We asked editors and agents to take the pulse of some of the latest trends in teen fiction and nonfiction.
The recent popularity of binge-able Netflix shows such as Black Mirror and Stranger Things, the Serial podcast, and adult bestsellers-turned-blockbusters like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train suggests that today’s audiences crave dark, suspenseful storytelling and hairpin plot turns. That trend is creeping into the teen market, as evidenced by a new wave of fear-fueled YA fiction that has been or will be released this year. We spoke with a number of agents and editors about the resurgence in teen thrillers and the factors contributing to this development, from both inside and outside of the publishing world.
Thrillers generated a significant amount of buzz at the recent Bologna Children’s Book Fair and London Book Fair. Several publishers cited the international success of Karen M. McManus’s 2017 debut novel, One of Us Is Lying (Delacorte), as the harbinger of a growing YA trend. “I think thrillers are definitely having a moment,” says Molly Ker Hawn, director of the Bent Agency’s U.K. office. “I was at both London and Bologna, and One of Us Is Lying was a title I kept hearing foreign publishers say they were doing well with, or wished they’d bought.”
The novel’s premise is simple: five students—the nerd, the beauty, the jock, the criminal, and the outcast—walk into detention, but only four walk out alive. In an interview with PW last year, McManus described the concept for the book as “The Breakfast Club with murder.” Agent Rosemary Stimola, who represents McManus and has sold One of Us Is Lying into 38 countries, says that the book “immediately caught my eye given its social relevance. Alternating perspectives gave each character complexity and depth, and an unrelenting tangle of growing suspicions kept me turning the pages.” YA readers also appear to be hooked; the book spent the better part of a year on bestseller lists and has been optioned by Universal. The author’s sophomore novel, Two Can Keep a Secret, is due out in January 2019 from Delacorte.
Stimola’s client Rolodex also includes Caleb Roehrig, author of the LGBTQ murder mystery White Rabbit (Feiwel and Friends, out now) and the forthcoming thriller Death Prefers Blondes, and she sees wide cross-market appeal in the genre. “Adult thrillers à la Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, and others have enjoyed great success,” she says. “And it is clear that YA thrillers have stepped into a high-market spotlight, as well, both here and abroad. Adult readers have begun to cross over, finding the same slow burn suspense and utter shock in pages featuring younger protagonists.”
For Suzie Townsend, literary agent at New Leaf Literary and Media, “The pacing and page-turning elements of a thriller are definitely the most important.” Her client Kara Thomas’s forthcoming thriller, The Cheerleaders (Delacorte, July)—which made the New York Public Library’s list of Most Anticipated YA Books of 2018, among others—has been described as part Riverdale, part Veronica Mars. “Kara somehow managed to have a reveal or a twist in almost every chapter—it is totally un-put-downable,” Townsend says.
In addition to the requisite tension and body count, literary and emotional heft are high on Hawn’s wish list. “I like my thrillers to have depth to them, to be about something more than just the essential suspenseful plot,” she says. Hawn notes the agency has “had a lot of interest in [Lygia Day Peñaflor’s] All of This Is True, for which we closed a Czech deal during Bologna and a Spanish deal just after the fair finished.” She reports that agreements with Poland and Slovakia at the end of April “bring the total number of translation deals so far to 11.” The book publishes later in May in both the U.K. (Bloomsbury) and the U.S. (HarperCollins).
Using a mixed-media format that weaves together interview transcripts, journal entries, and a book-within-a-book, the story follows four teenagers who befriend a cherished author—with perilous results. “It’s not a whodunit; the tragic incident that’s hinted at in the first part of the book is revealed long before the ending,” Hawn says. “The book is really an exploration of some big questions: What priority should art take over privacy? What are the responsibilities of the artist?” She also discussed the book’s exploration of the darker side of fandom: “I think in this age of social media, where young readers can get to ‘know’ their favorite authors online and forge connections with them, examining how those connections can go wrong is really important. Authors have more influence than they might realize, and what they do with that influence can have tremendous repercussions.”
John Cusick at Folio Jr./Folio Literary Management, who represents authors Amy Brashear and Courtney Alameda, among other YA thriller writers, has also heard “a lot of industry chatter” about psychological thrillers in the wake of One of Us Is Lying. But Cusick is more inclined to label the current wave of books as “a mini-moment” rather than a full-blown trend. “I don’t see it lasting long,” he says. “Successful psychological thrillers are tricky to replicate.”
