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August 20, 2018

If You're Ever in a Zombie Apocalypse, Call a Middle Schooler --- Guest Post by Merrill Wyatt, Author ERNESTINE, CATASTROPHE QUEEN

Posted by Rebecca M

Everyone knows there is nothing like a good old journey through your imagination. Where would you go first if you could fly? What rules would you make law if you were president? What would you do in a zombie apocalypse? In ERNESTINE, CATASTROPHE QUEEN, author Merrill Wyatt asks exactly that, through her main character, Ernestine, who is determined to raise the dead and bring on the zombie apocalypse. Merrill Wyatt is actually a middle school technology teacher and was inspired by her students to write the book. Read on to find out how they encouraged her to dive deep into her imagination --- and how kids like you might be the ones to save us from a future zombie apocalypse.

Should you ever be unfortunate enough to find yourself in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, immediately find the closest middle schooler. Not only are they prepared for this day, they will be sure to get you through it safely. They have a plan --- and it’s better thought-out than anything you’ll come up with.

At least this has been my takeaway from countless conversations I’ve overheard between my students. As an author, I’m a shameless eavesdropper. Not because I want to know any of their secrets but because I want to know what my middle schoolers are interested in. Obviously, this varies from kid to kid and group to group, but their obsession with planning for the zombie apocalypse is surprisingly consistent across all groups. The band kid, the jock, and the anime kid might not share many interests. But bring up the apocalypse and you’d be surprised by the common ground they’ve suddenly found with each other.

From this observation, the character of Ernestine was --- if not born --- at least given shape. Her original inspiration came from the many funny, fierce girls I’ve had in class over the years. Those girls who have an opinion and are determined to have it be heard. Sometimes as a teacher, they’ve been the bane of my existence. Still, I’ve always been proud of them for knowing at such a young age that they have a voice that matters.

However, it’s her zombie-obsession that allows Ernestine’s voice to shine through. She’s quirkily optimistic, a trait many of my students share; they might have had a bad day yesterday, but there’s always a hope that today will be better. Ernestine doesn’t see the zombie apocalypse as a bad thing, and in general she doesn’t want to see anyone get hurt (with maybe one or two exceptions). Instead, she sees the end of the world as the beginning of people working together and getting along. As she points out in ERNESTINE, CATASTROPHE QUEEN, there’s nothing like a zombie apocalypse to force you to get your priorities in order. You’re not going to worry about where to sit in the cafeteria or what’s to eat for lunch when there’s an excellent chance that a nearby zombie thinks you’d taste delicious.

Middle schoolers are still creative thinkers in ways that adults have long since lost, and in my writing I find that inspiring. Present an adult with a problem, and most of them will probably give you more or less the same set of solutions. Present a twelve-year-old with that same problem, and you’re going to get all sorts of out-of-the-box ideas. So when Ernestine decides that her mom is paying more attention to her job than her daughter, of course she’s going to try and start the zombie apocalypse.

In writing ERNESTINE, I wanted to encourage my students to hang onto their quirky uniqueness as far too many of us lose it as we struggle to fit in and be accepted. We start to believe that there’s a certain way we are supposed to be, so we also accept that there are only certain ways we should think. Fortunately for Ernestine, she lives in a house full of adults who continue to look at the world in unusual ways: retired artists. From their zany perspective on things, Ernestine has learned the importance of remaining true to yourself and your own original outlook on life. (See a photo of Merrill and her students below!)

Many of my own students have retirees in their lives just like Ernestine and just like I did when I was growing up. For a variety of reasons, a large percentage of them are either living in homes with their grandparents or else are being raised exclusively by them. This was an experience I wanted Ernestine to share with her readers, though her encounters with her retired neighbors are probably a little crazier than average.

But only a little. For my own part when I was growing up, I spent a great deal of time in my grandmother’s crumbling Victorian house. It wasn’t anywhere near as big as the MacGillicuddie mansion, but I still spent many hours searching it for ghosts. Like Ernestine and her zombies, I was constantly frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t find any but lived in hope that I’d stumble across something horrible eventually. So I’d sit across from her settee full of antique china dolls, waiting for one of their heads to swivel around. They never did. But I still find myself checking anytime I stumble across one in an antique store.

In that way, I’ve managed to hang onto a bit of my own childhood creativity, and this shows through in my writing. Sure, it would be horrifying to find myself confronted with a ghost doll. But let’s admit it; it would be just a teeny bit interesting too. And I would definitely stop worrying about whether or not I should have had a piece of cake with lunch. I’d be too busy making sure that I lived to have another slice.

Should you ever find yourself in a similar situation --- whether it’s an evil doll or the restless undead --- find yourself a middle schooler. They’ll figure out a way to deal with the problem. Because while it’s never occurred to you that it could really happen, it’s definitely occurred to them.