The older I get the less I enjoy driving. One of the only joys of long solo drives to visit family and friends is the time I have to listen to audiobooks. This past week I was able to listen to the audio version of Paolo Bacigalupi’s Zombie Baseball Beatdown, and I have to say I think it might be the most perfect middle grade horror I’ve ever read. It also might be the only middle grade horror I’ve ever read. Most middle grade horror tends toward the formulaic, multiple novels churned out almost simultaneously, perhaps by one author, perhaps by multiple authors writing under one name. Whatever the case, I’ve never considered reading one before.
Zombie Baseball Beatdown, on the other hand, showed great promise, having been written by the multiple award and honor winning Bacigalupi. I was also fairly confident, given the summary and the cover image, that it would be humorous horror with just a touch of the gross-out so popular in this age group. The library purchased a couple of copies late in the school year, but I was never able to get a student’s opinion on it. So, when I saw it available for checkout from the local public library’s Overdrive selections, I pounced. It also almost got me through the whole trip.
So, on one level, this is the story of three boys, Rabi, Miguel, and Joe, who save their town from a zombie apocalypse using just their wits and their baseball bats (and a pickup truck that none of them are old enough to drive.) On another level, it’s a story about prejudice, immigration, abusive business practices, shady legal maneuvers, and food safety. As far as the zombie part of the story goes, the three boys live in a town whose major industry is a meat packing plant – cows are shipped in to the plant to be processed, then packaged and shipped back out to be sold. Many of the adults in town, including Miguel’s aunt and uncle with whom he lives, the boys’ little league coach, and the father of the team bully, work for Milrow Meat Solutions. Miguel’s parents worked at the plant as well, before they spoke out about Milrow’s unethical business practices and were reported to ICE for being in the country illegally. Miguel now lives with his aunt and uncle in a constant state of fear, due to the fact that all of them are in the country illegally. And, in fact, Miguel’s family, as well as all of the immigrants working at Milrow, are rounded up and deported early on in the book while Miguel and Rabi are mowing lawns (they leave behind a pickup truck that the boys put to good use.) Rabi was actually staying with Miguel’s family while his mother traveled to her home country of India to attend a funeral, his father being out of town for long stretches working on an oil rig. Miguel and Rabi’s loving homes are contrasted drastically with the home life of their friend Joe, who is moderately hyperactive, orders comics from Amazon with his Mom’s credit card, and has an alcoholic father. Together, the three boys confront the zombie cows (and infected humans) and save the town and potentially, the world.
But the rest of the story, which is worked in seamlessly, confronts the realities of racial prejudice, workplace abuse of illegal immigrants, unethical food production practices, the shady legal maneuvers engaged in by these businesses, the ways the laws have been perverted to protect these illegal actives, and a host of other social issues that are timely and relevant. In fact, this humorous horror novel manages to introduce it’s readers to a host of social ills that they will, in short time, be inheriting from their parents. As I previously stated, none of this is inserted without cause, but all of it is woven seamlessly into the story. In fact, the usual need for lack of parental supervision in such stories is well taken care of by the absence of Miguel and Rabi’s parents and the neglect of Joe’s. The zombie cows are caused by the nefarious business practices of the meat packing plant, and subsequent efforts by the boys to alert the authorities are shut down by a shady lawyer who works for Milford. The boys even try to film the carnage caused by the zombie cows, which is illegal in itself.
To sum up, I never thought I would love a gross-out, humorous zombie novel – but I do. I can’t wait to book talk it in July.