “data collectors.” I’d been thinking a lot over the past few years about privacy issues, the monetization of the world wide web, and all those unwitting people (myself included) staring at phones: clicking, scanning, scrolling, flicking, giving it all away.

In this week’s New Yorker, Adam Davidson, writing about the Internet of Things, turned his focus to Amazon. I found these words remarkably similar to a speech I gave to Kristoff Bork in Better Off Undead (see below). Here’s Davidson:

For most of its existence, Amazon has made little or no profit. In the early days, it was often ridiculed for this, but the company’s managers and investors quickly realized that its most valuable asset was not individual sales but data — its knowledge about its loyal, habit-driven customer base. Amazon doesn’t evaluate customers by the last purchase they made; instead, customers have a lifetime value, a prediction of how much money each one will spend in the years to come. Amazon can calculate this with increasing accuracy. Already, it likely knows which books you read, which movies you watch, what data you store, and what food you eat. And since the introduction of Alexa, the voice-operated device, Amazon has been learning when some customers wake up, go to work, listen to the news, play with their kids, and go to sleep.

Now here’s a snippet from a scene when Adrian first meets the sickly, sinister Bork brothers. The book loosely models its structure on The Wizard of Oz, so think of this scene as the first time Dorothy, Lion, Scarecrow, and Tin Man meet the great and powerful Oz. (And, yes, that’s a little bit of Faulkner there are at the end.) Adrian speaks with the loudly amplified brothers via a huge television screen.

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Kalvin fell into a spasm of coughing. His head flopped and lolled from side to side. Kristoff seemed to lean away from his brother, repulsed, a look of disgust on his face. Then his eyes returned to me, the way a sharpshooter zeroes in on a target.

“Have you any idea what we do, boy? How we made our billions?” Kristoff didn’t wait for my answer. “I’ll tell you. We collect flashes of light, waves on computer screens, whispers in the dark corridors of the Internet — clicks, likes, comments, purchases, page views — in sum, we gather your digital footprint. But not only yours, Adrian. Don’t think you are so special, boy.”

I stiffened. “Don’t call me boy.”

Kristoff’s lip curled. “Words, only words. But very well, Adrian. As you wish. We own the data. Like farmers, we reap what you sow. Then we sort and organize and sell in algorithms that are beyond your meager comprehension. In the end, we already own you — you’ve been bought and sold like a piece of meat.”

“I’m free,” I answered.

“Free? Oh, nonsense.” Kristoff chuckled.

“You don’t own me,” I countered.

Kristoff smiled ruefully, as if conceding the point. “We own only the digital footprint you so freely give away. Adrian, if you post a photo, we have a copy. If you send a text, we capture that, too, like a butterfly in our net.”

“That’s illegal. It’s private,” I said, surprised by my own anger.

“All your data points are known!” Kristoff’s voice now rose in volume and venom. “To the world, you are only digital code, lines of ones and zeros signifying nothing. We’ve been where you’ve clicked, we’ve watched when you’ve blinked. We know what you buy, what you wear, and even what you secretly desire — often before you yourself are aware of it.

“There are no secrets from the data collectors.”

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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.