The Poisoned Pencil, an imprint of Poisoned Pen Press, is releasing its first title, Janie Chodosh’s Death Spiral, on April 1. The launch brings to fruition nearly two years of planning by imprint editor Ellen Larson and Poisoned Pen president and publisher Robert Rosenwald, who seek, according to Rosenwald, “to fill a void in YA book publishing” with edgy mysteries that feature teenagers.
Larson put out the call for manuscripts in the fall of 2012. “I received 20 or 30 submissions right away, from both agents and authors, and read every single one of them,” she said. Out of that group she plucked a half-dozen with protagonists in the 13- to 18-year-old range, which she signed for Poisoned Pencil. Although Larson and Rosenwald knew what they weren’t interested in, including paranormal, science fiction, and vampire novels, it took a bit longer to establish the Poisoned Pencil brand.
“The four books on our first list encapsulate what we want to do,” Larson said, “which is the same as what Poisoned Pen does: publish traditional mysteries that are also off the wall. Why compete with what everyone else is doing?” In Death Spiral, which begins the Faith Flores Science Mysteries, a 16-year-old girl finds her mother, a junkie, dead on the bathroom floor. The police call it an overdose, but Faith, who has a strong aptitude for science, thinks otherwise and searches for the truth at great personal risk. Other books on the first Poisoned Pencil list, Larson said “include a psychological thriller in which the protagonist is both sleuth and suspect, a gentle coming of age mystery set in the post-Civil Rights era, and a quirky mystery featuring Native American mysticism.”
Delving into the YA category, Rosenwald says, gives Poisoned Pen “a chance to give mysteries to an audience that is constantly facing the unknown, the unexpected, and even the dangerous.” The 17-year-old protagonist in Lisa M. Cronkhite’s Disconnected (June) can’t remember much of her past, and struggles to understand what happened to her family – and why there is a grave with her name on it. In Jesus Jackson by James Daley (Sept.), a 14-year old boy searches for meaning – and a killer – following the death of his idealized older brother at their Catholic school. Treva Hall Melvin’s Mr. Samuel’s Penny (Nov.) features an African-American girl searching for clues that will help identity the killer of a friend and his two-year-old daughter.
The new imprint will publish four titles in 2014, but may increase its output next year depending on how the brand is received. Poisoned Pen, which is distributed by Ingram Publisher Services, is headquartered in Scottsdale, Ariz.; Larson lives and works in upstate New York. “I’m the East Coast branch of Poisoned Pencil,” she said with a laugh.
Larson has been a freelance editor and writer since 1990, and began working with Rosenwald 10 years ago to edit and help develop various Poisoned Pen mysteries. “YA mystery publishing had been Rob’s dream for many years, and before I joined Poisoned Pencil he worked with Jessica Tribble to plan and organize the new press,” said Larson. “Jessica was the publisher of the Poisoned Pencil during its inception and for the first year and a half of its existence. She guided me during those most important months.” Tribble is now managing editor at Brilliance Audio, but the imprint’s mission remains the same.
“The common thread in Poisoned Pencil is that each book features a unique crime experienced through young adult eyes,” said Larson. “They don’t necessarily provide all the happy answers, but they challenge the mind.”