YA Horror

Featured Book List: YA Chills and Thrills for 2021

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It’s October–time for ghosts, zombies, and serial killers (in our books, of course)! This month’s featured book list includes this year’s most heart-pounding releases for teen readers.

I will continue to curate this list throughout the month, but titles include:

WHITE SMOKE by Tiffany D. Jackson, a chilling horror about a house full of ghosts and the even scarier reality of racial injustice.

HOUSE OF HOLLOW by Krystal Sutherland, a dark fantasy that sends three sisters back into the land of the dead, searching for the truth about their past and an escape from the man who is hunting them.

EAT YOUR HEART OUT by Kelly Devos, an action-packed zombie satire set at a sinister fat camp.

BAD WITCH BURNING by Jessica Lewis, the story of a teen witch who discovers her ability to raise the restless dead while searching for an escape from abuse.

Check out the full list on Bookshop.org. (Don’t worry if you’re not looking to buy; just see what titles look good to you, then find them at your local or school library!)

THE VIOLENT SEASON by Sara Walters

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Every November in Wyatt’s hometown, someone becomes a murderer. One year it was a teacher who drowned her two children in a bathtub. One year, it was a classmate who drove her own car off a cliff. No one knows who last year’s murderer was. But the victim was Wyatt’s mother.

This November, Wyatt is noticing bloodlust around her, especially in Cash (the boy she’s been hooking up with) and herself. Maybe it’s not so much a desire for blood as a memory of her mother’s blood pooling on the stairs when Wyatt returned home and found her. The police claim they have another suspect–an out-of-towner–but Wyatt knows they have the wrong man. After all, the November curse only affects the people of her town, and her mother’s murder must be part of the curse. When a class project pairs Wyatt up with the object of Cash’s hatred, Porter Dawes, Wyatt finally finds a willing ally in her own investigation into the November curse and her mother’s death. As Wyatt’s association with Porter sparks Cash’s anger and her investigations uncover secrets she wishes had stayed buried, Wyatt begins to realize that whether or not the November curse is real, the violence in her life is far from over.

YA readers who like horrifying thrillers (or thrilling horror?) won’t be able to stop turning these pages. Themes of abuse run underneath the suspenseful thriller plot adding depth to this high-concept story. Though the premise might sound like a mystery, it is really more on the thriller/horror border and will most satisfy readers of those genres.

VIOLET GHOSTS by Leah Thomas

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The house where Dani lives is just one in a long line of crappy living spaces. That’s what happens when you and your mom have to flee an abusive father/husband. You move frequently, stay wherever you can. But the houses don’t usually come with a ghost. Dani immediately connects with Sarah, the adolescent ghost, in part because they both know what it’s like to be hurt by a man. But Dani can’t tell Sarah that despite the name “Daniela,” Dani feels like a boy. He’s sure that if Sarah knew the truth about his identity, she’d never speak to him again.

When Dani and Sarah stumble on another ghost in the woods, Dani learns that abuse isn’t unique to the world of the living. When abusers die, they go right on abusing–sometimes the same people they abused in life. Dani is determined to find a way to protect the ghosts who are quickly becoming his closest friends. But will finding peace for others stop him from finding peace for himself?

Although there is a thrilling dose of speculative fiction in this ghost story, at its core, VIOLET GHOSTS is a story of surviving and healing after abuse and fighting to be true to one’s identity. It is set in the recent past, and until late in the book, Dani doesn’t know that there are other transgender people in the world (or even the term “transgender”). His struggle to figure out how to identify and even describe himself parallels the struggle of the ghosts to find a new way to fit into the world where they’ve existed merely as invisible victims, lying in the places where they died for years or even decades. The story is beautifully, emotionally told (I keep wanting to use the word haunting, but it will sound like a bad pun … but it is haunting…), and ultimately full of hope. I highly recommend it to fans of YA speculative fiction AND fans of YA contemporary.

