Cia Vale, the stalwart heroine of The Testing and Independent Study, faces the ultimate trial in Graduation Day, the conclusion to Joelle Charbonneau’s The Testing trilogy, due out June 17. In the finale of this dystopian thriller, about an elite group of teens subjected to a lethal testing procedure to determine whether they are equipped to revive a scarred, fractured U.S., Cia vows to end the process once and for all. HMH departed from tradition with its publishing schedule for the series, releasing the hardcover installments at six-month intervals, beginning in June 2013.

“We wanted to get the books into the hands of readers as soon as possible,” said Margaret Raymo, senior executive editor of HMH Books for Young Readers, about the accelerated schedule. “Luckily, Joelle was able to pull it off and meet all of her deadlines, which I don’t think most authors could do, and to keep her writing consistently strong. The advantage for me as an editor was that I could keep everything fresh in my mind, since I was working on the pages of one book while reading the manuscript of the next.”

Raymo said that this is the first time her division has published books in a trilogy in such quick succession, and while acknowledging that “it was definitely a challenge,” she said that readers’ response paid off. “Independent Study debuted on the New York Times extended bestseller list,” she said. “Readers of The Testing were obviously there and waiting for it. And Graduation Day is currently our number-one Amazon pre-order.” HMH is launching Graduation Day with a 75,000-copy first printing, national print and online advertising, a social media campaign and blog tour, and a retail floor display.

It didn’t take long for the buzz about the Testing trilogy, which reviewers have compared to the Hunger Games books, to reach Hollywood: a week before the first book published, Paramount Pictures optioned movie rights to the series, which has sold more than 150,000 copies to date.

Staging the Action

In addition to writing books for adults – the Rebecca Robbins mysteries and the Glee Club series – Charbonneau performs opera, musical theater, and children’s theater, and also teaches private voice lessons. This last experience informed the premise of The Testing, her first novel for young adults.

“Many of my students are teens who perform on stage, and some of them are going through the application process for highly competitive performing arts programs, so I’m very familiar with that emotional roller coaster,” Charbonneau explained. “I have one student who made it through 11 auditions, and when he discovered she only got on a wait list, she panicked that her life was over and she’d never be successful. So to calm her down, I said, ‘It can’t get worse,’ and after she walked out the door, I began thinking about what could be worse, and the idea for The Testing came to me. Though I did feel a little bad about taking her stressful meltdown and turning it into a series!”

When she began writing the first novel, Charbonneau harkened back to her own test-taking ordeals as a teen. “I have never been a big fan of high-stakes standardized testing, and what I hated most was that you’d be penalized if you guessed incorrectly,” she recalled. “I began writing my thoughts about that, and the story about enduring a testing process in order to rebuild a world seemed to write itself. It really went fairly easily, mostly because I had no preconceived notions about the story – I didn’t even know I was writing YA. I was just writing for myself, never thinking anyone else would read it.”

Acing the Placement Test

Others did see the manuscript, beginning with Charbonneau’s agent, Stacia Decker of the Donald Maas Literary Agency, who recognized The Testing as a good fit for the YA market. She sold the trilogy to Raymo, and when HMH decided to step up the publishing schedule, the heat was on for the author.

“I’d learned my lesson on the adult side, to never write book two till book one sells,” she said. “I wrote The Testing knowing there would be three books, and I knew the themes of each but not the plots, but had put the project aside after finishing the first to work on other books. When I heard that the trilogy books would be published every six months, I was excited, but I did wish I’d written more beforehand. Yes, it was a challenge, but I like a challenge. And Stacia dropped everything to read what I’d written whenever I asked her to.”

Including the adult novels she also had under contract, Charbonneau wrote five books in 19 months, something, she vowed, “I’ll likely never again do in my lifetime.” As for her trilogy’s conclusion, she’s convinced that she left her characters and story “in a very good place. I liked the idea of ending the series with graduation day, since that is where life begins. Just like winning elections doesn’t make politicians leaders, graduation doesn’t make students adults. It’s all up to making good choices and taking responsibility for them.”

Charbonneau, who is moving in yet another new creative direction, writing a contemporary YA thriller for HMH, reflected on the ways in which her performing experience informs her writing. “A stage performer is very aware of the importance of hooking the audience and making sure they come back from intermission,” she said. “So I think I always have that kind of pacing in mind when I write. And as an actor, you work out a character in your head and get an ear for dialogue and cadence, and that helps me build a story on the page.”

Much as in improvisational comedy, Charbonneau’s written stories sometimes take unexpected turns. “I never have a clue where anything is going, and I improvise my way through the whole thing,” she said of her fiction. “Wanting to see what happens next keeps readers reading. And wanting to see what happens next keeps me writing.”

Graduation Day by Joelle Charbonneau. HMH, $17.99 June ISBN 978-0-547-95921-4