YA Thriller/Suspense

#12DaysOfKidlit 2021

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Happy November!

I know, I know. It’s basically still Halloween. But with supply chain issues and paper shortages, we’ve got to think about the holidays early if we’re gifting books to the kids in our lives. That’s why I’m celebrating the #12DaysOfKidlit. I’m choosing my 12 favorite titles from 2021–6 YA and 6 Middle Grade to highlight (in no particular order). Think of this as a gift guide for the young reader in your lives. I’ll update daily for the next 12 days, adding a new title each time.

But (tragically) even though I read 160+ books this year (!), that doesn’t even come close to the number of books that came out. And since everyone’s reading interests are different, my favorites might not be right for you or the kids on your list.

So…you should play too!

On Twitter and Instagram, use #12DaysOfKidlit to throw up your favorite kids/teen books of the year and see what books others loved! The celebration runs from November 1-12.

Let’s fill everyone’s holiday lists with the best Kidlit of the year!


Today’s Picks:

INSTRUCTIONS FOR DANCING by Nicola Yoon –and– LIKE A LOVE SONG by Gabriela Martins

I received Advance Reader Copies of these books.

I couldn’t pick just one of these because I can’t get either one of them out of my head–and for different reasons. 

INSTRUCTIONS FOR DANCING is a sublime exploration of that eternal human question: is love worth the risk of heartbreak? It’s a romance, so we know the answer has to be yes, but the journey to that answer is raw, complex, and beautiful. 

LIKE A LOVE SONG, on the other hand, is pure fun–a teen pop star and teen actor fake dating RomCom with perfectly executed tropes. The story is grounded by the MC’s struggle with her identity in a racist society–trying to find balance between her place in a community of artists pursuing a dream career and her place in her family and Brazilian community. 

But what these books have in common is that both of the romances were mature and realistic enough that even I–an old(ish) married lady–connected with them in a powerful way, and I think that’s why I loved them both so much. These are romances I will read as a pick me up again and again.


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CANDIDLY CLINE by Kathryn Ormsbee

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

I loved this book because I loved Cline. She is such a believable, lovable 13 year old kid, and as much as she’s been put through some difficult stuff (in the story and before it begins) she bounces back, she keeps going, and she finds supportive friends and adults who help her through. Her voice is so honest and hopeful as she navigates her first crush, coming out to family and friends, and protecting herself when people are hateful to her because of who she loves. And of course the main thrust of her story is how she chases down her dream of becoming a singer, so there’s lots of opportunities to cheer this wonderful heroine on.


SIX CRIMSON CRANES by Elizabeth Lim

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

Not only was this novel woven skillfully from many, many folklore threads, but it surprised me again and again. Even thinking back on the story now, I’m smiling remembering some of the twists. Some of the folklore was new to me, which was fun. Some was familiar but subverted, which was also fun. And throughout the whole story shone family devotion and the perseverance of the young heroine–no matter how annoying her brothers got.


THE THING I’M MOST AFRAID OF by Kristin Levine

Reading this book felt like taking a vacation (which in 2021, was much appreciated!). The detail of the Austrian setting–not just the landscape, but the culture and community–immersed me entirely in that world. And on top of that, the character’s experience with her panic disorder as she figured out how to accept help and develop more effective coping strategies rang so true to me. I don’t usually see that experience represented in the books I read–or if it is represented, it’s in books that are overall soul-crushingly intense–so to see a character with severe anxiety in an uplifting book about family and hope was incredible.


EAT YOUR HEART OUT by Kelly deVos

As a fan of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, I was grinning all the way through this satirical sci-fi/horror. It delivered on humor, on social commentary, on scares–and because there were so many first person narrators (something I don’t usually like), I had no idea who would live and who would die. As long as one kid made it, there would be someone to tell the story. The question was: who?…


FAST PITCH by Nic Stone

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

When it comes to flawless middle grade fiction, this book is it. It tackles the huge and important topic of racism in sports (and other areas of life), features a group of girls kicking butt on and off the field, and has a thrilling mystery that is impossible to stop reading. It is a winner on so many levels, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.


SAY IT OUT LOUD by Allison Varnes

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

As a musical theater-obsessed former-tween myself, I am always a sucker for stories about kids finding their voices through the arts. But this one had me particularly excited when the tweens take their voices off the stage to fight for something they believe in. Add the fun, heartwarming friendships and representation of a main character who stutters and you have a book that has stuck with me all year.


