Christian teen fiction is coming into its own these days as sales rise for both digital and traditional books, and as publishers look for the next bestselling series. While Christian publishers haven’t found juggernauts that compare to Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini, or the Twilight series, it’s not for lack of trying.

“YA fiction in general is a fast-growing genre,” says Don Pape, v-p of trade publishing for David C. Cook. “The YA reader can’t get enough story; they’re voracious readers whether in hard copy or digital download.”

Thomas Nelson’s Daisy Hutton, v-p and publisher for fiction, has a similar view of the market. “With the YA boom in the general market, we have definitely seen a surge of interest in the Christian market,” she says. “The growth of the category in the last five years has given Christian authors extra motivation to reach that teen reader, and we have seen it in the number of YA proposals that cross our desk.”

Nelson’s YA line includes the Son of Angels: Jonah Stone series by Jerel Law—Spirit Fighter (Apr.) and Fire Prophet (Dec.)—and the Swipe series by Evan Angler (Swipe, Apr., and Sneak, Sept.), as well as the Dreamhouse Kings series by Robert Liparulo and Angel Eyes (May), the first in a series by Shannon Dittemore.

“Christian teens aren’t all that different from teens shopping in the general market. They are drawn to stories with high stakes and a lot of action, whether in the real world or in a fantasy world,” says Hutton. “But they also enjoy stories that help them understand some of the issues they face on a daily basis. The Christian story and faith so easily lend themselves to what is popular in the general market—the ultimate fight of good vs. evil, uncertainty in trying to figure out who you are, and how to handle the issues they face.”

Cook, based in Colorado Springs, Colo., jump-started its YA fiction line with Travis Thrasher’s Solitary Tales series, including Solitary (2010), Gravestone (2011), and Temptation (Apr.), and with Lisa T. Bergren’s River of Time series—Waterfall (2011), just won a Christy Award in the Young Adult category.

“We’d love for these series to sell like the wind so we can continue to move in this category,” says Pape, noting that Solitary has already had 80,000 downloads in a variety of formats and price points.

WaterBrook Multnomah “has a long history of publishing to the YA market,” says Shannon Marchese, senior editor for fiction. She points to books by Robin Jones Gunn and the Diary of a Teenage Girl series by Melody Carlson, published by Multnomah, as well as fantasy fiction published by WaterBrook.

“Fantasy has become so hot these days, but I think it’s an evergreen genre that has been around for years,” says Marchese. “Today’s fantasy has morphed and evolved and changed; it’s a trend that doesn’t die.”

WaterBrook Multnomah’s YA fiction once made up about 30% of its fiction line, according to Marchese, but these days it’s at about 10%. (The change is the result of some prolific authors slowing down.) Sigmund Brouwer’s Merlin’s Immortals series—The Orphan King (July) and Fortress of Mist (2013)—are linchpins of the YA fantasy line, as is the work of Karyn Henley and the Dragon series of Donita K. Paul.

Teens Want Their Reality

Melody Carlson’s Diary of a Teenage Girl series taps into another vein besides fantasy that is popular with teen readers: real-life issues. Carlson started with one book that took off, eventually spawning the 16-book series as well as other series like the Secret Life of Samantha McGregor. Carlson, who has written about 80 books for teens, is also author of the Carter House Girls and On the Runway series with Zondervan, and the TrueColors series with NavPress.

“The difference is that I was willing to write really edgy stuff, to get inside the skin of a teenager,” says Carlson, who has written on topics such as cutting, alcohol abuse, school shootings, eating disorders, and body image. “If the girls themselves aren’t into these things, they know someone who is.”

Carlson’s ability to address teen reality points out one of the difficult issues publishers face: how far they can go in the fiction they publish. It’s a fine line between addressing real-life issues important to teens and drawing the ire of parents and other adults who want to protect children from unnecessary or immoderate violence, sex, or adult situations.

“Christian publishers walk a tightrope,” says Cook’s Pape. “We want to be real and deal with life issues, but also be redemptive and provide a light in the dark. We’ve had some parents return books because they’re dark, but when you look at what kids are into in the real world, you see the tension.” Marchese of WaterBrook Multnomah agrees: “There are [Christian market] constraints on how candid we can be with our teen readers. Parents want a good, clean read, but kids are saying that’s not what’s happening in their lives.”

