Tag Archive for James Preller Better Off Undead

Excerpt: BETTER OFF UNDEAD, Chapter 21, “Talal Clues Me In”

I met a middle-school librarian recently who loved this 2017 “cli-fi” book — she thought it was my best book — and it prompted me to take another look at it.

And guess what? She’s right!

Ha, ho, heh.

Though this book received excellent reviews (and a star from Booklist), the sales never quite got there. A disappointment. And somehow, sadly, no matter how I initially felt about the book, it slowly became tinged in my mind with that stigma. A disappointment. Not good enough. 

So it was wonderful to fall in love with it all over again. Or to at least nod and think, Hey, not bad. To know that it’s good, and funny, and mysterious, and smart. 

Here’s an excerpt from the middle of the book, a point when the plot begins to thicken nicely. Adrian is a 7th-grade zombie; Talal is a classmate and a detective; Gia is a new girl with purple hair who seems to be able to see into the future. And that’s where this book is set, btw, the “not-so-distant” future. A book that references pandemics and face masks and super flus and water wars and climate change and a pair of evil corporate billionaires not too unlike the Koch brothers. 

Here, take a swig . . . 



Talal Clues Me In

I was still asleep when Dane knocked on my bedroom door. 

Key word: was.

Past tense.

“Go away,” I grumbled.

“Your friend is here,” Dane called through the door. 

I looked at my clock. It was 8:15 on a Saturday. I sat up, holding my head in my hands. It felt heavy, like a large pumpkin. “Who is it?”

Dane poked his nose into the room. “I don’t know. I never saw him before. He’s wearing a raincoat. And, um, he’s carrying two umbrellas.”

Umbrellas? The sun’s hazy glare streamed through my window. The sky was crisp blue, like an ironed shirt. For a moment, my mind still sputtering, I thought it could have been Zander. Then I remembered the coat. “His name is Talal,” I told Dane. “Tell him I’ll be right down.”

“In your boxers?” Dane asked.

“Just go,” I said.

When I arrived downstairs, I found Dane sprawled on the floor, working on an “Endangered Species” puzzle. Pieces were scattered everywhere. I asked, “Where is he?”

Dane pointed to the side door. 

“You didn’t invite him in?” 

“He wanted to wait outside,” Dane replied.

I went to the sink to swallow down a large glass of water. Still working on hydration, you know. Out the kitchen window I spied Talal standing near our big, sad rhododendron, its leaves turned yellow and brown. Although it was a picture-perfect morning, Talal held a large, black umbrella over his head. “I won’t be long,” I told Dane.

“Can I come?” he asked.

“Sorry, bud. Next time.”

Outside, I squinted in the sunlight. I said. “You woke me up, Tal. Come on inside while I make a shake.”

“I’d rather not do that,” Talal said. “The walls have ears and eyes. Here,” he opened an umbrella and handed it to me, “hold this.”


“I’m serious,” Talal said.

I studied his face. He wasn’t joking. 

“Let’s walk,” he said. ““It’s about that drone. Leave your phone.”

“My phone? I need it,” I said.

Talal shook his head. “No phone.”

“Okay, okay,” I said. I placed my cell on the patio table.

Talal walked toward the back gate. I caught up with him. Both of us an absurd sight, carrying open umbrellas on a sunny day.

“Do you know they can activate all the cameras that are inside our computers?” Talal asked. “You have a smart kitchen, right? Everything’s run by computers. We don’t have to remember to turn off the lights anymore. Cars drive themselves. Our machines automatically order kitty litter when we run low. Think about your phone. That spectacular piece of technology can record every word you say. It can locate exactly where you are. It knows what you ate for dinner and how many hours you sleep. Don’t you understand? They see what you see.”

“Whoa, ease up,” I said. “Who are they?” 

We walked along the street, close to the curb, not on the sidewalk. The roads were quiet. We had the sleepy town to ourselves. 

