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Six YA Thrillers where Teens Fight the System


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Below are six YA novels that I adore for their complexity, their willingness to grapple with larger social and moral questions, and their resistance to easy answers. Part of adolescence isn’t only coming to understand one’s own self and place in the world; it’s about questioning why the world is the way it is in the first place. No wonder adults find literature and teens so terrifying. They ask the questions we don’t always have the answers to and force the issues we’ve never been prepared to answer for.

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Courtney Summers, The Project 

A girl grieving for her shattered family. A father grieving for his lost son. Their pain, their suffering, as well as her own, lead young aspiring journalist Lo Denham to seek out the Unity Project, a community in rural New York where members dedicate themselves to charity and spiritual transcendence. But who is their leader, Lev Warren? And what connection does he have to Lo’s past? Summers’s novel quickly heads down the rabbit hole into a world where the line between coercion and consent; empowerment and dependence are flipped upside down. What is free will in a world where so much of power and success are wrapped up in hero worship and subservience? Lo is young, naïve, but determined to forge her own way, to take down this man who’s ruined the lives of so many. But what if Lev can offer her what she’s longed for most? What if Lo’s convictions aren’t what she thought they were?

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Janne Teller, Nothing

“Nothing matters. From the moment you are born, you start to die….Life isn’t worth the bother.” When one of their classmates climbs into a tree and begins shouting about the meaningless of life, a group of Danish middle schoolers grow angry and decide to prove him wrong. Life does have meaning, they insist. The things they care about and value and center their daily lives around—well, those things matter. Don’t they? The children hatch a plan to force the issue: they’ll each sacrifice an item they care about, but that item will be chosen by the person who sacrificed before them. Human nature takes it course and what ends up mattering is not what they lose, but what they’re willing to take.

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Francesca Padilla, What’s Coming to Me 

There’s a lot for seventeen-year-old Minerva to be angry about; she’s been expelled from her Long Island high school, her mother’s terminally ill; her best friend’s ditched her; and she doesn’t have the money or means to escape her stifling existence. Then, when she’s finally able to land a job at a local ice cream shop, it turns out her boss is a perv who spies on his employees with hidden cameras. Well, there’s always something to be said for having nothing to lose and when rumors about hidden stashes of money in the boss’s office—courtesy of his unsavory side hustles—Minerva starts to plot some unsavoriness of her own. But there are people in Minerva’s life who care about her and who understand the haze of grief and anger she’s moving through. Will that be enough to save her? And is she capable of saving herself?

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Rebecca Barrows, Bad Things Happen Here

It’s no paradise. In fact, life on the seemingly idyllic island of Parris is more fantasy than truth. It’s a place where denial allows wealth and opulence to outshine the human misery simmering below. Biracial teenage islander Luca, who suffers from severe anxiety, hates this place and has always believed Parris to be cursed. What else could explain the random acts of violence, including the childhood death of her best friend Polly? But when another tragedy strikes closer to home, something awakens in Luca. No longer bound by fantasy, she’s driven to find the real killer. But unraveling the truth will mean taking on the island’s tightly held secrets and pushing back against forces that have always been willing to wash the sins of the wealthy away.

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Zack Smedley, Deposing Nathan

This is a book that starts after the crime’s occurred. The narrator, Nathan, is being deposed in a case against the person who brutally stabbed him—his supposed best friend Cam. But as the story unfolds, beginning with the boys’ initial meeting, their budding friendship, and eventually a more complex relationship, we start to understand Nate’s inner conflicts as well as the complicated dynamics present in some of his prior relationships. A sheltered boy living with his widowed father and an aunt who’s tried to take on a maternal role, Nate’s never questioned the adults in his life. He’s never wondered if they truly have his best interest in mind. But when the cost of obeying means hurting himself and those around him, Nate isn’t sure if he’s really a victim at all. And if he is, maybe Cam’s the one who’s been trying to save him.

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Kelly Loy Gilbert, Conviction

In the stifling heat of California’s central valley, Braden, a young pitching phenom, faces an impossible choice. His father, whom he idolizes, has been arrested for a hit and run accident that left a law enforcement officer dead. Braden’s testimony about what happened that night will either set his father free or convict him. But the truth is never easy. And in his choice, Braden must reckon with his faith, his future, the reasons behind his older brother’s estrangement from the family, as well as who his father really is and who Braden’s always needed him to be.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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