Before Max Brallier penned his first middle school book he designed games for the virtual world Poptropica and worked in marketing. Combining both of those passions has not only proved successful — his current middle school series “The Last Kids on Earth” (Viking) has sold more than 2 million copies and will soon be on a small, animated screen near you — but has managed a feat that any author writing for children would love to match: getting reluctant readers, especially boys, to open a book.
Using fast-paced action, dialogue and language, Brallier’s stories complement illustrator Douglas Holgate’s art to craft an engaging read that is not quite a graphic novel, not quite a full-on adventure, but somewhere enjoyably in between.
As Brallier prepares to release the fourth book in the series, “The Last Kids on Earth and the Cosmic Beyond,” the New York Times bestselling author accepted a few questions from Mountain Times. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Mountain Times: Before turning middle school author extraordinaire you were a game designer. How did that career prepare you for the type of stories we find in the “The Last Kids on Earth” series?
Max Brallier: The stories in “The Last Kids on Earth” are pretty video-gamey — and I’m a big video game nerd, so it’s definitely intentional. Jack, the hero, looks at life like a video game — how it’s all about overcoming challenges and figuring out a way to squeeze past the tough parts. So, all my video game playing and designing — it all prepped me for writing “The Last Kids On Earth” series!
MT: Your stories often revolve around a mystery, and “The Last Kids on Earth and the Cosmic Beyond” is no different. What is it that young (and older!) readers will most like about a bunch of suburban middle schoolers battling zombies in the aftermath of a monster apocalypse while simultaneously searching for the mysterious human villainess who stole their Louisville Slicer (aka, well-used monster fighting tool)?
MB: Oh boy — I think there’s a lot to love. I mean — there better be! I always imagine it as wish-fulfillment — which might sound weird, because it’s an end-of-the-world story. But, I think there’s something so appealing about, say, having the entire mall to yourself and being able to do whatever you want. Or battling monsters in the aisles of the grocery store where you’re usually stuck following your parents around while they shop. Or running from a teacher-turned-zombie. So, I try to balance that sort of “you can do anything you want because it’s the end of the world!” fun with a mystery, with a real threat and with characters who you want to spend time with.
MT: “The Last Kids on Earth” is being planned as an animated Netflix series for 2019. Will you be writing the adventures for that? If so, what can we expect? Will the print book series illustrator Douglas Holgate be involved?
MB: I am writing the adventures for that! At least — some of them. There are a total of six writers, including myself, working together to turn the first three books into an animated series. You can expect something that feels true to the books — but also takes some surprising turns, introduces some crazy new characters and lets us see a new side of old favorite characters. The design and look of the world feels very much like the world of the books — so fans of Doug Holgate’s characters, monsters and zombies will be very pleased. I swear!
MT: You’ve got a quick cross-country book tour planned in support of “The Last Kids on Earth and the Cosmic Beyond,” and it starts at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill on Sept. 18. What can we expect from a Max Brallier author appearance?
MB: Ooh boy — good question. My favorite part of any visit is just chatting with the readers. I’ll usually read from the new book for a bit — but really, I think it’s most fun for everyone when it’s just a great conversation. Doesn’t even have to be about the books! I mean, no matter what, kids usually just end up asking me if I play Fortnite and then we just talk about video games for like an hour.
MT: Your books, and especially this series, are noted for getting reluctant readers engaged with literature. Any advice for the parents of a child who refuses to crack the spine of a book?
MB: Let the kid pick the book! That’s a good start. Something that mixes text and illustration together — like “The Last Kids on Earth” or “Dork Diaries” or “Big Nate” — can definitely be a good on-ramp for reluctant readers. Or a more traditional graphic novel, like something from Raina Telgemeier. And from there, they’ll move on to more “serious” stuff. I truly believe it only takes that one book — that one experience of curling up and getting lost in a book and a world — and then a reader is hooked.
MT: Because you write about candy-gorging middle schoolers and video games and monster bashing you’ve undoubtedly had a share of odd comments or questions from your fans. Are there any that spring to mind that you’d care to share?
MB: OK, so on the topic of candy-gorging — one thing that really surprised me is how healthy kids are these days. When I was 12, I ate, like, nothing but Cheetos and Corn Pops. And, so that’s what the kids in the book eat — ‘cause to me, it feels very real and fun. But then I have readers who are like, “That’s not very healthy!” or “They need more protein to get through the day!” For real. Which is great! But it so surprised me and caught me off guard.
The most common question is the classic: Where you get your ideas from? And I explain, it’s really simple: when I was the age these kids are, I spent my days daydreaming, watching movies, reading comics, playing video games — and if you love that stuff enough, you can make a career out of it.