Talal stopped. He pulled out a tiny computer chip sealed in a plastic bag. “I took that drone apart piece by piece,” he said. “I talked to some people, geeks I trust who specialize in this kind of thing. We know who is spying on you.”

I didn’t know what to say. It was all kind of unreal. 

“There’s a tiny logo printed on this chip, invisible to the human eye,” Talal said. “But when put under a microscope magnified by the order of ten thousand, it’s as clear as day.”

He pulled a folded paper from his pocket. It was a print-out of an enlarged image. The K & K logo. 

“So,” I said.

“So?” Talal echoed. “This proves that the Bork brothers are interested in you. They own the richest, most powerful corporation on the planet. They practically run the country. Those guys live in a compound only forty-five miles away, up beyond a crest in the Catskills.”

“Oh, right,” I said, remembering. “I think I heard about them, maybe.”

“They don’t like the spotlight,” Talal explained. “They operate in the shadows. But they are very powerful –- real financial wizards, and ridiculously rich. They are the ones who sent the drone.” He glanced around, eyes scanning restlessly. “They are probably trying to listen to this conversation right now.”

“That’s why you brought the umbrellas,” I said. 

“Lip readers,” Talal said. “Their staff could videotape us without sound, then figure it out later. These guys will do anything to get the information they want.”

“What information?” I protested. “I mean, even if what you say is true –- that those Bork brothers are following me for some reason –- I don’t know anything! I’m just a kid. An average, run of the mill –-“

“—- zombie,” Talal interrupted. “Nothing average about you.”

I felt like he punched me in the gut.

“Sorry, but that’s the deal,” Talal said. “As far as I know, you might be the only person who has died, and yet still lives. That makes you different. And maybe it makes you interesting.”

We turned down a block, then another. “Can we sit?” I suggested. “My ankle.”

“Sure,” Talal said. He led us to a stone bench in the back of a nearby churchyard. He pulled a sheaf of papers out of his deep coat pocket. “I put this packet together last night. Sorry it’s sloppy. I didn’t have much time.”

The pages were neatly folded and stapled along the left edge. There was nothing haphazard about the way Talal worked. The top page featured a black-and-white photograph of infant twins, swaddled under blankets, in a hospital setting. The twins are turned toward each other as if whispering a secret. 


I flipped the page. 

The next photo was of the twins again. But this time they were aged men, heads close together, unsmiling, staring directly out at the camera. Once again, a large blanket covered their bodies from their necks down. At their knees, four identical legs poked out, wearing matching black socks and leather shoes.

“They look . . .”

Talal turned to me. “They look . . . what?” 

“I don’t know. Just weird, I guess.”

Talal nodded, not saying anything.

I flipped through the rest of the pages. They were filled with numbers, charts, and newspaper clippings. 

“What do we do now?” I asked. 

“Nothing, yet,” Talal said. “At least nothing right now. Let me see what I can dig up on these guys. In the meantime, get used to sometimes going without a cell phone. Let’s not make it any easier for their people to spy on you.”

We headed back to my house. I had to check on Dane, he’d be worried. Talal stopped two blocks away. “We’ll part here,” he said. “I have a family thing.”

“Sure,” I said. “And, um . . . thanks, Tal.”

Maybe he saw something in my face. He said, “Hey, Adrian. It’ll be okay.”

“Sure, sure,” I repeated. And after a pause, I said, “You know, sometimes I have this crazy thought, but I’ve never told anyone.”

Talal just watched me, unmoving, waiting. 

I gestured to the trees and houses. “I sometimes wonder if all of this is just a giant sim game run by a computer program for the amusement of super-beings. Do you ever think that?”

Talal actually laughed. “All the time,” he replied with a grin.

I limped home, my stomach oddly rumbling. Looking up, I noticed a wake of red-headed turkey vultures, at least twenty of them circling in a vortex high above me, holding steady without flapping their wings. I’d never seen that many at once before. They spiraled hypnotically round and round, riding pockets of warm air. Maybe they saw me with their keen eyes and sense of smell. Perhaps they were as puzzled by it all as I was. 

