Daniel Waters’ book about teenage zombies is nothing like what most people would expect from a zombie book. It’s not about monsters hungry for brains, or brainless youth who watch too much TV. This book is about prejudice, how fear and misconceptions about those who are different can make people do horrible things, and how the open minds of young people can gradually work towards positive change.
I picked this novel because I wanted to have a few zombie books under my belt so I could talk about the horror genre either at Teen Tuesday or when people asked for recommendations. I was afraid of anything too gory and violent, and I thought Generation Dead looked like a chic lit or funny version of a zombie story. In a way I was right, because it had a great dark humour, and was full of the drama of friendship and dating in high school, but I got a lot more out of the book than I ever expected to.
The story of American teens coming back to life when they die (only teens, and only in the US) for unknown reasons and continuing to attend high school and try to fit in where they left off seems like a hokey premise at first. However the way Waters handles the story is beautiful. The character development is charming, and the perspectives are refreshing.
Waters openly parallels the treatment of the undead teens with the treatment of minority races in the past, with frequent homages to african american heroes like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. The problems the zombies face also work well at bringing up issues that LGBQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer for those who are unfamiliar) teens have to deal with, and could be related to any group who suffers from discrimination.
The zombies who are teased, not welcome to participate in sports, beaten up, socially outcast, abandoned by their parents for something they can’t control, threatened, and even murdered because they are different react to the challenges in different ways. Some of the zombies blog about the challenges of being zombies, some keep to themselves or their own kind, some try to make a point of being proud of their zombiness, some try to be as normal as possible, and others want to become as violent as those who threaten them.
The ignorant reactions of the government, media, schools, parents and adults in general are shocking but unfortunately not all that surprising considering how they have historically reacted to difference and the bullying and hate stemming from it. Waters examination of the fanatics and the victims is interesting but what really made the both touching was his focus on the bystanders.
The main character is friends with zombies and is asked out by a zombie and this has a large impact on how people treat her. She goes through almost as much prejudice as the zombies themselves. As someone who received some horrifying reactions to being in an interracial relationship in the past, I really related to Phoebe.
Phoebe’s best friend Margi is not as excited about befriending the strange newcomers to her school, especially her ex-bff Colette who died and came back as a zombie. Her flip out at discovering Colette is a zombie seems to be Waters way of exploring how sometimes close friends don’t handle finding out the person they’ve spent so much time with is gay or different in some way. Margi eventually becomes less repulsed by Colette, but her lack of understanding when Colette came to her for help changes their friendship forever.
Even though Margi and a few others aren’t sure how to be around the different teens at their school, they are faced with difficult decisions as they witness the mistreatment of these different teens. Ignoring the abuse is like condoning it, but saying anything puts them under fire as well.
Daniel Waters tackles some huge issues through zombie fiction. I began reading expecting to be horrified by the zombies, but was much more horrified by the way the living breathing humans behaved.
Someone asked me yesterday why books that win awards are always horrible things about abuse, freaks or things she wasn’t comfortable reading about. I had trouble answering at the time because the books she was pointing to made me uncomfortable too, and I couldn’t imagine reading them for pleasure. I did say that they had merit but I had difficulty articulating why, I’ve been thinking about it though and here’s what I have come up with
- People need to be aware that there are serious problems in the world like abuse in order to put a stop to it and protect themselves and others
- People who have been treated badly or are different need to see their problems represented in fiction because it shows that they are not alone and that their pain is acknowledged
- While books that are just fun to read are good for making you happy and should be encouraged, I do think that books that deserve awards make you think or at the very least allow you to experience the world beyond the bubble of your life
Generation Dead deals with major issues and makes you think without being too preachy. Using a fantasy element like zombies instead of using race or sexual orientation makes the exploration of prejudice more accessible. The language and tone of the book are enjoyable for young people, and I think the casual banter of a goth chick and a football player discussing zombie kids will get the messages across better than a dry more realistic approach.