How Can a Book Be Undead?
I’ll be honest: I’ve never liked zombies. They’re scary. They’re gross. They bear the faces of humans—people who once laughed, and dreamed, and fell in love. But now their reason has left them, and an empty shell is left to wander the earth, infecting everyone around them until they succumb to decay. No thank you!
Recently, I’ve been noticing an influx of zombie books. And I don’t mean books about zombies, I mean books that are zombies! No, there isn’t one undead book running around biting other healthy books. These zombie books are being published just like every other book; it’s the process of their creation that makes them zombies. I would define a zombie book thus: any book that is affiliated with a preexisting body of work, but which has been made with little to no input from the original creator, or published without the creator’s explicit approval. They are zombies in the sense that they have been given a second life apart from the person who first made them.
This is not to say that zombie books are “bad.” Some offer one last glimpse of a creator who is no longer around, and others can be great supplements to their source material. Let’s explore the different ways zombie books come to be, and the purposes they serve.
First, there are posthumously published manuscripts. Many creators have far more ideas than they have time, and the unfinished projects they leave behind can be turned into publishable work with a bit of additional help. In the picture book world, this often means a new illustrator is brought on, and editors sensitively make textual changes they think the author would approve. Finishing Lois Ehlert’s Last Book thoughtfully details this process for the posthumously published Red & Green. Dr. Seuss also has a particularly robust catalog of posthumous publications, which are fun to explore.
I am always shocked to see new books “by” authors who died decades ago. In some cases, the new book does in fact present a text they actually wrote, or at least contributed to. However, I think it is important that books like this have a note that explains where the text came from, and how it has been prepared for publication. Otherwise, it almost makes me wonder if the author has been resurrected as a zombie to produce new material from beyond the grave.
Sometimes, successful works will be continued by the original creators’ family members. A Walk in the Woods is a mix of posthumous publishing and family work. Artist Jerry Pinkney passed away before finishing the illustrations. His son, Brian (also a successful illustrator), worked to complete the art with his father’s sketches. You can read more about the journey here. In the case of Anna Dewdney’s Llama Llama series, the new books by her partner Reed Duncan take a very classic approach, and Artist J. T. Morrow does a convincing imitation of her painting style. Meanwhile, after some more traditional stories, Herman Parish reimagined Amelia Bedelia as a young girl, with Lynne Avril bringing a new look to the art.
There’s something sweet about a creative work being continued by a family member. Almost like an heirloom, the creation is passed to the next generation, where it might find new life in new hands, even as it honors the spirit of the original.
Licensing, Adaptations and Reboots
Franchise, brand, and name recognition are a great way to boost sales, and it’s natural for a business to want to make money. Expanding an established work means that there’s already an existing audience who will happily buy a new installment. Sometimes a beloved character, a series title, or even a famous author’s name will be applied to new works that the original creators had little or nothing to do with. A franchise might be continued after the creator’s death, or the (still living) creator could sell the rights to another party. When a series is sold or licensed, a larger corporate creative team starts turning out works that mimic the original style. Additionally, when a book gets an animated adaptation, it will sometimes spark a whole new line of books that resemble the show rather than the original art. In both cases, the creator is often still credited, but the fine print reveals other writers and artists working behind the scenes.
Sometimes, mimicry is bypassed completely, and original art is cut-and-pasted into a new format. One example is the recent Roald Dahl board book series. While Dahl is listed as the author, he died in 1990, and presumably did not write them himself. Quentin Blake’s original art from previous Dahl books has been cleanly copied into these early readers. While the illustrations are completely removed from their chapter-book context, it’s a nice way for Dahl fans to introduce the iconic characters to their little ones.
Zombie books will continue to be made—and they’ll continue to sell. However, I can’t help but wonder what Charles Schulz would think of the new Peanuts easy readers that still boast his name twenty years after his death. I can’t help but wonder if artists and writers and graphic designers ever feel creatively stifled as they emulate a branded style. Even when the franchise stays in the family, newer works can feel watered down or derivative in comparison to the original.
Art truly is the product of the soul. Whoever creates it puts a bit of themself into the work, and that spirit is irreplaceable, no matter how talented the subsequent production committee is. Does anyone want to see a beloved work parsed and stretched until its original spark is completely lost? I understand that it’s hard to see a good thing come to an end, especially when it comes to the special stories we grew up with. They are classics for a reason! But there is still plenty of room to grow, and there are brilliant books just waiting to be discovered. While zombie books are an established part of the publishing ecosystem, I’d encourage you to take a chance on something new. Something different. Something undeniably alive.