I didn’t have an answer for them. 

“Sorry, birds,” I murmured. “I haven’t got a clue.”

Dane was taking a bath when I got home. My mother was on the computer. I snapped on the television. A commercial came on. I’d probably seen it a hundred times before, but this time I noticed the names at the end of it.

The commercial flashed a series of short film clips, each more beautiful than the next. A fishing boat leaves a harbor, a man in a business suit gets into a cab, a rugged farmer drives a big-wheeled tractor, a cowboy saddles up, a car and moving van pull into huge home, a tear-stained grandmother watches a wedding scene in church, various citizens hoist American flags up flagpoles, rows of smiling children look up in wonder, a proud eagle soars across the sky. Final image: Logo on the side of a huge, glass-sided building for K & K Brothers Corp.

While all those images floated past, a man’s voice spoke in soothing tones. The words, as he spoke them, scrolled across the screen in block letters. They read:









In smaller print, it read: “This has been a paid advertisement by K & K Brothers Corp.”

“That’s some frown, Adrian,” my mother said. She had joined me in the kitchen and was poking around in the refrigerator. “What’s bothering you?”

“Huh? What?” I replied. “No, nothing, I’m fine. I was watching that commercial and –-“

“Don’t you love it?” my mother said, while slicing into a giant-sized, perfectly pink, wonderfully round, genetically-engineered grapefruit. “I see that commercial every day, and every day it makes me smile.”

I made an effort to smile right along with her.

“Be happy. Relax. Smile,” my mother repeated. “Those are words to live by!”

I didn’t answer. Instead, I wondered why K & K Corporation was spending millions of dollars on commercials to brainwash us all.

They didn’t want us to worry. 

Because of course they didn’t.

Everything was fine.

Be happy. Relax. Smile.

I went up to room and sprawled across the bed. I felt a strong urge to find Gia. She had an eerie knack of knowing what was about to happen. It was time we had a talk. My cell dinged. It was a message waiting from Gia: 

7:30 tonight. Lookout Hill. Go to the bench that faces the tracks. We need to talk.

Once again, she was two moves ahead of me.




“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 . . . . In a series of splendidly lurid exploits, Adrian beats the odds as he fights for a well-earned happy ending.” — 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, 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.

David Bowie died when I was writing this book . . . so I had to get him in there somehow

For some reason, the mansion’s sound system

began blasting David Bowie

— “Ch-ch-changes” — at earsplitting volume.

Until that moment, I hadn’t realized

that Talal Mirwani was a Bowie fan.

But then again, isn’t everybody?



Music is important to many artists and writers. Talk to us and we’ll discuss what we were listening to during different projects, either for inspiration or, you know, because it happened to be the summer when that particular album dropped. It was in the air we breathed.

We hear the sounds — they jangle through our synapses — and leak into our work. Often we can look back on that artwork and see traces of those tunes in the words and images we used.

David Bowie died on January 10, 2016. It was a death that got a huge response on public media, bigger, perhaps, than many of us might have imagined. It hit us hard. The Thin White Duke, gone. It was difficult to wrap our minds around it. We realized the extent to which he was a part of our lives. Always there. Now gone.

At that time I was finishing up my middle-grade novel, Better Off Undead. Listening to Bowie during those weeks after his death — so many of us went through it all again, the blessed discography: “Aladdin Sane,” “Diamond Dogs,” “Low,” and on and on and on — conjuring memories, visions of our youth, past friendships, the whole shebang — one phrase caught my ear: 

Turn and face the strange.”

It struck me: That would be a cool title for a book. I scribbled out a large, dramatic type treatment. I even thought it would have been a cool title for the very book I was writing. But by that time, I had an approved title and maybe I was just being sentimental. It felt too late to change it now. Too many hurdles and hassles. Yet I wanted to get Bowie into the book somehow.

