Max Brooks has made a career out of zombies, and that now spans into children’s literature. The World War Z author found a natural way to transition his zombified storytelling prowess from adults to kids by using one of the most popular video games around the world, Minecraft.
In his own words, Max’s Minecraft trilogy of kids’ books spotlights “life lessons about patience, planning, and how to recover from failure.” Last month, Fatherly spoke to the acclaimed writer (and offspring of legendary performers Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft), ahead of his book-signing during New York Comic-Con for the third and final installment in the series, Minecraft: The Village.
“I played Minecraft with my son when he was little, and he loved it! But I was really taken with it because I thought, ‘Oh my God! There is so much this game can teach if there’s just somebody there to draw attention to the lessons embedded in the game.”
At the start of Brooks’ first Minecraft book, The Island, Guy washes ashore into the unusual world of Minecraft, filled with anxiety while also trying to grasp why everything – including himself – is square. Through the series, Guy learns how to be mindful with himself, grow beyond his comfort zone, make friends, live in a community, and thrive through resiliency. These same lessons are found in all of Max’s zombie books for adults, including the literal survival guide to them along with the bestselling World War Z.
“They all look very different, but just one level underneath is a central theme, which you could call survival. I call it adaptation. This notion of you’re going along your life, things are okay. Suddenly, your thing doesn’t work anymore, and here comes a crisis. Either a person or a group or a world has to radically change in order to survive.”
Disenchanted by Dyslexia
Becoming a multiple-time New York Times Best Selling Author is a rare achievement, but for Max, it was the vindication of a lifetime of struggle. School was never easy for the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, and his teachers often labeled him as lazy. The truth was, Max had an invisible illness that few people when he grew up had ever heard of, and even fewer knew what it meant.
“Remember when we were kids, ‘If you could have a superpower, what would it be?’ My superpower would just to be a quick study. I wish I could do that. But dyslexia has erased that.”
Thanks to the support of his mother, whose role as Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker broadened her knowledge of disabilities, Max was tested and confirmed to be neurodivergent. Now, it was a matter of discovering how to get him back on track to achieve his dreams.
“There were no accommodations for Dyslexic children in 1981. So, my Mom had to make those accommodations from scratch. My mom knew as a little boy I wanted to be a writer, so she’s like, ‘You’re going to have to learn the tools of a writer.’ So she made me take a typing class. The test results also showed I learned better through my ears than through my eyes, so she took my high school books that I had to read to the Braille Institute in Los Angeles, and got them put on audio cassette.”
“So those were my accommodations, and to this day, when I do research- because I do a huge amount of research for everything I do- a lot of the reading has to be audio. So even now, I have these accommodations built into how I write.”
Three Generations of Brooks
The greatest lesson Max learned from his father, and also one shared with his now 18-year-old son, Henry, is the reality of being a working creative professional, and recovering from lows of failure. Not every Mel Brooks movie was a hit, and for every success like the Producers, there was a Dracula: Dead and Loving It lurking not far behind.
“Many of his movies that we all now love, that are now classics, I watched them bomb at the box office. Remember, I became a cognizant pre-adult and adolescent in the 1980s when his movie career was going into decline. That was my childhood. You should look at some of those old reviews, they were just mean! I watched my dad just suffer these horrific things, and he had to just pick himself up and get back to work on the next project and not worry about if it would be a disaster.”
Max was impressed by his father’s ability to reinvent himself, challenging the preconceived notions around him and his work to make something bold and new. Mel’s unyielding pursuit of his passions taught him a resiliency found in all of his son’s books.
“Once Hollywood shut the door on him and said you’re not allowed to make any more movies, to transition to musicals, that could have been a catastrophic disaster. He was in it, and he said, ‘I’m gonna’ do it.’ He’s a fighter, and that’s what you have to be to recover from failure.”
A Chestful of Cobblestone and High Anxiety
Max’s Minecraft connected with his readers in a way that only the best of children’s literature can. He isn’t writing from an intellectual point of view, but an emotional point of view as if he was the kid reading the story. He understands the anxieties of his audience, with traumatic world events unfolding in real-time for any child with a smartphone in hand. Using Minecraft as the guide, Max hopes to give his young readers the tools to cope and confront any fears, big and small, they may face in their daily lives.
“When I was a kid, it was all about shielding the children, right? Don’t tell them, keep them in a bubble. Well, how’d that work out? And now with social media, you can’t. Now, the world is coming at you all the time. You can try to shield kids, but they’re going to find out. So you better be able to find ways to sit down with them and talk to them safely. Let’s actually talk about what the problem is. Let’s talk about what it means, and let’s talk about the solutions, because there are solutions to every problem. They may not be easy, but they are there.”