Whenever I am uncertain how to go about reviewing a book, I think about the greatest book review I ever read, which ends with the line “I hate you [author]. I hate you and I hate your stupid book.” So that is where I would like to begin this one.
It’s not that Zombie Tag is a bad book—it’s quite a good one—it’s just that it will smush your soul like a milk-soaked animal cracker.
Zombie Tag is the story of what happens to Wil(son) Lowenstein six months after the death of his older brother Graham, just before his community experiences a tremendous shift in the meaning of the word “dead.” It’s worth mentioning here that Moskowitz has given us one of the all-time great opening lines of twenty-first century children’s literature:
“I invented Zombie Tag three weeks ago, and we’ve already lost seven spatulas.”
At first it seems that this Zombie Tag business is a pretty typical game for a gang of twelve-year-olds–and it is, except that in the world these particular twelve-year-olds live in, zombies are no joke. Basically, the world of Zombie Tag is identical to ours, except that it’s possible for somebody’s dad’s job to be hunting yetis (although those yetis turn out to be not much more than hairy cows). Likewise, when the real zombies turn up in the narrative, they aren’t what one means by real zombies. No hunger for brains, no urge to rip your face off. No, these zombies are more likely to sit at your kitchen table and ask you what’s for breakfast. Sounds almost perfect for a kid who just wants his big brother back, doesn’t it? But it’s amazing how far from perfect that “almost” can put you.
This book is definitely about what happens when your super awesome sibling/hero/BFF kicks the bucket unexpectedly. However, it’s also about what it’s like when that person is years ahead of you in everything, and the general concern that adults may be indistinguishable from zombies, among other things.
Moskowitz manages to focus tightly on Wil’s realistically self-centred outlook and at the same time make it clear that the other characters in the narrative are whole people with struggles and motivations that may or may not have anything to do with Wil.
I also appreciate that this book doesn’t shy away from describing twelve-year-olds as they really are, as opposed to how adults might be comfortable seeing them. There are goofy games and puppy love, but there’s also hating your best friend’s new friend with the fire of a thousand suns and searching for nakedness (and other forbidden subjects) on the internet. And while the zombies are not the ultra-violent brain-gobbling fiends we’ve come to expect, I was surprised to find myself having very visceral, horror-movie-watching-type reactions to the harsh emotional reality of a kid living with zombies. There’s this unfortunate notion floating around our culture that feelings are these nebulous, delicate, semi-mythical entities which are basically all in your head. This notion, in my opinion, makes a lot of relatively sane people feel crazy because that is absolutely misrepresentative of the lived experience of human emotion. A book like this does a nice job of flipping the bird to that notion whilst giving a bear hug to every kid who thinks he’s hopelessly messed up because his feelings won’t stop being real things even when they’re terrifying.
All in all, I think this is one of those books that makes kids who grow up when it’s around just a little bit luckier than those of us who grew up earlier. If you’re “too old” for Zombie Tag, though, don’t fret. It’s still a good way to get in the necessary soul-smushing that’ll keep you from turning into a zombie.
Laura Forsythe resides in Kingston, Ontario where she is always slouching and usually singing crude songs about household tasks, but she doesn’t draw on her hands as much as she used to, so they may make an adult of her yet. She keeps a blog about books and junk at http://ohmynoti.blog.com/