I’ve always thought that “Middle Grade” must be the hardest category for which to write. It needs to appeal to such a narrow niche in such a narrow way, and the author has to be able to come up with just the right blend of silly and grown-up for that very volatile age group. Paolo Bacigalupi manages to get it just right.
His hero is 13-year old Rabindranath Chatterjee-Jones, called Rabi by his friends, who lives in a company town dominated by Milrow Meat Solutions, a processing plant making beef to feed people in seven states. The bully on his middle school’s little league team is Sammy Riggoni, whose father owns Milrow’s. Sammy keeps trying to pick fights with Rabi and his friend Miguel, whose parents were booted first out of Milrow’s and then the country for being illegal immigrants. Miguel now lives with his aunt and uncle, who also work at the plant.
Rabi, Miguel, and their “all-American-looking” friend Joe are practicing baseball out a field behind Milrow’s (to avoid the bullies on the regular field) when they discover an awful secret about the meat at the packing plant. The feed has become toxic from all the additives and chemicals given to the cows to increase production, and suddenly, some of them have turned into zombies. Moreover, anyone who gets bitten is turned into a zombie as well. But it doesn’t appear that Milrow’s is going to change their practices – in fact, the boys discover Milrow’s is still trying to distribute the tainted meat!
Can the boys stop them in time, and save the world from zombie-dom?
Discussion: Bacigalupi takes some subjects bound to appeal to kids, like little league baseball, comic books, bullying, fitting in, determining right from wrong, and zombies, and puts them into a political and social context so that the book is not only entertaining, but educational.
Moreover, his hero cleverly employs (and teaches the other kids about) an Aesopian rhetorical strategy to get around censorship: in this case, to subvert the legal strictures against exposing wrongdoing by the local meatpacking plant. Rabi explains:
“The thing I realized while we were talking at the lawyer’s table was that Milrow Meat Solutions would sue us to death for telling the truth. …They’d make all kinds of trouble about the truth. They really could take away our house and all that kind of stuff, but there was one way, maybe, they couldn’t. And that’s if we made the whole thing up. So here you’ve got this book in your hands, and I’m telling you – straight up and down – that I made this whole story up.”
Evaluation: Sometimes Middle Grade books are just too silly for me, but Bacigalupi (a National Book Award finalist) held my interest throughout. And I love how he teaches kids about some very current and important issues (such as immigration policy and genetically modified food) in ways that never seemed forced. But he also weaves in a theme important to his other books: what makes you human, and what makes you a monster, and how can you choose to be the former rather than the latter?
Published by Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2013