A shy underdog and his loyal best friend must protect a magical ring from marauding zombies in The Zero Degree Zombie Zone, a middle-grade fantasy adventure featuring four African-American protagonists. Due from Scholastic Press August 26 in simultaneous hardcover and paperback editions, the novel is written by Patrik Henry Bass, editorial projects director at Essence magazine, and illustrated by Jerry Craft, creator of the syndicated comic strip Mama’s Boyz. The project was hatched in 2007, over a fortuitous lunch date between two like-minded friends.

“We always have had a sharp eye out for diversity in books,” said Andrea Davis Pinkney, Scholastic v-p and executive editor. “It’s part of Scholastic’s DNA.” She often receives e-mails from teachers, librarians, parents, and even young readers themselves, pleading for action-packed adventure stories that feature kids of color. “I also visit a lot of classrooms and talk to kids, and I am the mother of a reluctant reader who also wanted more of this specific kind of book, so the writing was on the wall – l couldn’t escape it,” she explained. “So I began thinking of how we could make this happen.”

The editor found a solution while having lunch with Bass, a former colleague of hers at Essence. In his current position, Bass serves as books editor for the magazine. “I knew Patrik knows what readers want and how to give it to them, and I learned at lunch that he too had been thinking about the need for fun children’s novels with characters of color, and I suggested that he write one. It was one of those moments when all the elements seemed to come together.”

From his vantage point at Essence, Bass was well aware of the shortage of children’s fiction starring African-American kids, especially novels written with a light touch. “I knew that there was an opportunity to expand within the category,” he observed. “Novels in this category tend to have very urban settings and many are set in the past – say, during the Depression. I thought that doing a book in the present, about African-American kids having fun, would be great.”

The Project Takes Flight

Given Scholastic’s broad reach into the educational market, Pinkney had envisioned the novel that would become The Zero Degree Zombie Zone with a classroom setting, and with both boy and girl protagonists. Beyond that, she noted, “We let Patrik run with it. He had already thought about setting the novel in a classroom, and having it take place over the course of one day. He came up with the idea of an underdog who escapes the daily drudgery of the bullies and bigmouths in his life through an otherworldly adventure, and finds his inner strength before the school bell rings. Patrik delivered it all, and did a wonderful job.”

Bass, who has written for numerous publications, including PW, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Entertainment Weekly, discovered that his debut children’s book presented all-new challenges – and lots of them. “The first challenge of course was to find the characters’ voices,” he said. “And then came challenges I imposed on myself, like creating diversity among the African-American boy characters and giving them equal berth. And I wanted to provide depth to my female character and have the kids’ emotions drive the narrative, beyond the adventure and fantasy elements. I also wanted to add a sense of timelessness and nostalgia to the story without making it precious.”

As with Pinkney and Bass, professional ties helped bring Craft on board as illustrator of The Zero Degree Zombie Zone. Rhonda Joy McLean, a mutual friend of Bass and Craft who is now deputy general counsel at Time Inc., showed Bass a sample of Craft’s Mama’s Boyz strip and suggested that Essence write about his work. When it came time to select an illustrator for the novel, Bass recalled, “I thought it would be great to get someone who could get the energy going the way that Jerry does. Once I saw his early drawings for the book, I could see it and feel it, and thought it could work. And it did. He has so many strengths, and we had the same mission for the book.”

Meanwhile, Pinkney and Craft (who is a former staffer at Sports Illustrated Kids, Essence’s sister magazine at Time Inc.) were longtime friends, and the editor knew that the cartoonist, like Bass, “has his finger on the pulse of what kids like. I knew when the right moment came along I’d call him.”

Putting a Face on the Characters

The call from Pinkney came last August, in the form of an e-mail. “Andrea told me that she had a fun book project for me,” said Craft, “ and I wrote back and said that she’d had me at ‘hello!’ ” The artist was immediately drawn to Bass’s manuscript, he added, “especially since, as an African-American dad, I am very aware that a lot of books aimed toward our kids are depressing or heavy. This is an action-adventure story, and it’s also a classic friendship story about kids trying to fit in. It’s very positive, and that’s what excited me. I then gave it to my two teenage sons to read, and they gave it the nod of approval.”

Craft eagerly dove into the project. “I was so excited about creating these new characters, and I went back and forth with Andrea in terms of developing them until we found something we were all happy with,” he said. “The style is cartoony and fun, but there is detail in it, so it’s not just smiling faces. You also get a sense of character. And the zombies are scary, but not overly so.”

Pinkney noted that a sequel to The Zero Degree Zombie Zone is under discussion, and that’s a prospect that suits Bass just fine. “I must say, once I released the manuscript to Andrea I really found myself missing these kids, who were so vibrant in my head,” he said. “I’d love to go back to them.”

Though he’s been involved in children’s literature as a book reviewer and editor for years, writing his own novel gave Bass a new appreciation for the craft. “This has been an extraordinary journey, and I have great respect for anyone who has written a book for children,” he said. “What I learned from this process is that no writer, editor, or publisher should limit themselves. Having zombies appear at a school – how cool is that? The possibilities are endless!”

The Zero Degree Zombie Zone by Patrik Henry Bass, illustrated by Jerry Craft. Scholastic Press, $16.99 Aug. ISBN 978-0-545-13210-7; paper $6.99 ISBN 978-0-545-13211-4