The best children’s books are the ones that surprise you, and even have a hint of scariness. There’s a reason why I love Cressida Cowell and why I love Kara LaReau now for her comedic writing and sense of timing. This series, starting with Rise of Zombert, promises to give family-friendly versions of zombies, in the form of a friendly cat that looks like he crawled out of the dead. Some kids theorize that he is a zombie, because he likes to eat brains. The science teacher disagrees, saying that it’s normal cat behavior. Though the title hints that zombies are in the mix.
Bert comes to trust the human that tries to feed him. Yet he is not perfect. He is a cat, and we know that with cats you have to earn their love. Especially for one that is a lab experiment, Bert is less likely to trust people. After all, one of them put him in a cage and experimented on him. Bert may be dead or undead, but he also has feelings. And goodness knows what happens when you get on a cat’s bad side, let alone one that may have risen from the dead and escaped a laboratory. This kitty means business, especially if you threaten him.
Mellie is a decent student who wants to be a scientist. She’s saving up for a microscope and wants to deliver a report on a unique species. Yet her parents seem to care more about her blog than what she wants, photographing and videotaping her and her twin siblings at mealtimes and letting the food get cold. Things change when she and her best friend Danny rescue a cat from a YummCo recycling bin. Bert seems all skin and bones, sickly and starving. Yet he refuses the cat food that Mellie buys, or the fresh fish she poaches from the kitchen. He seems to have a grudge against YummCo, the big pet food company in town offering free discounts.
Meanwhile, Kari is gloating at work as a YummCo scientist. She undid a specimen’s latch with a screwdriver to frame her coworker Greg for incompetence and receive a coveted promotion. Things go wrong when their boss assigns her and Greg to work together to find the specimen that escaped from their lab. Kari has a point that Greg hasn’t worked as hard as she did and is getting the second chances that she wouldn’t receive as a woman, but they are both super-evil and complicit. Greg tries to justify that he needs this job, for the money and the experience. Kari doesn’t give any excuses while pursuing the goal with fervency. Given how angry Bert is about his own situation and how he was starving after he escaped, the experiments themselves couldn’t have been very pretty. The thought is horrifying about what they were doing to the guy, and who else is in the cages. What other animals could rise up and go after the heads of other animals?
Bert the cat has never had a name before. He finds it flattering and understands enough human speech. One day, Bert wants to return to the lab and rescue his fellow abused animals. But first, he must feed. Cue a very long-running gag of him leaving beheaded animals for Mellie to find, as presents for her. He doesn’t understand why she’s wasting the food by burying them before her parents come home. Does it seem that humans have no ideas on how to take care of themselves, and isn’t that just silly? Yet Bert tries to convince himself that this is a one-time arrangement. He likes Mellie, but wants to focus on revenge, and freeing his brethren.
The novel has a lighthearted tone. While obviously experimentation on animals can be nightmarish, the tone reminds us that the story is a comedy. We see that Bert makes quite an impression on the kids. He scares them, but also wins them over. Many cat owners can tell you that, even if they rescued a stray cat who was ill and flea-bitten, there is that moment where you fall in love instantly. That is what makes the journey fantastic for them, as that bond forms over months of care and affection. The chapters that show YummCo scientists plotting to find Bert and return him to his cage — or perhaps dispose of him since he may have lost his use while on the outside world — switch to straight-up nightmare fuel. Yet the transitions are not jarring and are well-telegraphed so we can brace ourselves.
In addition, the characters are a lot of fun. Mellie is far from perfect, though she is a perfectionist. She’s observant of the way things are, so much that she justifies her scientific bent. After all, there aren’t many kids who know that the microscopes you get in the store are nowhere near the professional ones that can actually let you see microscopic organisms. She also does her homework on what a cat needs, and how best to serve Zombert. While he won’t eat typical cat food or calmon, he certainly loves to hunt. Mellie tries not to throw up when he leaves a frog at her doorstep, still fresh and green. (In real life, try not to keep your cats outside. You’ll soon see that the wildlife is drastically diminishing, and so will your kitty’s life span. If anything, create a cat patio or leash-train them if they are willing to try out the leash at least).
Danny in the meantime serves as the best friend you want for dangerous adventures. He knows the tropes involved with horror movies because he wants to make one. In fact, the novel starts while he and Mellie are filming his latest project, outside the YummCo factory for the eerie atmosphere. Danny also is the first to float the theory that Bert could be a zombie, given his propensity for brains and seemingly undead look with the ear and the fur being discolored. Even a bath doesn’t do the trick, and Bert is oddly calm when encountering water. Despite the risks and the rules their parents set, Danny is always willing to help when Mellie asks. He’s brave, reliable, and loyal without any faults in that sense. So what if he is a little obsessed with the undead, and trying to scare the living daylights out of everyone with his film? He still has Mellie’s back, with only a few questions asked.
Then we get to school, where we meet the bullies, friends, and acquaintances. Carl is such a jerk. He finds reasons to antagonize Mellie and Danny even though they make a point to avoid him. Then he makes the mistake of trying to run over Bert out of spite. Bert reacts and attacks, going for Carl’s rats. Then Carl assumes that the cat has it out for his pets and threatens Mellie when one of the rats go missing. It feels like karma that something finally scared Carl and knocked him off his bike. It’s a good thing he was wearing a helmet, or he could have been badly hurt. That might not have been fun for anyone if Mellie and Danny had to call 911 or the dentist for a serious head injury. Carl is lucky that he got off with a few scratches and his rats having the living daylights scared out of him. Living cats can do much worse. Plus, if he had killed Bert — assuming Bert could be killed — he might have faced charges for potential animal abuse. You really don’t like the guy.
We ultimately don’t know what YummCo is planning with their cat and pet food, though Bert is definitely a liability while he’s out in the wild and hunting. The free veterinary checkups are certainly ominous, with how they are taking advantage of people’s trust to hope that one found Bert. There’s also the question of why Greg keeps getting let in on these secrets while Kari is let out, if it is just double standards or she was caught on the camera loosening the screws. That could have happened, but Kari knows too much to be fired, and she certainly is too smart to suffer a secret assassination. Later books will probably answer this question. LaReau does a good job of establishing that Greg and Kari are not nice, and neither is their boss. The petty rivalry and Kari’s willingness to endanger YummCo’s secrecy for the sake of a promotion and to get Greg fired shows that she is definitely a villain and not a poor tragic victim that deserves our pity. One can hope that Bert will enact his revenge on the duo, and mount a rescue in the meantime.
In all honesty, I don’t have much sympathy for Mellie’s parents. The only legitimate point they make when finding out about Bert is that he could be rabid, and Mellie could have been infected by rescuing him, or the twins could have gotten badly sick, As she puts it, however, they never even notice what she does in her own time because all that matters is blogging and showing off their life in a display with print. They know little to nothing about her scientist dreams, or how well she does in class as long as it’s a passing report card. I blog as an author but there is a lot of stuff I wouldn’t put online because my family would never let me live it down. Even though they ground Mellie for hiding Bert from them, especially when Bert is accused of eating Carl’s rats, she gets in a point about how their life revolves around their blog, and as a result, nothing is real anymore, not even sitting down for a proper meal. They decide to take that lesson to heart and remove the cameras from most of their lives. It’s an interesting paradoxical issue where removing the evidence that something is real adds more legitimacy.
Overall, Rise of Zombert has won this author over with a potentially undead kitty and comedic writing for the 2020s. I look forward to reading book two and following Mellie and Bert’s future adventures.
Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.