When acquiring in this genre, Cusick says he looks for fully realized characters. “The more nuanced, flawed, and relatable our hero or antihero is,” he says, “the more terrifying and engrossing their story will feel.” In the case of No Saints in Kansas by Amy Brashear, a YA novel inspired by Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, he says, “What immediately appealed to me was the main character, Carly, [who is] an outsider in Kansas and an onlooker to the gruesome Holcomb murders. To me, her status as an initially peripheral witness who’s drawn into these dark circumstances made her immediately sympathetic and engaging as a hero.”
Cusick suggests that a heightened awareness of danger is a key part of the adolescent experience. “Most of us, if we’re lucky, only first start to comprehend that bad things really do happen, and can really happen to us, when we enter our teens,” he says.
Daniel Ehrenhaft, editorial director at Soho Teen, is hesitant when it comes to labeling and forecasting trends. “I think it has the potential to do a disservice to the eternal depth and variety of YA literature,” he says. “Plenty of amazing thrillers for teens were published during the recent years when dystopia dominated the bestseller lists.”
That being said, Ehrenhaft observes, “I did find that the foreign publishers were more interested in acquiring thrillers from Soho Teen this year than in years past. Luckily for us, we began as a thriller imprint in 2013, so we had plenty to offer.” Some of the publisher’s recent titles in the genre include No Saints in Kansas by Brashear and My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier, about a child psychopath.
Whether this is the sign of a blip or a long-term trend, editors are also taking notice of the rise of teen thrillers. Arianne Lewin, executive editor at G.P. Putnam’s Sons, says, “Penguin’s 2018 publishing roster definitely reflects the YA market’s interest in complex psychological thrillers. Earlier [this year] we published People Like Us [by Dana Mele]; Lies You Never Told Me [by Jennifer Donaldson] is coming in late May; and I Am Still Alive [by Kate Alice Marshall] is slated for this summer.”
The new crop of novels doesn’t come as a mystery or surprise to Lewin. “It seems natural that young adults who have access to so many fantastic podcasts, TV shows, and movies in the category would be eager to read YA fiction, too,” she says. Recounting the trail of recent hits, she observes, “Gillian Flynn published Gone Girl back in 2012, and Serial caught America’s attention in 2014; then Black Mirror came to the States in 2015, just around the time that Paula Hawkins wrote The Girl on the Train. Stranger Things came in 2016. With all that in mind, you could hypothesize that a number of up-and-coming authors had been consuming the waves of great thriller offerings along with the rest of us and were inspired to write into a category that felt so fresh and full of dynamism.”
Perhaps bearing out Lewin’s theory on the influence of pop-culture appetites on the YA market is the forthcoming publication of Sadie by Courtney Summers (Wednesday, Sept.), a teen novel centering on a Serial-type podcast. The book will be featured at BookExpo as a YA Editor’s Buzz panel selection.
While the global success of One of Us Is Lying may seem sudden, the YA thriller has been steadily gaining traction for years, with bestselling authors including Barry Lyga, Lauren Oliver, and Sara Shepard carving out a space in the genre. In 2014, author E. Lockhart surprised fans and critics when she stepped outside the realm of teen rom-coms—including the Ruby Oliver Quartet (Delacorte) and her Printz Honor–winning satire, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (Disney-Hyperion)—to venture into more sinister territory with We Were Liars (Delacorte).
The book has all the hallmarks of a thriller, including a flawed, unreliable narrator; a slow yet steady pace of disclosure; and a dramatic twist in the story’s final act. We Were Liars spent several weeks on bestseller lists. Lockhart followed up that novel with 2017’s Genuine Fraud (Delacorte), a loose adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s classic The Talented Mr. Ripley told in reverse. The large turnout of teen and adult readers made the novel another instant bestseller, with Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner of Girls set to produce a film adaptation.
Kate Schafer Testerman at KT Literary says of the current YA scene: “It’s all cyclical—the moment we’re having now is a culmination of the rising tide of thrillers over several years.” Among Testerman’s clients is Stephanie Perkins, who is perhaps best known for her YA romances, such as Anna and the French Kiss (Dutton). But Perkins defied expectations in writing the 2017 psychological thriller There’s Someone Inside Your House (Dutton). While the fluorescent pink font on the book’s cover may offer a visual nod to Perkins’s rom-com roots, the serial-killer plotline is decidedly gorier than her usual fare.