Richard Paul Evans, author of novels for adults such as The Christmas Box (Simon & Schuster, 1995), which has sold eight million copies, and The Gift (S&S, 2007), has found big success in the YA market with his Michael Vey series. Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25 (Simon Pulse/Mercury Ink, 2011) reached #1 on the New York Times bestseller list (teen fiction) and has been endorsed by the Dove Foundation, which calls it a “wholesome read.”

“When I starting writing Michael Vey, I was sort of boycotting the Hunger Games, because I don’t like hopelessness, I don’t like dystopia,” says Evans. “There are a lot of books that don’t carry any hope, and those are not what our kids need today. I’ve never seen a society so hopeless.”

Evans recently signed prereleases of his second in the series, Michael Vey: Rise of the Elgen, out this month (Aug.). The store where he signed sold 1,100 books. The series focuses on Michael Vey, a 14-year-old struggling to get along in school with Tourette’s syndrome, making him the object of bullying. But Michael discovers he has a mysterious electrical power that lets him zap bullies and jump-start dead car batteries with his hands. Michael and his friends—Ostin the class brain and Taylor the cheerleader, who also has electrical powers—face a variety of challenges and become the target for a group that wants to control them and the world.

Evans says booksellers are glad for YA novels that offer an alternative to the darkness filling the shelves. “One bookseller showed me the YA section, and it was like walking into a haunted house. The first three covers I saw had dead girls on them. The problem is that [booksellers] get yelled at by parents and grandparents who didn’t know what was in the books the kids were reading,” says Evans. “Booksellers are looking for books they can actually recommend.”

Evans wanted the Michael Vey books to demonstrate three things: (1) Michael would have a healthy relationship with his parents, (2) adults would not all be idiots, and (3) all of us have the power within us to accomplish good. “I want Michael Vey to be empowering books for youth,” says Evans. “I want it to be a true battle of good vs. evil.”

Placement Dilemmas Abound

Evans’s YA books are readily placed on general market store shelves with other YA fiction, though publisher Simon & Schuster does sell a small percentage to the Christian retail market through its Howard Books imprint. Christian publishers, however, are facing challenges in their books’ placement. Some Christian bookstores place YA titles in the children’s department, where teens wouldn’t dream of visiting. Others mix YA titles in with adult titles, making it hard for teens to discern which is which.

Baker Book House, a Christian bookstore based in Grand Rapids, Mich., keeps its YA section at the back of the children’s department, placing it closest to the music department, “because teens relate more to what’s in the music department,” says Debbie Butgereit, head of the children’s department for the store.

She also divides the area into two sections: for readers ages 13–15, whose favorites tend to focus on friends and school, and those ages 16–19, whose books tend to be issues driven, though fantasy reaches both. “A 13-year-old reads very different content than a 19-year-old. I do this for parents, not necessarily for kids, and publishers are good at telling me their target audience,” says Butgereit, who adds that some titles, such as R.J. Larson’s Prophet (Bethany House, Apr.), are placed in both adult and teen sections.

Says Marchese of WaterBrook Multnomah, “Retail units are challenged to create a store experience for that fantasy market, a group we work hard to reach. The challenge is to find ways to market to the YA fantasy readers, whose books are sometimes shelved in the adult section and sometimes in the teen section.”

Pape of David C. Cook says publishers face a deeper challenge when it comes to getting their books on ABA store shelves: “There is a bit of a bias in general market buyers in ABA stores,” he says. “Buyers want our YA titles in the inspirational section, but we want our titles on the regular YA shelves.”

Chriscynethia Floyd, v-p of marketing for Zonderkidz, agrees: “The CBA stores will always trust our books, but the ABA needs to give us the opportunity to sit alongside general market books on the shelves.” Zonderkidz publishes the Dragons of Starlight series by Bryan Davis, the Halflings Trilogy by Heather Burch, and books such as Replication: The Jason Experiment (2011) by Jill Williamson.

The Future for YA Fiction

Publishers and authors alike see no weakening of the young adult market. They all, however, forecast adaptation in how content is delivered. As e-books become more popular with young readers at ease with tablets, smartphones, and social media, the industry must move with the times.

Prolific YA author Carlson says she’s experimenting with a series of books for teens that will be available only as e-books. David C. Cook is in the midst of what Pape calls the digital discussion, prompted by strong growth in e-books in both YA and adult fiction. Authors such as Brouwer, with WaterBrook Multnomah, are connecting with eager readers via online sites and social marketing tools.

