The hottest topics in YA this year are dark, complex, and mature. Could that describe its teen audience, too?
While everyone waits for YA’s next game-changing blockbuster, some editors are buying manuscripts that look thoughtfully at mental illness and suicide. Others are promoting books that tell sophisticated stories about gender identity across the LGBTQIA spectrum. And the end of the world is hot, too—practically explosive.
“I think one of the attractions of apocalypse novels is that usually the parents are wiped out at the very beginning,” says Margaret Raymo, senior executive editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which published Vivian Apple at the End of the World earlier this year. “It’s left up to the teen characters to then discover their inner kick-ass-ness and moral compass and redeem the world on their own.”
Horror, long a staple, is also having a moment—with women writers leading the way. What all these books have in common is the ability to evoke strong emotions in the people who will read them, even if the emotion is terror. “I think editors are always ready to be scared in the same way that they’re always happy to be made to laugh,” says Sarah Davies, an agent with Greenhouse Literary. “What we all want in a book is to experience something strong, something we’ve not experienced before—to be gripped and compelled to turn those pages under the covers.”
Horror has been lurking at the fringes of YA for some time, but agents and editors say it’s gaining popularity. “Though I’ve been trying to work on horror for years, the YA market is only now really getting into it,” says Joanna Volpe, an agent with New Leaf Literary. “I’m so thrilled that’s the case.”
Last year, St. Martin’s revived R.L. Stine’s classic Fear Street series, which had already sold 80 million copies worldwide. Heather Brewer broke away from vampires for a stand-alone horror story, The Cemetery Boys (HarperTeen, Mar.), a supernatural mystery about a teen who moves to a new town and makes the wrong friends. Putnam is publishing Nightfall (Oct.), by Dormia coauthors Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski; their novel tells of three teens accidentally left behind on an island where the sun rises only every 28 years. The authors will introduce the book at BEA as part of the Young Adult Buzz Panel.
The category is also drawing its share of innovative ideas and first-time novelists. The Haunting of Sunshine Girl (Weinstein, Apr.) actually began life on YouTube, as a Web series about a teen, played by Paige McKenzie, who moves to a new home in Portland, Ore., and documents the ghostly goings-on within it. Mollie Glick, an agent at Foundry Media, learned about McKenzie’s project when Paige (then 19) was a finalist in Seventeen magazine’s 2013 Pretty Amazing competition. Glick contacted McKenzie about writing books based on the YouTube series and recruited a cowriter, Alyssa Sheinmel. A two-book deal sold at auction for six figures to Weinstein, based on a partial and an outline (Weinstein separately optioned screen rights). Enthusiasm for the first book has already led Weinstein to contract for a third.
There was also intense interest from agents in The Dead House (Little, Brown, Sept.), a “psychologically terrifying” first novel by Dawn Kurtagich, about a fire at a boarding school. Davies at Greenhouse collaborated with Polly Nolan in her agency’s London office to fend off 10 others who offered Kurtagich representation. Calling it “one of the scariest YA novels we’d ever read,” Davies and Nolan sold the manuscript for six figures in a preempt to Hachette companies on both sides of the Atlantic: Little, Brown in the U.S. and Orion in the U.K.
Like Murtagich, Amy Lukavics will also make her debut this fall, with Daughters unto Devils (Harlequin Teen, Sept.), a historical horror story about a 16-year-old whose family moves to a cabin in the prairie, only to find that its walls are covered in blood.
Volpe signed Lukavics in 2009, when the writer was just 19. “Her writing is incredible, very dark and honest, but it took us four years to figure out the right path for her, which is horror writing,” Volpe says. “Fortunately, there are so many editors who, like me, love the psychological aspect of horror, which Amy nails.”
Lukavics and Murtagich are also hoping to be the newest members of a growing movement, one Volpe describes as a corps of women writing commercially successful YA horror. She cited Kendare Blake (Anna Dressed in Blood), Ilsa J. Bick (Ashes), Carrie Ryan (The Forest of Hands and Teeth), Sarah Fine (Guards of the Shadowlands), and Madeleine Roux (Asylum) as favorites—in addition, of course, to her own clients, Lukavics and April Genevieve Tucholke, whose YA horror anthology, Slasher Girls & Monster Boys (Dial, Aug.), includes contributions from Jonathan Maberry, Marie Lu, Leigh Bardugo, and others.
“What most people don’t realize is that horror writing can be extremely high quality,” Volpe says. “It’s not only thrills and chills—there are some serious literary chops to be seen in this genre.”