In an interview with PW at the time of the book’s publication, Perkins said that the shift was a natural one. “I kind of live on opposite ends of the spectrum. I really love the feel-good stories and the fairy tales, but I also am really interested in the dark side of humanity,” she explained. “I love horror movies and true crime.” Fortunately, Perkins said, editor Julie Strauss-Gabel was along for the thrill ride. A Netflix film is also in the works from the producers of Stranger Things.
A Climate of Fear
In addition to pop culture influences and crossover sensations from Serial to Stranger Things, several agents point to some larger socio-political factors that may be contributing to the YA trend. “Thrillers, horror, and psychological suspense by nature have a page-turning element that allows readers to really dive into a book and forget the world around them,” Townsend says. “I’m sure the current state of the world is a factor.” At the same time, she suggests, books of this kind offer a testing ground for confronting real-world conflicts and fears: “Of course, politically our country is divided, and teens have been becoming more and more involved in that arena. And particularly with the threat of violence in schools, teens are grappling with a lot of big issues. Thrillers give readers a safe space to deal with feelings of tension, fear, and even dread.”
While emphasizing the “thrills and catharsis” offered by suspenseful YA, Ehrenhaft agrees that, “At a time when the real world is so scary and uncertain, it makes sense that one of the safest activities imaginable—reading a novel that offers the thrill of fear without real-world stakes—might be appealing.”
Testerman underscores the distinction between supernatural and psychological horror, saying, “In times of general well-being, socially, we turn to external monsters like vampires and werewolves. With the world as it is right now, it’s not that much of a stretch to see humans as this scary thing, and YA authors are using that to dig deep for what’s truly terrifying. It’s that idea that other people are who we really have to be scared of.”
Townsend’s colleague Joanna Volpe, president and literary agent at New Leaf Literary, represents a number of authors who are writing within the YA thriller and horror genres, including Holly Black, Bram Stoker Award–winner Kim Liggett, and Marcus Sedgwick. In particular, Volpe notes that her client Amy Lukavics tackles timely issues of manipulation and misogyny in her forthcoming psychological horror story, Nightingale (Harlequin Teen, Sept.).
Though set in the 1950s, the novel addresses some of the tensions raised by the current #MeToo movement. “It’s thought-provoking and pokes at something uncomfortable and very real—something women in particular have faced not only today but throughout history,” Volpe says. “[Heroine] June’s family is essentially gaslighting her: they are trying to force her into their vision of a proper girl. She rebels against them and is thrown into an asylum for her efforts. June’s story may be an extreme and horrifying motif, but it also represents an experience that many women can identify with right now.”
Hawn at the Bent Agency also points to a mixture of popular taste and political anxiety driving the current boom in teen thrillers. “Maybe it’s the influence of the adult market, where thrillers have dominated the bestseller lists for the last couple of years,” she says. “Or maybe it’s because teens are rightly a lot more suspicious of authority and power these days, and they’re exploring that suspicion through fiction. I’d guess it’s a little of both.” She adds, “The current political climate is pretty fertile ground for thriller writers—there are so many ways we can imagine the world going catastrophically wrong right now, and stories that might once have seemed purely speculative can now feel all too possible.”
Author Tiffany D. Jackson’s 2017 debut novel, Allegedly (HarperCollins/Tegen), drew critical acclaim for blending a propulsive, ripped-from-the-headlines premise with an examination of contemporary concerns relating to the criminal justice system, race, and mental illness. The book landed on several year-end best-of lists and was nominated for an NAACP Image Award. Jackson’s forthcoming thriller Monday’s Not Coming (HarperCollins/Tegen, May), which takes place in the aftermath of a teen girl’s disappearance, also grapples with socially resonant themes.
With these and numerous other YA thrillers on the horizon, is there a risk of the genre—often consumed for its surprising twists—becoming predictable and played out? Testerman believes there’s still room for innovative storytelling within this corner of the market. For her, some of the appeal of the thriller is that “it’s a mind game.” She explains: “We think we could do better than the victims, that we’d behave differently. But as the movie Scream showed us, even when you know the tropes—even though, culturally, we have this body of knowledge of how horror movies and novels unfold, we can still be surprised. And we love being surprised, and more than that, being scared. I read a lot of books, as do most of us in publishing, but a novel that will make me put it in the other room when I go to bed? That I’m going to remember.”
For more of the latest developments in the YA category, see our 2018 Spotlight on YA.