A missing person, a well-kept secret, a shocking betrayal, an impossible-to-see-coming twist. There’s no exact formula for a successful YA thriller, and perhaps that’s why the genre continues to shape-shift, expand, blend categories, and pull in new readers, including adults. Breakout hits such as Karen M. McManus’s One of Us Is Lying, Tiffany D. Jackson’s Allegedly, and Angeline Boulley’s The Firekeeper’s Daughter have camped out on bestseller lists and inspired numerous read-alikes. But what exactly is a YA thriller today, and where is the genre headed?
The category really took off following One of Us Is Lying’s release in 2017. The book became a sensation: it spent 166 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, was translated into 40 languages, and was adapted as a TV series for Peacock. Krista Marino, v-p and senior executive editor at Delacorte Press, and McManus’s editor, says that in general a success like this in any genre is “unreproducible.” It’s down to a combination of factors, including “timing, the title, the cover, and how the sun and stars are aligned.”
But in the case of One of Us Is Lying, it’s also due to “how Karen creates characters who feel real, down to their varying relationships and home lives,” Marino says. “Readers are as passionate about the four POV voices in the book and how they come together to solve the crime as they are about the mystery aspect itself.”
Along with One of Us Is Lying, Jackson’s 2017 book Allegedly broke new ground in the genre. “There’s never been anything like it,” says Ben Rosenthal, Jackson’s editor. The author, called “the queen of the plot twist” by Writer’s Digest, followed up her hit novel with Monday’s Not Coming (2019) and Grown (2020), and has leaned into horror with subsequent books. Rosenthal also edits Mindy McGinnis, whose books span several categories including mystery-thrillers.
In recent years, thrillers have continued to occupy spots on YA bestseller lists, including Jennifer Lynn Barnes’s The Inheritance Games series and Holly Jackson’s A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder books. “When a mystery-thriller is done well it’s inherently a page-turner,” Marino says. “You can’t stop reading until you discover the solution.”
For Sourcebooks Fire, the category has been lightning in a bottle. According to stats from Circana BookScan, one in four YA thrillers these days is published by the imprint, including 11 titles by Bone Witch author Rin Chupeco, 11 by Five Total Strangers author Natalie D. Richards, and five by Natalie Preston, author of The Cellar.
Chasing the next thrill
While it may be impossible to recreate the kind of X factor these books inject into the YA category, that doesn’t stop many aspiring authors from trying and readers from wanting more. “When a book like One of Us Is Lying comes out, it disrupts—in a great way—the whole genre,” says Annie Berger, executive editor at Sourcebooks Fire. “It leads to renewed interest in the genre.”
For a long time, Rosenthal says, mystery-thriller was thought of as more of an adult category. But “the bones are really no different from those on the adult side of the fence,” says agent Rosemary Stimola, who represents McManus along with several other thriller authors. “Protagonists are younger and may experience a coming-of-age that speaks to the heart in a very personal way. Beyond that, readers of YA thrillers look for the same experience that adult readers seek—complex characters with surprising or hidden motivations; a fast-moving plot; high stakes; unexpected twists, turns, and a red herring or two; and tension and suspense that build to that ultimate climax.”
And the success of YA thrillers has led to adult thriller writers crossing over into YA. The main difference between adult and YA thrillers, Rosenthal says, is an urgency to the storytelling that’s “really specific to being a teenager.” He adds that “adult thrillers tend to take their time a bit more.”
That’s not the only way that YA thrillers differ from their adult counterparts. “There’s more genre blending in YA,” according to Rosenthal. Walk into any bookstore and the adult titles are grouped in sections, with mystery, thriller, sci-fi, and romance shelved in clear divisions. But YA tends to be its own section, often without defined subsections. As the YA thriller category has matured, he adds, it’s more common to see an overlap between horror and thriller. Plus, he says, “in YA, there’s always a desire to loop romance into the story.”
Stimola says that she’s seeing thriller tropes in books that are categorized as mystery, crime, psychological, paranormal, magical realism, horror, fantasy, and sci-fi. “Time frames can range from the past, the present, to the far future,” she says. “Settings can move from this world and its many cultures to secondary worlds. Characters can be human, or not. The door is wide open.”
That kind of dimensional storytelling stands out, according to Marino. “I think the most interesting fiction happens when stories sit outside of a single category or genre—so mysteries that aren’t just whodunits are where I put my money,” she adds.
Thriller is also a category in which authors can embrace complex characters. “I tend to gravitate towards ‘unlikeable’ protagonists in thrillers,” Berger says. “So, if I find a main character who has shades of gray in them, I know I’m in for a treat.”
In submissions, Stimola says she’s starting to see the influence of the pandemic, including sci-fi elements and biological warfare as a plot point. Marino is seeing more stories pitched as dark academia. For Rosenthal, authors experimenting with format to incorporate elements reflecting how teens consume media can provide a fresh approach. “If you do something unique with the structure, it can lend itself well to building a strong mystery,” he notes.