It can also, occasionally, even be funny. Emmy Laybourne’s forthcoming Sweet (Feiwel and Friends, June) takes place on a posh celebrity cruise where a new artificial sweetener is being launched. Passengers are promised they will lose up to 10% of their body fat in a matter of days—and they do. Editor Holly West calls it a mash-up of horror, romantic comedy, and “those really fast-paced action adventure movies, like Die Hard on a Boat with Bonus Vampire Drug-Addict Zombie.” Best of all, it made her laugh. “There’s something really amazing about a novel that can take you logically and seamlessly from the horrifying embarrassment of throwing up on your childhood crush to the sheer bloody horror of watching a reality star corkscrew someone and drink their blood, all while still being a fun, fast read,” West says.
Confronting Mental Illness
There are several reasons for the fact that the YA shelves are suddenly filled with books about suicide and mental illness, and the biggest one may be a growing acknowledgment that talking about mental illness and depression is a lot healthier than not talking about it. Finding Audrey (Delacorte, June), Sophie Kinsella’s YA debut, features a depressed main character with an anxiety disorder. The main characters in Tamara Ireland Stone’s Every Last Word (Disney-Hyperion, June) and The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B, by Teresa Toten, have OCD (Delacorte, Mar.), and Fell of Dark, by Patrick Downes (Philomel, May), chronicles the psychological disintegration of two teen boys with severe mental illness.
Though Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why definitely got people’s attention—2.3 million copies in print and more than three years on the New York Times bestseller list—choosing to write or publish books about teens in crisis carries a heavy responsibility, says Alessandra Balzer, who published Jasmine Warga’s debut novel, My Heart and Other Black Holes (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, Feb.), about two teens who find each other through Suicide Partners, a website for people who are thinking about ending their lives.
“These books are responding to a need,” Balzer says, but “because this is such a serious topic, I’m almost less inclined to publish a book on it unless I’m really convinced it reflects an authentic experience and can add something to this very important conversation.”
In My Heart, the main character is not cured at the end of the book, but instead meets “someone who finally understands her,” which “helps her realize that she has many reasons to live,” says Balzer. “And one of those reasons is to convince him to live as well.” Balzer had the novel vetted by a psychologist before publication and appended a list of resources, including suicide hotlines and websites.
Similarly, the two main characters in Jennifer Niven’s YA debut, All the Bright Places (Knopf, Jan.), meet atop the bell tower at school, each on the verge of taking a fatal leap. Allison Wortche, senior editor at Knopf, bought the book in a preempt, after finishing it at her desk in tears. “I hope this novel starts important conversations,” Wortche says. “And we hope if readers—especially teens—do see themselves in these characters and struggles, that they recognize they’re not alone.”
The novel is already a commercial success: foreign rights have sold into more than 30 countries, and the Mazur/Kaplan Company optioned film rights, with Elle Fanning signed on to star. But as is often the case, the decision to write about teen suicide came from a deeply personal place. “Several years ago, a boy I knew and loved killed himself,” Niven writes in an author’s note. “I was the one who discovered him.”
At the time, it was not something she wanted to talk about, even with family or close friends. She now realizes that not talking about suicide, and the factors that lead to it, is part of the way it becomes stigmatized. “Often, mental and emotional illnesses go undiagnosed because the person suffering symptoms is too ashamed to speak up,” she writes. “If you think something is wrong, speak up. You are not alone. It is not your fault. Help is out there.”
Neal Shusterman would likely agree. His latest novel, Challenger Deep (HarperTeen, Apr.), is about schizophrenia, which is also the subject of Fig, by Sarah Elizabeth Schantz (S&S, Apr.), and The Law of Loving Others, by Kate Axelrod (Razorbill, Jan.). But Shusterman drew heavily on the experiences of his son, Brendan, who supplied the ethereal artwork, illustrating what his father calls his son’s own “journey to the deep.”
“Our hope is that Challenger Deep will comfort those who have been there, letting them know that they are not alone,” Shusterman writes in an afterword. “We also hope that it will help others to understand what it’s like to sail the dark, unpredictable waters of mental illness.”
With the same hope that books about mental health issues might lead to more awareness, books featuring transgender characters are aimed at telling the stories of teens who have been largely invisible in literature until recently. Last year, the publication of several books marked a watershed: Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out (Candlewick, 2014) won numerous awards and appeared on many best-of-the-year lists. A pair of memoirs by two Oklahoma transgender teens, Some Assembly Required, by Arin Andrews, and Rethinking Normal, by Katie Rain Hill (both S&S, 2014), documented the experience of growing up with a gender identity that feels wrong.
