Are Zombies the New Vampires?: Zombie Blondes by Brian James and Generation Dead by Daniel Waters

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I've been hearing a lot of buzz about how zombies are the new vampires, but I'm not totally convinced.  However, two new books (with very compelling covers) are getting pulled off the displays in our library and I think there are some interesting trends to note in how they are marketed, versus what they really are about.

Zombie Blondes by Brian James (do not look at this author link if you are prone to migraines) has a fabulous cover.  She looks like a big kewpie doll, doesn't she?  There is something about that blank stare which is sinister and, as such, is a great match to the book content.  Hannah Sanders is an observant teen who could practically be an adolescent sociologist.  She's been shunted from town to town as her ex-cop dad looks for work (he busted some corrupt officers and became a pariah unable to work in the force) resulting in her becoming all too familiar with the "new kid" syndrome.  They arrive in the quintessential New England town of Maplecrest, but all the "for sale" signs in front of empty, unkempt suburban houses are disturbing.  At the local high school, an astonishingly cruel football team is cheered on by a group of almost identical blond cheerleaders and they might be looking for a new member.

James does an admirable job of getting into the head of an insecure teenage girl desperate to belong - to just once be part of the popular crowd - to the point of ignoring the warnings of the well-meaning, comic book reading outcast, Lucas, who had lost a friend previously to the cheerleaders.  Through Lucas' excellent reference works (graphic novels and comic books about zombies) he's figured out exactly who and what surrounds them and attempts to save Hannah from her fate.

Any truly good young adult novel has a couple of similar elements.  The first, the protagonist who feels like an outcast is a given (most teenagers don't realize that everyone feels like an outcast) and Hannah fits the bill, even as we get hints that other kids find her pretty and intelligent.  The second element, necessary for the protagonist to have adventures, is the absence of an authority figure.  Hannah's dad has to leave her for days in order to take an out-of-town job to put food on the table and with his creditors after him (to say nothing of a town full of zombies) this plot element gives a feeling of true menace.  The big climax of the book at the abandoned warehouse actually made me shiver - and it's been a long time since a book caused that visceral a reaction.  I read a lot of scary books, too!

So Brian James ends up flaunting a considerable amount of writing talent.  In an interview with author Cynthia Leitich Smith, James says that he envisioned Zombie Blondes as a cross between the two iconic movies, Heathers (1989) and The Lost Boys (1987) and anyone who has seen those movies and read this books can see the parallels.  I think it's interesting to note that several reviewers have described this book "lighter" than I would.  I was surprised upon reading it that it wasn't all about the cheerleaders and their clique and that annoyed me a little since I felt the book was much more about Hannah and her desire to really fit in, finally, at yet another high school, to the point where she might be turning a blind eye to the real price of admission to that in crowd.

Another book that I felt was marketed poorly (in the sense of perhaps misrepresenting what it is) is Daniel Waters' novel, Generation Dead.  The cover art is fabulous (talk about eye catching, right?) but there's one problem - not one of the main characters is cheeleader and certainly not a dead one.  Like Zombie Blondes, several of the PR blurbs and even a few reviews seemed to focus on the lighter aspects of this book (the romance, the unique idea of zombie rights) as if the ideas are so darn funny, while never getting down to what I felt was the overwhelming theme of the novel, namely issues surrounding discrimination.

Phoebe Kendall lives in a world in which she is content to be a goth girl - she dyes her hair jet black, wears long flowing dark clothes, and listens to music about sorrow and death.  She is a kind friend with a warm heart and her next-door neighbor and longtime friend, Adam knows he loves her for more than her beautiful face, but Phoebe remains unaware of his feelings.  Both teens live in a world attempting to adjust to a new and frightening phenomena - American teenagers are occasionally coming back to life.

This naturally causes a host of problems.  In addition to the reaction you might expect from a religious standpoint (with some people being deeply offended or frightened while others begin questioning their religion's promise of an afterlife), some citizens have taken their fear and disgust to a new level by decapitating these undead children or setting them on fire (two ways to actual "kill" a zombie).  Of course, this doesn't qualify as murder when you consider the fact that the law doesn't recognize the legal existence of the undead, so it's open season on this crowd.  Other groups, like the Hunter Foundation for the Advancement and Understanding of Differently Biotic Persons, are attempting to not only help the new zombies (the politically correct term is "differently biotic") but also educate the population about the undead and create legal inroads to protect their rights.

Phoebe and Adam's high school has a great program for the "differently biotic" so there are more and more dead kids coming to class.  Phoebe begins to take an interest in Tommy Williams, a new and "differently biotic" student who seems a little higher functioning than the other zombie kids.  Tommy goes out for the football team and maintains a blog where he shares his thoughts and reflections about his life with all its challenges.

Waters writes minor as well as major characters extremely well.  Phoebe's best friend, Margie, is wrestling with the death and reappearance of the former third member of their friendship group, Collette, who isn't as high functioning as some of the other undead kids.   Adam's former friend (really, bully) Pete Martinsburg is another football player filled with rage and hate at the zombie kids because of his personal loss of a sweet girlfriend who never did come back from the dead.  I wept salty tears when a sweet member of the undead group was brutally murdered and found myself horrified by some of the sinister subplots coiling around the reader's ankles.

Daniel Waters is a talented, insightful writer (who maintains a very nice blog, by the way) who has set up a complex premise that promises an excellent series for readers.  The next book, Kiss of Life, is already out and you can read more about it and the Generation Dead series at the custom website dedicated to it.  Waters recently posted the cover for the third book in the series, Passing Strange, which he says will be out next June.  With so many questions left unanswered, I look forward to reading these sequels.  While I don't agree with some people who have compared the book to Twilight, I do agree with them that this book is a well-written story about not only the inklings of supernatural romance but about the nature of hate and discrimination.