Amazon.com: Violet Ghosts: 9781547604630: Thomas, Leah: Books

WHITE SMOKE by Tiffany D. Jackson

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Mari’s mom insists that the move from California to Cleveland was her choice, an opportunity to enjoy an author’s fellowship, to revitalize a decaying neighborhood, and to bond as a newly-blended family. But Mari knows it’s really all because of her. If it hadn’t been for her drug habit, their old town wouldn’t have shunned them. If they hadn’t needed to pay for rehab, they wouldn’t need a rent-free place to live. And if her stepfather could see her as anything other than an addict, maybe he wouldn’t always take his own daughter’s side instead of hers. Maybe.

It isn’t long after they arrive in their new home that Mari realizes something is off. Their immediate neighborhood is entirely deserted, boarded up except for the house where they’ll be living. And the houses aren’t the only things that are falling apart. The people in the surrounding town seem both hostile and beaten down. Everyone has at least one family member in prison for a marijuana offense, most claiming that their loved ones were set up by the cops. And perhaps even more sinister is the way Mari’s stepsister has been acting, and her claim that she has a friend living in the boarded-up house next door, a friend who hates Mari and is plotting her revenge. The slick white man who set up the author’s fellowship dismisses all of Mari’s concerns as nonsense, and her stepfather clearly agrees with him. Even Mari’s mother thinks she’s lying and picking on her stepsister.

But then the ghosts wake up…

Jackson makes her pivot from psychological thrillers to horror look easy in this ghostly, unputdownable novel about a girl overcoming fears and prejudices to take on both supernatural and human threats to her family and community. As in all of Jackson’s work, the characters are multifaceted, the family and community dynamics complex, and the social justice themes prominent, accessible, and timely. Fans of YA horror and/or psychological thrillers will not want to miss WHITE SMOKE! If depictions of marijuana use won’t turn off your gatekeepers, this title could work well in teen book clubs, too.

Featured Booklist: Book Club Titles for Kids and Teens

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The school year is underway, and whether you’re a teacher or librarian running a book club or a parent stockpiling good reading material for those inevitable Covid-exposure quarantines, I have a book list for you!

This list includes titles for upper elementary schoolers, middle schoolers, and high schoolers. All of the books were released within the last year, and they have a blend of unputdownable storytelling and though-provoking thematic content. As always, you will need to evaluate the individual titles to be sure they fit within the specific parameters and needs of your students/children, but think of this list as your launchpad.

I will continue to curate this list throughout the year, but titles include:

FAST PITCH by Nic Stone, a middle grade sports story about a girl combatting racial injustice while vying for a softball championship.

NIGHTINGALE by Deva Fagan, a middle-grade fantasy about an orphan thief, a reluctant prince, a magic sword, and worker’s rights in a racially diverse, Victorian-London-esque fantasy world.

GENERATION MISFITS by Akemi Dawn Bowman, a middle grade contemporary novel about four social outcasts and one popular girl who find friendship and the courage to express themselves through their mutual love of J-Pop.

ZARA HOSSAIN IS HERE by Sabina Khan, a YA contemporary novel about a Pakistani Muslim immigrant wrestling questions of home, identity, and belonging after a bigot targets her family with hateful vandalism.

VIOLET GHOSTS by Leah Thomas, a YA historical fantasy about a transgender boy in the ’90s coming to terms with his identity as he helps restless ghosts find justice and a safe haven in the afterlife.

THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US by Eliot Schrefer, a YA sci-fi about two young men from rival countries on a mission to rescue a fellow spacefarer aboard a ship that may or may not be trying to kill them.

Check out the full list on Bookshop.org. (Don’t worry if you’re not looking to buy; just see what titles look good to you, then find them at your local or school library!)

BAD WITCH BURNING by Jessica Lewis

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book in order to write this review.

Katrell has been communicated with the dead (for paying clients) for years. It’s the only way she can pay for rent and utilities and food with her mother unemployed and her mom’s deadbeat boyfriend living at their place. But the money Katrell brings home never seems to be enough for her mom or her boyfriend, who can’t seem to help himself from beating on Katrell whenever he’s in a bad mood. When the boyfriend threatens Katrell with a gun–and ends up murdering Katrell’s beloved dog–she doesn’t know how she’ll survive her miserable life without her best friend.