THE FOREST OF STOLEN GIRLS by June Hur

I read so many YA mystery/thrillers this year, so why has this historical mystery stuck with me? Part of it was the history. Part of it was the feminism. But I think most of it was the atmospheric quality of the novel. There were no cheap scares here, no gimmicks to draw out suspense. The setting of the village, the disappearances, the murky past, and the untrustworthy community members kept my spine tingling the whole way through.  


A KIND OF SPARK by Elle McNicoll

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

It is possible that this one violates the spirit of #12DaysOfKidlit since it wasn’t technically released this year. But I am U.S. based, and it was released here in 2021, and I loved it too much to leave it off my list. The authenticity of the autistic representation was probably the reason I connected with this book so deeply, although the novel has so many strengths. I love middle grade books where children are the moral compass and agents of change in their communities, and the way this particular child forces her community to process the uncomfortable immorality of their pasts and present to move toward a better future…*chef’s kiss* 


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ME (MOTH) by Amber McBride

I think the reason this poetic literary novel is still haunting me is the rich soil of history, culture, and spirituality that supports the characters. The emotions are deep and intense, but they are so rooted in the exquisite world-building that the narrative never feels heavy, even when the subject matter is. The characters are always growing up and out from their experience of loss, both in their recent pasts and in their ancestral histories, always climbing toward hope. I am not at all surprised this book is on the National Book Award’s Finalists list.


SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA by Cynthia Leitich Smith

PETER PAN is one of those books I haven’t read my kids because as much as I loved it as a child, every time I pick it up as an adult I’m horrified–partly by the racism on the page but perhaps more by the fact that I had no idea it was there when I was a kid. Those were just things I internalized that contributed to my unconscious prejudices. And maybe that’s why Cynthia Leitich Smith’s SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA blew me away. Because it isn’t a scathing dismantling of Barrie’s classic. It’s a reimagining of the enchanting world that both holds Peter Pan accountable for the racism and other problematic aspects of the original story and somehow recaptures and preserves the spirit, tone, and even narrative style of the original. This is the novel I want to read my children.


THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US by Eliot Schrefer

I haven’t been shy about my deep and abiding love of Eliot Schrefer’s sci-fi romance. I think one of the reasons it’s stuck with me so many months after I first read it is the way he perfectly captures the spirit of both genres. I would read this if I were in the mood for sci-fi, and I would read it if I were in the mood for romance. It has all of those little melty moments and relationship tensions I want in a love story plus the edge-of-your-seat, cannot-stop-turning-pages, omg-are-they-about-to-die?! moments I love in YA sci-fi. I can’t get this book out of my head, and I couldn’t think of a better title to start off the 12 Days of Kidlit.

SEVEN DIRTY SECRETS by Natalie D. Richards

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

Cleo still has nightmares about the day Declan died. Some of it is the trauma of watching him drown. Some is the guilt. And maybe some of it is relief–that her ex died before his abuse killed her. But someone isn’t convinced that Declan’s death was an accident. What starts as a creepy scavenger hunt from a mysterious stalker quickly begins exposing secrets from the fatal camping trip. Is the stalker one of the five others who were there that night? Or was there another witness? One thing is for certain: Cleo has to play the stalker’s game. Because the stakes are high, and she can’t afford to lose anyone else…

Fast-moving and packed full of clues and suspects, SEVEN DIRTY SECRETS will satisfy teen thriller fans who love a mystery to solve. Well-founded twists and complicated characters add depth to the edge-of-your seat plot. A fun, quick read for YA thriller readers!

ANY SIGN OF LIFE by Rae Carson

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

When Paige wakes up, her first thought is that she’s missing basketball practice. Her mom probably hoped she’d oversleep and would say she shouldn’t be overdoing it while recovering from the flu. She apparently brought home a ton of IV bags from the hospital and hooked Paige up to all of them to keep her hydrated. It’s weird, though, that all the bags have run dry. And that she’s so thirsty that her first sip of water makes her vomit.

And then she finds the corpses.