To set the scene, it’s at the climax when Adrian Lazerus confronts the evil-billionaire Bork brothers (loosely modeled after the Koch brothers) and learns their dark secret. A lot happens in that scene. A drone drifts outside the window . . . sparks start and the sprinkler system gets set off . . . alarms blare . . . a dramatic fight between Gia and a massive bodyguard . . . pure chaos. And, admittedly, a little over the top. Hopefully entertaining.

From pages 258-259:

Halpert called out instructions to the bodyguard over the deafening blare of alarm bells. “Carry them through the tunnels to the heliport. Move quickly! I’ll initiate the self-destruct sequence from the communication center.”

The sprinklers slowed to a steady drip. Zander rose groggily from the wet floor. I could see that his nose was broken. Bright red blood puddled at his feet, turning pink on the floor as it mixed with the water. “Let’s go,” I yelled, yanking him by the arm. I lifted up Dane to my face and kissed him. Gia advanced to the lead, and the four of us swept out of the room. 

For some reason, the mansion’s sound system began blasting David Bowie — “Ch-ch-changes” — at earsplitting volume. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized that Talal Mirwani was a Bowie fan. But then again, isn’t everybody?

Turn and face the strange!”

“What happened back there?” Zander yelled as we splashed and slipped down the hallway. 

“It was Talal!” I yelled over the noise. 

And so it goes, on to the book’s big finish. 

I’m glad I squeezed Bowie in there. 

It’s the little things that make writers happy. And, of course, praise and royalty checks.

On a similar theme, I once started a Jigsaw Jones book: 

“I woke up. I got out of bed. I dragged a comb across my head.”

Nobody ever said a word to me about that, either.

Climate Change, Alfred Hitchcock, and BETTER OFF UNDEAD

A freaky, zombie-esque storyboard from Hitchcock's "The Birds."

A freaky, zombie-esque storyboard from Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”


The springboard concept for my novel, Better Off Undead, was that Adrian Lazerus would become a zombie who, post-accident, returns transformed to middle school. The ultimate misfit, outsider. And as far as the rest of the world knew, the only zombie on the planet. (If you want more zombies, you’re going to have to demand a sequel.)

Yes, the zombie, that’s a preposterous idea. And, I thought, an interesting metaphor. So I went with it. Along the way, I asked myself why Adrian had reanimated. What was going on? Looking around, I realized this was a “world gone wrong” story.

An inspiration for this notion surely came from Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, “The Birds,” which is a classic “world gone wrong” story. I think in retrospect I’ve long been impressed by the film’s central idea. When the natural world goes out of whack, everything goes off-balance. The center cannot hold. That poem by Yeats, another inspiration.


It did not require a great imaginative leap. Look around: the world is going wrong in many ways. Climate change is a leading cause of much of it. Droughts and wildfires, extreme weather, superflus, Zika viruses, melting ice caps, and on and on. So I ended up taking a lot of different elements that are in the news today, blowing them up a little bit, and employing those issues as context for Adrian’s story, which is set in the not-so-distant future. Adrian himself is a result of a world gone wrong, but he’s also existing within it. Like the rest of us.

Here’s an excerpt of a recent article by Lauren Weber in The Huffington Post, titled “Mosquito- and Tick-Borne Diseases Have Tripled, But the CDC Won’t Say It’s Climate Change“:


The number of Americans who have gotten sick from mosquito, tick and flea bites more than tripled between 2004 to 2016, according to new figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study also said that local and state public health departments are unequipped to properly combat the surge of disease from insects.

Since 2004, nine new diseases have been introduced in the United States, including the chikungunya and Zika viruses. Diseases already endemic to the country, such as Lyme disease, shot up, contributing to these high case counts. Experts warn Lyme disease diagnosis numbers can be up to 10 times higher than currently reported.

“The numbers are really staggering,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. “The increase that we’re seeing over a very short time period is unprecedented.”