The bottom line for all, however, is giving readers the content they seek. Says Carlson, “I’m trying to offer clean, realistic truth—with consequences to [characters’] actions. I keep an eye on the trends and give my readers stories they want to read but with a spiritual element.”

Zonderkidz’ Floyd says, “We’re publishing the classic good vs. evil, which still has explosive action. And teen angst and teen love stories are done in a way that’s ethical and moral.”

“The biggest question we all face is how far we can go with YA,” says Pape. “We have to be true to our Christian values and mission, but we know what the kids are seeing in the media, in film, and in books.”

WaterBrook Multnomah sees itself on the cusp of new opportunities in the next several years, but Marchese says it’s important to have a plan for those opportunities, including watching what teen readers are doing and looking for authors to write well to those readers, and connect with them to create relationship.

“I want the future to be fabulous for our teen fiction,” says Marchese. “I want to find voices with amazing storytelling skills and deep meaning, and to see authors continue to find an audience and take off like wildfire. We want to tell well-written, interesting stories that also tell the truth of Jesus Christ.”

David C. Cook continues to look for quality storytelling as well as the word-of-mouth exposure that will bring its budding YA line into full bloom. “I would love to see us have a robust YA program, producing quality product that encourages young adults in their faith walk, helps them wrestle with big issues as a Christ follower,” says Pape.

Zonderkidz remains fully committed to YA fiction, looking to expand its current eight-books-per-year plan. “We’re committed to letting parents and librarians know that we are an alternative. They can trust Zonderkidz YA fiction; we don’t want CBA retailers to give up on the audience either,” says Floyd.

Thomas Nelson affirms its place in the YA market as well: “It’s a category we’re committed to continuing to grow, feeding readers who, served well by our YA books, will continue as our primary consumers for decades to come,” says Hutton.

Perhaps Carlson sums up the future best: “I feel like the Christian teen market is stronger than it’s ever been. There is a lot of good product out there and it’s selling; there are more readers, more hungry kids who are really grappling with issues. From the letters I get and the teens I meet, they are out there reading and they want books. That’s reassuring to me.”

Acquisitions Strategies for Christian YA Fiction

Christian publishers are divided on teen fiction. Some are actively acquiring and publishing YA fiction, while others don’t publish it at all. Here are three editors looking for teen fiction and their goals in the genre.

Jacque Alberta, acquiring editor for YA fiction and nonfiction, Zonderkidz

Looking for: “I visit Barnes & Noble to see the trends in the [non-CBA stores]—overt sexuality and violence are what they’re selling. We’re looking for much cleaner versions of what teens want to read. We want to present the world in a real way but also show that there is hope.” Currently, Alberta is seeing a mix of Christian manuscripts and manuscripts in the Twilight vein.

Details: Zonderkidz publishes for the Christian market, which expects a Christian message, as well as for the general market with books that are grounded in faith but not explicitly Christian. “We want to appeal to the general market but not preach to them.” Eighty percent of Zonderkidz’ YA fiction reaches the general market; 20% is specifically for the Christian market.

Ramona Richards, senior acquisitions editor for fiction, Abingdon Press

Looking for: Abingdon is launching a YA line and looking for high-quality books that lend themselves to continuing series. The press is specifically interested in steampunk [modern technology as Victorians might have envisioned it], medieval fantasy, and urban fantasy.

Details: Will begin acquiring YA fiction in early 2013; the YA line will launch in 2014. It will target an audience of 14–19-year-olds, and Abingdon will publish at least six books in each of its two seasons. “The YA market holds the greatest potential for expansion and exploration of different genres. It’s the place where you can take the most risk and your readers will go with you.”

Ramona Cramer Tucker, cofounder and editorial director, OakTara

Looking for: fantasy, sci-fi, realistic fiction; medieval fantasy series aimed at boys; issues fiction; teen writers. “One reason we launched OakTara in 2007 is because there was very little Christian YA fiction being published; sci-fi and fantasy especially were missing. Our passion is to go where the readers go and offer fiction that will tantalize their interest. We aim at the mainstream reader but from a Christian worldview.”

Details: Especially looking for teens who are really good writers, and for fiction that will attract male readers. “We’re looking for fresh, unique novels with the broadest audience, and we are passionate about meeting the needs of the writer as well as the reader.”