Paige’s whole family is dead. Everyone on her street is dead–possibly everyone in Ohio. That flu that was going around wiped everyone out in less than a week. But Paige remembers the Covid-19 pandemic that happened less than a decade earlier. That virus didn’t even come close to this death toll. Is it even possible? Paige goes in search of supplies, aware that her mom’s last wish as she daisy-chained those IVs together was that Paige would live. But when she meets another survivor, a fellow teen athlete named Trey, she learns that her suspicion was correct. The virus wasn’t a coincidence. And the aliens that created it will stop at nothing until all the humans are eradicated…

Before I get to my effusive praise, I want to note that this book won’t be for every reader–at least not right now. For many readers, a book about an alien virus that wipes out 99.999% of humanity will be far enough removed from the reality of our current pandemic that it will allow them to work through some of the emotions and experiences of our real world in the fantastical extreme of the story. But for some teens, especially those who have recently lost loved ones to Covid-19, the wounds will be too raw and too deep. Early in this story, the protagonist abandons the corpses of her family, compartmentalizing her grief and focusing instead on survival. But for readers in mourning, this difficult shift and the constant presence of corpses–and reminders of the people they used to be–might be unduly upsetting. So I would hesitate to recommend this book to a teen who has lost someone during the pandemic.

That caveat aside, this book is excellent. The action and suspense starts on page one and builds to a thrilling climax, but what really elevates the story beyond a basic alien war is the constant search for–and discovery of–meaning in a post-apocalyptic world. The survivors aren’t just fighting for their lives; they are fighting to build something new and to preserve the memories of everyone who perished. It is truly a fight to preserve humanity rather than individual humans. The characters are nuanced, the moral quandaries complex, and the story riveting from the first sentence. I highly recommend this to fans of sci-fi, dystopias, and thrillers/suspense.

DARK AND SHALLOW LIES by Ginny Myers Sain

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Elora can’t be dead. Grey won’t accept it. When she steps off the boat back into her small bayou hometown, she’s immediately surrounded by the missing posters with her best friend’s face. She’s not the first of the Summer Children to be lost. Two of the ten children who were born in the same year died almost a decade ago, a double murder shrouded in secrets. But Elora is missing, not dead, and Grey is going to find her.

But as soon as Grey is back home, visions begin to plague her–visions of Elora fleeing from a shadowy madman who’s determined to kill her. Grey is the only one of the Summer Children who never developed supernatural abilities. There are times she wished she was a psychic like her mother, or an empath like her crush, Hart, but now she hopes that the visions only dreams, not a true window into a deadly past. That hope dies, however, when a stranger shows up in town–another Summer Child that no one knew about–and the dark undercurrents of the bayou rise to the surface. The only way this many secrets can exist in a town of psychics is if everyone only tells part of the truth…

World-tilting twists and an eerie, immersive atmosphere guarantee a gut-plummeting ride in this YA Mystery-Horror hybrid. Though it takes a few chapters to acclimate to the number of important players and their various superhuman abilities, the volume of characters and secrets makes the mystery that much more difficult to unravel. Suspense junkies won’t want to miss this stellar debut!

BURDEN FALLS by Kat Ellis

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As if surviving the car crash that claimed her parents’ lives wasn’t devastating enough, now Ava has to say goodbye to her family’s ancestral, and see it sold to the man responsible for her parents’ deaths. There has been bad blood between the Thorn and Miller families since a centuries-old feud, but now there is literal Thorn blood on Miller hands and Ava can’t bear to think of either one of the Miller kids sleeping in her old bedroom–especially not Freya, her artistic rival.

But death hasn’t abandoned Burden Falls. Not long after Ava and her aunt and uncle move to a cottage near the old mill, the body of a girl is found at the bottom of the waterfall. Most sinister of all, her eyes have been gouged out, like the legend of Sadie, the ghost of an accused witch who supposedly still haunts Thorn Manor. The same ghost Ava’s father claimed to see moments before his death. Ava begins to catch glimpses of Sadie everywhere. At first she thinks it’s just her imagination, but when Freya Miller turns up dead, mutilated in the same way, she has to admit that the danger is very real. With the police suspecting her, her aunt and uncle pressuring her to get her head checked, and her best friend keeping secrets, Ava doesn’t know who to trust–except Dominic Miller, the only person who seems to agree that she is both sane and innocent. But as they launch their own investigation into Freya’s death, Ava can’t help but wonder: how can she prove her innocence when the most likely alternative suspect is a vengeful spirit?