Until she brings him back.

Katrell didn’t know she had the power to raise the dead, at least not until she accidentally raised her dog. But she immediately realizes the money-making potential. Who wouldn’t pay a fortune to have a loved one back, even if there’s something a little off about the revenants? And Katrell won’t have to worry about the rent (or her mom’s boyfriend) ever again. But raising the dead has costs Katrell didn’t anticipate, and as the revenants begin to slip out of her control, Katrell remembers a ghostly forewarning: is she really about to burn herself–and everything else–down?

The most brilliant (and most disturbing) aspect of this quasi-horror novel is the fact that the darkness doesn’t come from the revenants. It comes from the humans. With all of the fantasy elements removed, this story would still be a torturous story of the physical and emotional abuse of a child and the strength she finds to endure and ultimately accept help. It is truly a battle for Katrell to cling to her own self-worth and recognize the found-family of supportive adults and friends that has grown up around her. And it is her righteous anger at the way her mother and her mother’s boyfriend treat her that manifests as the ghosts and revenants and Katrell’s own need to burn things down. Despite its often disturbing content, the book has a cathartic feel that I believe the author intended. Although I would advise readers to consider their own life experiences and whether this content is likely to be triggering or unduly disturbing before picking it up, I think some readers with difficult or even cruel family backgrounds will find solidarity and hope in Katrell’s experiences.

Amazon.com: Bad Witch Burning (9780593177402): Lewis, Jessica: Books

EAT YOUR HEART OUT by Kelly deVos

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Vivian is going to survive. Allie knows it. Because that’s what happens in all horror movies. The strong, determined, fearless girl survives. Because she has to. But the basket case? The girl who’s barely holding it together; the girl who only signed on to come to fat camp because she was so broken up about her rich best friend’s rejection that she chased her all the way to the middle-of-nowhere-Arizona in a sad attempt to humiliate her; the girl who looks at the other five teenagers around her and sees not the only five humans still alive to fight the zombies that have overrun the camp but the characters they would be in the horror movie of their life: Action Girl, the Nerd, the Jerk, the Jock, the Outcast–and the Basket Case, Allie, who will be the first to die.

Indulge my nerdiness for a moment because I want to talk about how brilliantly crafted this book is. I will admit I was skeptical when I picked it up, because six first person narrators? Really? But it worked because of the way it was crafted. This novel is NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD at fat camp. If you have not seen NOTLD, it is not only a classic horror film, it is social commentary featuring athletic zombie-like creatures (that do not follow the “rules” of proper zombies). The social commentary elements are woven in through a cast of archetypal characters and a brilliant, perfect ending that I won’t give away here.

EAT YOUR HEART OUT is intentional and self-aware in how it mimics and updates NOTLD, even down to the character archetypes. It starts out with a list of the characters and the likelihood that each will survive which makes it really easy to keep track of who each of the narrators is and to get a handle on each of these characters even though they’re sharing “screen time” with so many other people. The social commentary in this one, as you can probably tell from the premise, focuses on how society devalues fat people–even to the point that death is sometimes perceived as preferable to fatness. There is a disclaimer at the front of the book for anyone who might find this material triggering. For me as a reader, though, I felt like the absurd, satirical tone of the book both “lightened” the dark reality, making it palatable and even fun, and made the darkness even darker, when you think about how the over-the-top horror story has a substantial foundation in reality.

So maybe it’s my love of NOTLD, or my love of satire, or my love of YA SFF, but I was incapable of putting this book down. It was such a thrill! Highly recommend it to others who enjoy these kind of satirical SFF stories!

Amazon.com: Eat Your Heart Out (9780593204825): deVos, Kelly: Books

A LESSON IN VENGEANCE by Victoria Lee

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Dalloway is much the same as Felicity left it nearly a year ago. The floors of the old dorm still creak, and there’s still an aura of mystery from the ancient bones on which the boarding school was built, the witch who was buried alive and the other four witches who perished in equally gruesome but less explicable ways. But this year there’s a new ghost haunting the halls: Felicity’s girlfriend Alex.

