“Well, What Would You Like to Read About?"
Paolo Bacigalupi shares the inspiration behind his latest novel, Zombie Baseball Beatdown, and explores what it takes to create a life-long reader. Hint: Get inside their brrraaaiiinns!
I wrote Zombie Baseball Beatdown because my wife is a school teacher and one of her students hated reading.
In a fit of exasperation, she finally asked him, “Well, what would you like to read about?"
“Zombies,” was the sullen reply.
My wife and I laughed about it later, but thinking about that boy, I couldn't help checking out what kind of zombie lit we give our kids. And it suddenly made sense. Oh, sure, there are some zombies for kids, but they're all cute zombies. Sweet zombies, rendered toothless. Zombies that just need a hug or zombies that can be defeated with hot sauce. Not real zombies. Not nasty, dangerous, hungry-for-brains zombies.
No wonder my wife's student was unhappy with his zombie choices.
And no wonder this boy—and vast number of other kids like him—don't enjoy reading.
If my 9-year-old son is enamored with an iPod game like Earn to Die, where players level up to bigger and bigger trucks so that they can drive over more and more zombies—Splat! Spray! Bump! Smash! (Giggle!)—and also happens to dislike reading himself (a horrifying discovery for a parent if you're a novelist), then clearly, we in the literary establishment need to step up our game.
Our kids want stories packed with things that interest them. They want awesome explosions and hilarious wisecracks. They want stories that speak to their time and place, about kids that look like them, with their cellphones and their iPods and their rapidly globalizing nation.
And us? We give them “literary” works.
Which often means we're giving them glacially-written stories by dead people, written for children who are nearly as long-dead, about a world that has been lost in the mists of history.
Let's pause and think about that for a second. We give our kids stories written by people who have been rotting in the ground for centuries. Nothing I write in Zombie Baseball Beatdown can top that for sheer gross-out.
Dickens should be labeled as Stories From Beyond the Grave.
It might make him more enjoyable.
But seriously, if we don't give our kids stories that fill them with joy, we teach them that reading is a grind. If we don't give them books that speak to their present lives, we teach them that reading is irrelevant. We can shovel Accelerated Readers down their throats and dump dead-man's lit on their heads, and while I'm sure our kids will hit all their schools' performance benchmarks, we'll still be losing ground.
We'll have taught our kids to read, and ensured that they'll never be readers.
I wrote Zombie Baseball Beatdown so a kid in my wife's school could see that reading is awesome and fun. Hopefully, after that, he'll find another book that he loves. And another after that, and another, and another, for the rest of his life.
If we adults give our kids books that feed their passions (even if it's for brains), kids will see that reading doesn't have to be as dry as a sawdust sandwich.
I wrote Zombie Baseball Beatdown so a kid could have the joy and terror of fighting off zombies with a baseball bat. I wrote it so that he could share the feeling of strength that comes from standing by your friends, even when the going gets worse than tough. I wrote it so he could start questioning what's in the hamburger on his school lunch tray. I wrote it so kids could laugh at zombie limericks, and thrill to the discovery of whole herds of zombie cows. I wrote it for splatter and explosions, teamwork and jokes. I wrote it so kids could wonder about what makes one person an American and another person not.
I wrote it so kids could ask whether we adults really have all the answers.
But more than anything, I wanted kids, just once, to have the joy of putting a pickup into four-wheel drive, and gunning the engine, and then plowing into a whole horde of zombies. I wanted that to happen in a book. Not in a video game, or in a movie, or in a comic. A book.
Right there on the page.
Splat! Spray! Bump! Smash!