From an eerie start to a dramatic, pulse-pounding conclusion, this thriller does not disappoint. There are great twists, an emotional hook, and even a touch of forbidden romance. Fans of YA thrillers and psychological horror will not want to miss this one!

DARLING by K. Ancrum

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Wendy’s parents may as well have her under house arrest. It was their idea to move to Chicago so that she could go to a prestigious prep school (and so they could adopt more kids to keep under house arrest). But now they won’t let her hang out with her friends–all because when her mom was younger she saw some kid get murdered at a party in a graveyard.

Of course, Wendy’s parents aren’t home when a charismatic guy named Peter breaks into her house, and when he invites her to join him and his friend Tinkerbelle at a party, she can’t bring herself to say no. But instead of a party, Peter brings her home to meet the boys he’s taken under his wing–boys who give Wendy cryptic warnings that lead her to believe that Peter isn’t what he seems. With the police on their trail and something dramatic slated to happen later that night, Wendy will need to figure out who to trust if she’s going to make it home alive.

This dark Peter Pan twist is impossible to put down! I loved how Ancrum turned it into a thriller instead of a fantasy, drawing out the darkness that already exists in the original Peter Pan and infusing it with a new take on the concept of “eternal youth.” I was riveted. Highly recommend to fans of YA thrillers and dark contemporary.

Amazon.com: Darling: 9781250265265: Ancrum, K.: Books

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.

YOU’RE SO DEAD by Ash Parsons

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Plum’s older sister Peach Winter barely speaks to her anymore. She’s not doing it to be cruel. It’s just that since her business as an influencer took off, she hasn’t had much time for anyone. Especially not a baby sister who’s going nowhere back in her hometown in Alabama. But when an invitation to an exclusive festival on a private island gets delivered to the wrong P. Winter, Plum finally has a chance to go somewhere–even if it’s just for a weekend.

As soon as Plum and her two best friends show up on the island, though, they realize something is wrong. There are no famous people–just a handful of low level internet personalities. There is no entertainment. There’s barely even any food.

And then the murders start…

The mystery-thriller plot of AND THEN THERE WERE NONE meets the comic ridiculousness of CLUE in this new YA thriller. Don’t get me wrong–this is a murder mystery and the serial killer will keep you on the edge of your seat–but what makes this novel work is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The premise is over-the-top, but not unrealistic given the over-the-top reality of private-island-festivals and Influencer culture, and there is always a thread of humor, or a comment on the absurd extravagance of the murder’s pageantry, even at the most tense moments. It’s not true farce (like EAT YOUR HEART OUT), but it’s a heart-pounder that will also make you laugh (+ a warm-fuzzy friendship subplot). I’d recommend it to anyone who doesn’t need their thrillers to be dark.

Amazon.com: You're So Dead: 9780593205129: Parsons, Ash: Books

THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US by Eliot Schrefer

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Ambrose can’t remember the launch. He knows he’s on a spaceship bound for Saturn’s moon Titan, tasked with rescuing his sister, Titan’s only colonist. But he can’t remember the launch.

And he certainly doesn’t know why he was in a coma.

The ship’s OS assures him that he will recover and have plenty of time to finish all of the necessary maintenance on the ship to prepare for their approach to Titan–especially since the ship has a second spacefarer. Another surprise. When he meets Kodiak, the surly and infuriatingly attractive spacefarer from Dimokratía, Earth’s most backward, sexist, and homophobic country, Ambrose suspects he would be better off alone. But that’s before Ambrose discovers blood smeared on a panel in the engine room, blood that OS claims to know nothing about but which Kodiak is able to date to 5,000 years in the past–a time before the ship could have possibly existed. As they work to unravel the mystery, trying to somehow hide from OS’s constant surveillance, Kodiak and Ambrose quickly realize they will have to put mistrust and national rivalries aside if they want to survive.

THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US is both 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY-esque sci-fi and YA queer romantic suspense. If you thought you only liked one of these genres, think again. This book will change your mind. It is both true to the classic tropes of each genre and somehow fresh and inventive in their application. It has humor and heart, gnarly moral situations and thrilling action, devastation and hope. This summer has seen a wealth of exceptional YA releases, but this one really stood out to me. It will be tricky to use in book clubs because there is sex, but I will definitely be recommending and displaying it. If you are a fan of either YA sci-fi or romantic suspense, this novel is a must-read!

The Darkness Outside Us by Eliot Schrefer