Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Bibliographic Information:

  • Title: Dread Nation
  • Author: Justina Ireland
  • ISBN: 9780062570604
  • Publisher: Baker & Taylor
  • Copyright Date: 2018

Genre: Historical Fantasy; Horror.

Format: Print book.

Awards or Honors: Locus Award winner for Young Adult Book (2019); School Library Journal Best Books list (2018); YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults list (2019).

Reading Level/Interest Level: Grades 9-12 (Booklist).

Plot Summary: In this alternate history, the Civil War is disrupted when fallen soldiers begin to rise up as zombies, attacking the living on both sides. Northern and Southern whites are forced to come together to fight this new foe, leaving the question of slavery in limbo — rather than being abolished entirely, the Native and Negro Reeducation Act is passed, forcing Black and Native adolescents into combat schools where they are trained to fight the undead. Jane McKeene is one such teen, in training to be an “Attendant” (aka a zombie-blocking bodyguard for a rich White woman) at Miss Preston’s School for Combat. Almost finished with her program, Jane is approached by an old friend, Red Jack, who needs her help finding his missing sister. Their search leads Jane to uncover a sinister conspiracy involving some of Baltimore’s most powerful people, and a remote colony called Summerland, where things are not as they seem — and it’s looking less and less likely that Jane will ever be able to get out alive.

Author Background: Justina Ireland grew up in California, and joined the Army after high school to pay for college (“Justina Ireland”, 2017). She holds a BA from Armstrong Atlantic University, an MFA from Hamline University, and worked as a linguistics expert specializing in Arabic (Shapiro, n.d.). Ireland came to fiction writing only after having her daughter, wanting to write stories featuring characters that look like her (Shapiro, n.d.).

Photo Credit: Krista Schlueter for Vulture

Although Ireland set out to write books featuring strong characters of color (and is now doing just that), her first manuscript did not sell. What did sell? A very similar story featuring a white lead (Shapiro, n.d.). In an interview for BookPage, Ireland shared a story about doing a classroom visit in a predominantly Black school to discuss her first two YA fantasy novels, when a student questioned why both featured white main characters (Barisich, 2018). This event led Ireland to recommit to writing the stories she wanted to see on bookshelves:

I want to be able to go to a school and proudly hold up a black girl on the cover and say, ‘I wrote this book. I hope you like it because I wrote it for you.’ And every time I sit down at the computer to write, I can hear that little girl’s voice.”

Justina Ireland, BookPage interview by Justin Barisich, April 2018

In addition to the New York Times bestseller Dread Nation and its sequel, Deathless Divide, Ireland has authored the YA fantasy novels Vengeance Bound and Promise of Shadows, the middle grade fantasy series Devils’ Pass, middle grade thriller Scream Site, as well as numerous books for the Star Wars franchise. She was the Executive Editor of FIYAH from 2016-2018, a quarterly magazine of Black speculative fiction, and has a strong presence on Twitter, where she regularly takes on issues of racism in publishing. Ireland now lives in Pennsylvania with her family (Shapiro, n.d.).

Critical Evaluation: In Justina Ireland’s inventive novel Dread Nation, Jane McKeene is a strong, likable, scythe-swinging heroine who brooks no nonsense from face-eating zombies, racist sheriffs, or strict headmistresses. On the surface, the page-turning plot packed with the undead and dark conspiracies is enough to hook even reluctant readers. But Dread Nation is far more than a popcorn thriller — with a multi-layered backdrop of racism, oppression, enslavement, and American history, Ireland’s novel engages the reader in conversation about issues that are extremely relevant today. With a strong Black female character to root for, action on par with an episode of The Walking Dead, and a side of light romance, Dread Nation is a book I can’t wait to press into readers’ hands.

Creative Use for a Library Program: An after-hours “Zombie Attack” event, as outlined in the Programming Librarian (McWhinnie, 2017), is a low-budget, high-engagement program that would attract zombie-loving teens, whether or not they have read Dread Nation. As an addition to the Zombie Attack night or a Dread Nation book club party, makeup artists from a local school of cosmetology or theater could be invited to offer a workshop on zombie and stage makeup for teens (Jensen, 2012).

Speed-Round Book Talk: During the Civil War, when dead bodies on the battlefield begin to rise up, attacking soldiers on both sides, the North and South must work together to quell a zombie apocalypse. Now, Black teens like Jane McKeene are forced into combat schools where they are trained to fight the undead. Jane, who has learned to be lethal with a scythe at Miss Preston’s School for Combat, is approached by an old friend who desperately needs her help. Their search for a missing girl leads Jane to uncover a sinister conspiracy involving Baltimore’s powerful elite, and a remote colony called Summerland, where the too-perfect exterior is hiding a very dark secret — and it’s looking less and less likely that Jane will make it out alive.

Potential Challenge Issues and Defense Preparation:

There could be a challenge to Dread Nation for its portrayal of violence, racism, or zombie/supernatural content. To support the inclusion of this title, I would share that this book has starred reviews from School Library Journal, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus. It won the Locus Award for Young Adult Book (2019), as well as several honors including the School Library Journal Best Books list (2018), and YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults list (2019), and is widely recommended for high school age readers. This is an #OwnVoices title, with author Justina Ireland writing from her own perspective as a Black woman, and the story touches on issues important and relevant to teens today, including racism and oppression.

Reason for Inclusion:

Civil War, with zombies? Those four words were all I needed to hear to make me want to read this book — learning that this is an #OwnVoices title featuring a strong, smart, capable Black teen heroine and tackling issues of racism and oppression made it fly to the top of my to-be-read list. Genre-bending titles like Dread Nation can be especially compelling to teens, and as I aim to build a collection that is both irresistibly readable and as inclusive as possible, this book is a must-have.


Barisich, J. (2018, April). Justina Ireland: Zombies aren’t the only monsters here. BookPage. https://bookpage.com/interviews/22520-justina-ireland-historical-fiction#.YDf-VJNKhjp

Jensen, K. (2012, September 5). TPIB: Bring out your dead! Zombie programming redux. Teen Librarian Toolbox. https://www.teenlibrariantoolbox.com/2012/09/tpib-bring-out-your-dead-zombie-programming-redux/

Justina Ireland: Dread Nation. (2017, August 13). Locus Magazine. https://locusmag.com/2017/08/justina-ireland-dread-nation/

McWhinnie, C. (2017, April 6). Program model: Zombie attack. Programming Librarian. https://programminglibrarian.org/programs/zombie-attack

Shapiro, L. (n.d.). Meet Justina Ireland, YA Twitter’s leading warrior. Vulture. https://www.vulture.com/2018/04/justina-ireland-profile.html

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