There’s this podcast I like to listen to called RadioLab, which is essentially just a show for people who like kooky science but are still a little foggy on what exactly Einstein’s Theory of Relativity actually means or why the sun is hot. Science for the English majors, let’s call it. Often the show will come up with really original stories, like the guy who purposefully gave himself tapeworms to cure his asthma (it worked). That story came from a show about parasites and it was accompanied by these strange unnerving stories about insects and viruses and worms that could turn their hosts into . . . well . . . zombies, basically. And though I am a children’s librarian, the thought never occurred to me that these stories could, combined with others of the same ilk, create the world’s most awesome work of nonfiction. Fortunately for all of us, Rebecca L. Johnson has not my shortsightedness. In Zombie Makers: True Stories of Nature’s Undead you will meet a whole range of horrifying creatures. It is, without a doubt, probably the grossest book for kids I’ve ever read. And boy howdy let me tell you I have read a LOT Of gross books in my day.
What do you think of when you think of zombies? Do you think of lurching undead ready to feast on your braaaaaains? Or do you think of something a little more insidious like the REASON those zombies don’t seem to have a lot of will of their own? As it happens, zombies are real. Not in the corpse-walker sense, necessarily, but in nature there are plenty of creatures willing to make others into their mindless slaves. Meet the hairworm Paragordius Triscuspidatus, which can convince a perfectly healthy cricket to drown itself. Or Toxoplasma Gondii which, aside from being the reason you’re not supposed to let pregnant women near cat poop, turns rats into suicidal kitty lovers. Page by page author Rebecca Johnson presents us with examples of evolution gone amuck. Zombie makers exist, it’s true, and as their hosts we’d better learn as much as we can about them before they get to us next!
Zombies actually get a lot of play in children’s literature these days. Insofar as I can tell there are two ways to play them. They can’t be romantic like vampires or other members of the monster family so they must either be funny or horrifying. Funny is the route that I’d say 85% of kids’ books about zombies go. Whether you’re talking about Zombiekins or The Zombie Chasers or Undead Ed or any of the other books out there, funny is usually the way to go. I say that, but a lot of what kids want when they enter a library is to be scared. And if you can scare them with real stuff, and maybe even gross them out a little, you are gold, my friend. That’s why this book works as well as it does.
Johnson cleverly sets up the book so that readers can compare and contrast what they know about zombies, zombie talking points let’s say, with these zombie-esque diseases, parasites, and insects. I’d never really thought about Old Yeller as a zombie story, but that’s what it is, isn’t it? A beloved member of the family is bitten by something evil and suddenly the boy who loves it most must put it down before something worse happens. That’s a zombie plot, but it’s Johnson who makes you realize that rabies is just another form of zombie fun. By couching her nonfiction tale within popular zombie fiction tropes, she has an easy in with the child readership.
The writing is superb in and of itself, no doubt, but I wonder if interest in this book would be quite so high if it were not for the accompanying disquieting photographs. The book as an object is beautifully designed from start to finish, which only helps to highlight the photographs found inside. What I really liked about the photos was that they had two different ways of freaking the average reader out. On the one hand you have the photos that go for the immediate ARGGGG! reaction. I am thinking specifically of the worm. The worm that infects human beings. That makes them want to plunge themselves into the water where it breaks out of the skin and leaves the body. Alien much? The image of someone slowly and painfully removing the worm without water is enough to make you lose your lunch. But even better are the photos that elicit a slow dawning sense of horror. The fungus O. unilateralis is a clever beastie, and its greatest trick is in forcing ants to clamp onto leafs and die (but only where the temperature is just right). There’s a shot of a dead ant with a long horrible reproductive stalk emerging out of its head, spreading its spores to other innocent ants. It’s a quiet photo and lacks the urgency and pain of the leg worm shot, but it’s worse somehow. It has this brooding malice to it. You actually do not want to touch the page in the book for fear of somehow touching the fungus. That’s how effective it is.
Children’s librarians often try to lure kids into reading nonfiction by doing what we call booktalks. If you’re a good booktalker you can get your audience to fight over even the dullest looking book. Some books, however, sell themselves. Hold up this book and there’s not a child alive who won’t be instantly fascinated. Describe even one of the stories inside and you might have at last found the book they want even more than the latest edition of Guinness World Records. Informative even as it makes you want to go hide in a clean, sanitized hole somewhere, Johnson has created a clever little book that is bound to keep adult and child readers who find it, enthralled. Ick. Bleach. Awesome.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley borrowed from fellow librarian for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Scary by Joaquin Ramon Herrera
- Phineas Gage: A Gruesome But True Story of Brain Science by John Fleischman
- Killer Ants by Nicholas Nirgiotis