I could site dozens of articles that served as seeds for the ideas, {FE179E59-DB84-4875-A683-EAA5722C0587}Img400sometimes presented off-handedly, matter-of-factly, in the book. Adrian’s father, for example, is away in Africa working for Corporate, a for-hire soldier fighting in the “Water Wars.” Just read about water security issues if you think that’s far-fetched. Or consider white nose syndrome and the importance of bats. In the novel, Zander and Adrian come across a dead bat while on their way to the local pizza joint. Zander has a keen interest in nature — bees and beekeeping play a pivotal role in this book — so they pause and take note of it. Look at this. A dead bat. White nose syndrome. And they move on.

Here’s an excerpt from a February article in The New Yorker by J.R. Sullivan, “A Fatal Disease Is Ravaging America’s Bats, and Scientists are Struggling to Stop It“:

As of September, 2017, the disease had spread to thirty-one states, some of which have suffered ninety-per-cent declines in their bat populations; the crisis, which began in New York, now extends as far west as Washington. “I think most states would say it’s not a matter of if white nose is going to show up but when,” Kelly Poole, the endangered-species coördinator for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, told me. The disease disrupts the bats’ hibernation, causing them to wake up in winter, exert energy looking for food, and, in time, starve. It is almost always fatal, leaving caves full of bones in its wake. Scientists have yet to find a cure or treatment. “I get a sense that we may actually be witnessing the extinction of a couple of species, at least regionally,” Gumbert said. “We may not lose a species completely, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we did.”


In a state such as Iowa, where the economy is based largely on agriculture, white nose is particularly worrisome. According to a study published in 2011 in the journal Science, bats consume enough insects to save U.S. farmers an estimated $22.9 billion a year in pest control and crop damage, a conclusion echoed by a follow-up study in 2015. The findings suggest that a nationwide decline in bats could result in higher food prices, owing to an uptick in pesticide use and a reduction in crop yields. “That cost gets passed down to the consumer, and you start seeing it at the grocery stores,” Piper Roby, Copperhead’s research director, told me. She also noted that increased pesticide use means more harmful chemicals in the ecosystem. “It’s just this cascade effect if you remove a top-down predator, and you start to see the effects of it years later,” she said.

In one key scene, a queen bee speaks an important line. (Yes, it surprised me, too; my first talking bee!) She delivers only three words to Gia: “It all connects.”

And she’s absolutely right, especially when it comes to climate change.








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.


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.”



Wow, Another Great Review for BETTER OFF UNDEAD

This is from the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, and I’m glad to share it. This is a sprawling kind of “everything but the kitchen sink” book, difficult the summarize, and this reviewer did a fine job. 

I should also add that as an author, I am relieved to read a review that doesn’t attempt to state the so-called “message” of the book. It’s a common practice and always irksome. Thank you, QB, whoever you are!



BCCB utilizes a coding system consisting of * (starred reviews); R (Recommended); Ad (Additional book of acceptable quality for collections needing more material in the area); and M (Marginal book that is so slight in content or has so many weaknesses in style or format that it should be given careful consideration before purchase.)

Author: James Preller

Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Pages: 288
Price (Hardcover): $16.99
Publication Date: October 2017
ISBN (Hardcover): 9781250066480
Death hasn’t kept Adrian Lazarus from worrying about surviving seventh grade. Previously singled out as the only black student in school, he’s now even more un- usual since he died in a bike accident and turned into a zombie. People are already unnerved by recent weird and possibly related occurrences, such as rampantly spreading super-flus and the endangerment of the bee population, so they avoid Adrian like the plague (it doesn’t help that they’ve never seen a real-life zombie before). The Bork brothers, a couple of old guys with more money than morals, are convinced Adrian holds the key to eternal life and spy on him for their sinister plan. Fortunately, he can rely on his friends, a band of misfits comprised of a beekeeper, a psychic, and a kid detective who talks like he’s starring in a 1940s whodunit film, who ensure his safety and stick by him during his awkward reanimated phase. 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. QB