The X factor
What makes a thriller a hit? “For me it all depends on the first chapter,” Stimola says. “There has to be a narrative voice that speaks to my ear and flows; there has to be a character who captures my attention, and when I get to the end of that first chapter, I simply have to want more.”
Marino says she is looking for strong feminist themes and story lines, as well as those that surround some dark and terrifying incident that happened in the past. For Berger, the elements of a good thriller include those that are necessary for any genre. “We can sell a book on the hook,” she says. “Teens will enjoy it if it has an authentic voice, and it will stick with the reader if the reveal feels fresh and compelling. Specific to thrillers is the aspect of relatability. We’ve seen particular success with thrillers that feel like ‘that could happen to you.’ Teens love to get caught up in the drama of someone else’s life and love to see if they can solve the puzzle before the main character does.”
Thrillers might just be the right books at the right time for teen readers because of what they’ve experienced in recent years. Young adults have grown up “in a very complex global moment,” Stimola observes. “Wars have been a constant in their lives, violence abounds, and the recent pandemic has literally landed on their heads and forever changed their worlds. The thriller gives them an opportunity to vicariously experience fear, tension, and anxiety, knowing all will be resolved, one way or another, by book’s end.” If they find a character “who uses their smarts and intuition to face adversity and puzzle out and solve problems in a way that can be insightful,” they are apt to make an emotional connection that reflects aspects of their own lives. “Of course, there may also be the chance of some romance in the midst of all, and that is always a welcome plus,” she adds.
“In YA in particular, the industry continues to be more top-heavy than we’d like,” Rosenthal says. While the top sellers continue to sail along, he adds, in the postpandemic period, “I don’t think we’re doing quite as well as an industry as we used to do in breaking out new books.”
A bright spot, though, is that in the past five or six years, “more and more authors from historically marginalized backgrounds are making their way into different spaces,” Rosenthal notes. “Authors like Tiffany Jackson have helped blaze trails for authors to get into different categories in YA. For me that’s an important aspect of how I want to publish. Obviously we have a long way to go, but it’s an important shift that’s begun to happen.”
The follow-up to Boulley’s 2021 critical and commercial hit The Firekeeper’s Daughter is out this month from Holt. Warrior Girl Unearthed is set in the same Ojibwe community of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula but features a new character, Perry Firekeeper-Birch, known as the best fisher on Sugar Island. Her family is personally affected by the missing Indigenous women crisis, and she becomes involved in a high-profile murder investigation and uncovers criminals stealing artifacts from the Anishinaabe people.
While the book is highly anticipated, there are a number of thrillers by debut authors that are expected to catch buzz this year as well. Kayvion Lewis’s Thieves’ Gambit was acquired by Stacey Barney at Nancy Paulsen Books in a seven-figure auction for three books and is due to publish in September. The debut thriller has been described as The Inheritance Games meets Ocean’s Eleven and follows the story of Ross Quest, a teen who, according to press materials, was raised by a legendary family of thieves “with one rule: trust no one, unless their last name is Quest.” Ross is plotting her exit from her high-pressure world when she’s invited to participate in the Thieves’ Gambit, a deadly competition for the world’s up-and-coming thieves in which the winner is granted one wish. Film rights were sold to Lionsgate, Temple Hill, and Hodson Exports, and director Steven Caple Jr. is tied to the project.
The book, Barney says, has “everything you want in a good thriller—it’s pacey, cinematic, tense and suspenseful, and just plain good fun.” It’s also “real wish fulfillment for readers like me who’ve ever wanted to step into the glitz, glamour, and danger of a 007 movie.”
Lily Meade’s The Shadow Sister is out from Sourcebooks Fire in June. Described as “subtle and eerie” by Youth Services Book Review, it tells the story of Casey, whose sister Sutton has gone missing. Though the sisters’ relationship has been fraught, Casey knows that efforts to find missing Black girls like her sister rarely get attention, and she’s all in on helping to find her. When her sister reappears, something’s off about her, and it’s up to Casey to uncover the truth and save other missing girls no one is talking about.
For author Sarah Lyu, whose sophomore novel I Will Find You Again came out this spring, the thriller construct is “a metaphor for the unknown within ourselves.” Instead of chasing down a killer, she says, she explores “the pressure to succeed at all costs, framing it as a maze or trap that the main character had to find her way out of.”
There seem to be infinite ways to blend the genre. This September, Lisa Springer debuts at Delacorte with There’s No Way I’d Die First, a horror-comedy with elements of a thriller. Set on contemporary Long Island, the story follows horror movie–obsessed Noelle as she leads her high school movie club in planning the ultimate Halloween bash. It’s another example of the genre blending that is shaping both the thriller category and horror.
YA thrillers are “such a steady category,” Berger says. “I can’t see it plateauing or cooling anytime soon.”
Joanne O’Sullivan is a journalist, author, and editor in Asheville, N.C.