These nonfiction stories introduced readers to a subject that doesn’t get a lot of discussion in health class. Even the vocabulary of LBGTQIA isn’t instantly familiar to many readers. The memoirist Katie Rain Hill, for instance, is MTF (male to female), while Arin Andrews is FTM (female to male). Teens may identify as pansexual, which makes binary pronouns problematic, or they may be intersex, as the heroine of None of the Above, by I.W. Gregorio (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, Apr.), discovers after being examined by a doctor; though outwardly she is female (and indeed has already been voted homecoming queen), she has male chromosomes and male features to her anatomy. Gregorio is a physician; the end matter includes links and resources about intersexuality.
There is also “genderqueer,” which is how half of the couple at the heart of Robin Talley’s What We Left Behind (Harlequin Teen, Oct.) identifies. Toni and Gretchen are the envy of everyone in high school because of their solid relationship. But when the two separate for college, Toni becomes friends with a group of transgender students and discovers an entirely new sense of belonging. According to T.S. Ferguson, the book’s editor, genderqueer is a catch-all category for gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine. Some genderqueer people feel they are both male and female; others feel they don’t fit either gender, while others might feel differently depending on the day.
In What We Left Behind, Talley’s genderqueer character Toni is actively exploring gender identity and doesn’t use gendered pronouns at all, choosing to refer to people by name exclusively. “Pronouns play a big role in the book,” he says. Ferguson feels the novel is breaking new ground. “I hadn’t heard of another YA novel in the market that represented the genderqueer experience, let alone in such an honest and up-front way,” he says. “I’m a big supporter of the push for diverse books, and for readers—especially teen readers—seeing themselves in the books they read. That can be so important, especially when you’re still at an age where you’re trying to find yourself.”
“World destruction is a fascinating idea in its own right, but it’s also just a great metaphor” for a lot of teen experiences, says Wendy McClure, senior editor at Albert Whitman and Co., which just published Down from the Mountain, by Elizabeth Fixmer (Whitman, Mar.), one in this year’s bumper crop of apocalyptic stories with teen heroes at their center.
In No Parking at the End Times, by Bryan Bliss (Greenwillow, Feb.), the main character’s parents fall under the sway of a preacher who convinces them to sell everything and move the family into a van to await the end of the world. Lisa Heathfield’s debut, Seed (Running Press, Mar.), follows a teen who lives on a farm and off the grid. She begins to question everything her parents have told her about the world when three outsiders unexpectedly join her isolated family.
Like the heroine in Down from the Mountain, whose family belongs to the Righteous Path Cult, all these characters want to do the right thing, but as they move into adulthood, they not only chafe at the rules but begin to realize some of the rules don’t actually make sense.
“These stories are about teens figuring out what they believe and deciding how they’re going to live,” says McClure. “Teen readers are at an age when they question their own family’s value systems, and apocalypse cults and off-the-grid compounds are like extreme, blown-up versions of proverbial family oppression.”
Unlike the characters in the other apocalyptic novels, the heroine of Vivian Apple at the End of the World by Katie Coyle (HMH, Jan.), has never shared her devout parents’ belief in the evangelical Church of America. But after the day when the Rapture was supposed to occur, her parents are gone, and there are two “parent-shaped holes” in the roof. Now what?
“It was a version of the end of the world that seemed all too believable,” says Raymo at HMH. “Not an asteroid hitting the Earth or a virus taking out 99% of the population, but the religious right gaining power and infiltrating all levels of our lives, wielding their power by fear-mongering.”
Apocalypse stories are, in fact, one of the few places in the YA canon where religion is often a major focus of the plot, although very rarely is it presented in a positive light. In The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly, by Stephanie Oakes (Dial, June), the main character is also a nonbeliever and pays dearly for her rebellion. The story asks the reader to think about the whole concept of faith. So, too, does Eden West, by Pete Hautman (Candlewick, Apr.), which is also set inside a cult and whose leaders believe that everything outside their 12-acre compound is wicked.
“We shy away from religion and spirituality in publishing YA, but the teen years can be about exploding and reforming an identity, so adolescence and belief make for a potent mix,” says Candlewick’s Deborah Noyes. Hautman’s main character, Jacob, wrestles with reconciling what he’s been taught to believe with what he learns from a girl who doesn’t share his faith.
“Often books in this category are black-and-white in their presentation of the world,” Noyes says. “The better ones ask a lot of questions without answering them all.”