In the year that Felicity was away, the doctors at the psychiatric hospital tried to convince her that Alex’s accidental death wasn’t her fault and that magic isn’t real. There is no way that the rituals she and Alex performed could have released the ghost of a witch. She promised the doctors and her mother that if they let her go back to school this year, she wouldn’t dabble in magic and she would choose a new topic for her senior thesis, one that wouldn’t require more research in to the history of the Dalloway witches. But one of her new dorm-mates is Ellis Haley, the eccentric, Pulitzer-winning teen novelist, and Ellis believes that Felicity’s doctors are wrong. The only way for Felicity to come to terms with the past is to face it–to return to the rituals and the study of the witches and to act out their murders–proving once and for all that humans and not evil spirits were the culprits. As Felicity gets sucked back into the dark world she swore she’d left behind, she is forced to face the darkness in the girls around her–and in herself.

This novel walks the line between psychological thriller and horror. (For me, most of the suspense came from the atmosphere and the questionable sanity of the narrator, so it felt more like Kingian horror than a thriller.) Character drives the novel, and though the key reveals weren’t particularly surprising, the suspense and tension are so high throughout that I had trouble putting it down. I’d recommend it to fans of the genre(s), especially readers who enjoyed books like WHEN ALL THE GIRLS ARE SLEEPING by Emily Arsenault.

A Lesson in Vengeance

SMALL FAVORS by Erin A. Craig

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Ellerie’s small, isolated community survives by following rules. They diligently tend their farms. They help their neighbors. And they never go into the deep forest where the monsters live.

Not that the townsfolk believe in monsters, really. Those are just legends from the time of the town’s founding. The dangers of the forest are the wolves and bears and the possibility of getting lost. But when the men on a supply run are slaughtered by a creature bigger than a bear, suddenly the monsters seem like a reality. Ellerie tries to keep calm like her father and to focus on tending their bees. But fear and jealousies have begun to tear her town apart. Worst of all, her twin brother Samuel is becoming increasingly distant. When a tragedy forces both of Ellerie’s parents to rush off to the city, Ellerie will have to fight to keep her siblings safe. And to do that, she will have to rely on a beguiling stranger–who won’t even tell her his true name.

Another chilling, grounded, folklore-infused horror novel from Erin A. Craig! She masterfully keeps us turning pages while keeping the narrative focused on family, community, and the protagonist’s self-discovery. Fans of character-driven, suspense-laden horror will not want to miss this one. I highly recommend it!

Amazon.com: Small Favors (9780593306741): Craig, Erin A.: Books

WHEN ALL THE GIRLS ARE SLEEPING by Emily Arsenault

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

It’s almost a full year after Taylor died when the video comes to Hayley’s inbox. Hayley assumes it’s The Video, the one Taylor took of Jocelyn and Charlie making out and subsequently posted to social media, causing Jocelyn to change schools. But when she clicks the file, it’s something very different: Taylor in her room at the boarding school, eyes wide in terror as whispers come out of the darkness around her.

Hayley never fully accepted the official explanation of Taylor’s death (marijuana-induced suicide) but the video makes her wonder if one of the many people she hurt was targeting her. Or… Hayley never believed the stories of the ghost that supposedly haunts the senior dorm each winter, but there are some things in the video that are difficult to explain. As she digs deeper into the history of the school and its ghost, patterns begin to emerge, leading Hayley to the alarming conclusion that not only might the ghost be real, but another senior girl might be this winter’s target.

I read this book in one day–could not wait to find out what happened! There were so many red herrings that complicated the mystery, plus the horror-like ghost story atmosphere added a lot of suspense. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride. Highly recommend to YA mystery and psychological thriller fans!

When All the Girls Are Sleeping by Emily Arsenault: 9780593180792 |  PenguinRandomHouse.com: Books