Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Let's get ready for Zombie Baseball Beatdownnnnnnnn!!

-Don't be misled by this novel's horror B-movie title and cover art: thought-provoking, topical issues and wry wit elevate it above the expected gross-out zombie tale. Middle school friends Rabi, Miguel, and Joe literally smell trouble wafting from their small town's meatpacking plant, where they find cows living in filthy conditions and behaving oddly. Then the boys' baseball coach turns up moaning “Brainsssss!” and tries to bite Rabi. When the children discover that meat from the sick cows is being packaged and sent to local supermarkets, they are on their own to prevent a zombie cow apocalypse because no one believes their story. Miguel's revelation that he's in the country illegally introduces biting commentary on racism and immigration. Bacigalupi also zings big business, the meatpacking industry, and the USDA, culminating in an epilogue that's both cautionary and empowering. Rabi, Miguel, and Joe are realistic, complete characters. It's a testament to the author's skill that they express values of courage, friendship, and integrity as naturally as they toss off hilarious observations: “Talk about ankle biters,” Rabi comments when he sees two little zombie girls chewing on a man's leg. References to current video games and cyberpunk comics add appeal to this fast-paced home run.

-Printz-winning Bacigalupi writing a middle-grade zombie novel? Yes, it really happened, and yes, it’s pretty darn good. Milrow Meats, the meat-packing plant in Delbe, Iowa, is up to something. Pals Rabi, Miguel, and Joe can tell from the ungodly stink, the anxious behavior of the Mexicans who work there, and—oh yeah—their zombified Little League coach, who tries to nosh their brains. Further sleuthing reveals that SuperGrow growth supplement is being fed to the cows, creating undead bovines that, in turn, create “zombie burgers.” And what happens when folks start snarfing those burgers? Though the plot synopsis recalls such gleeful splatter fests as John Kloepfer’s Zombie Chasers series, in Bacigalupi’s hands it feels closer to Walter Dean Myers’ Cruisers series, with much of the story delving into issues often overlooked in youth fiction: the capricious treatment of immigrant workers, the absence of options for the poor, and the questionable record of the USDA. Simultaneously smart, funny, and icky, this book asks a tough question: Is it worth looking the other way in order to save yourself? HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: The sheer improbability of a big-name author delivering a project like this should generate a strong Venn diagram of commercial and critical interest.

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