Tag Archive for Zombies in children’s literature

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.

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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“:

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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.”

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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.

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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.