Whenever I think of the fall season, I always think of thrillers. Yes, there is football, and pumpkin-flavored coffee drinks, and hay rides, and all those fun things, too, but the moment the air turns crisp and the nights begin to get longer—and darker—as Halloween approaches, I find myself gravitating toward the darker pleasures, especially in my books. Ghosts. Vampires. Witches. Zombies. You name it, I read it. The supernatural element in stories always gives a great scare, but sometimes what I find most terrifying are the dangers lurking here in the real world. What happens when Mother Nature—and us humans—become the monsters? If pushed to the limits, to what lengths would we really go in order to survive?
My fascination with the more monstrous side of nature—and humanity—is largely what drove me to write my debut YA survival thriller Ski Weekend. A gritty, gripping tale, Ski Weekend follows seventeen-year-old Sam and her younger brother Stuart on a road trip to the Sierra Nevada mountains for a weekend ski trip. Along for the ride are Gavin, Stuart’s good looking best friend; Lily, Stuart’s brainy girlfriend; Britney, Homecoming Queen and head cheerleader; Hunter, a likeable jokester and serial flirter; and Champion the dog. After a threatening blizzard closes the main highway, Hunter suggests a detour, but the shortcut results in an accident and strands the group in the middle of the wilderness without cell service and no way out before a terrible snowstorm arrives. The teens find themselves thrown into a deadly environment they are totally unprepared for where threats abound everywhere—from animal predators to the elements to even starvation. As the layers of civility are stripped away and their true inner selves emerge while they struggle to stay alive, the group is forced to make impossible choices about who will live and who will die.
Keeping with the theme of terrifying, real-life survival stories, here are some other great books to add to your fall TBR.
Five Total Strangers by Natalie D. Richards
If you can’t already tell from the summary of Ski Weekend, teens in peril in the snowy winter elements is one of my favorite storylines. Natalie D. Richards spins a thrilling story that will keep readers guessing until the very end about high schooler Mira, heading home for the holidays to see her mother, who gets stranded at the airport when an incoming blizzard results in a canceled connecting flight. Harper, Mira’s glamorous seatmate from her initial flight, offers her a ride home along with three of Harper’s “friends.” But once the group sets off, Mira realizes the fellow travelers are actually all strangers and each of them is hiding a secret. This chilly road trip story is perfect for a chilly fall night and will make you second guess accepting rides from strangers—no matter how friendly they may seem.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
If you haven’t heard of the wildly popular The Hunger Games you may be living under a rock. The blockbuster series takes place in the ruins of a place once known as North America where the new nation of Panem has been created, comprised of a “Capitol” surrounded by twelve outlying districts. As part of the government terms of Panem, every year each district agrees to send one boy and one girl to appear in an annual televised event called, “The Hunger Games,” a fight to the death on live TV. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen is forced to represent her district in the Games where the rules of survival are simple: kill or be killed. Although the story takes place in a futuristic dystopian world, Katniss’s struggle to stay alive still feels surprisingly real and like it could take place in our world, too.
Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
During a catastrophic natural disaster, high school sophomore Miranda takes shelter with her family in this heart-stopping thriller. After a meteor knocks the moon closer to earth, worldwide tsunamis demolish entire cities, earthquakes rock the world, and ash from volcanic explosions block out the sun. When the summer turns dark and wintery in northeastern Pennsylvania, Miranda, her two brothers, and their mother are forced to hideout in their sunroom, where they must survive solely on stockpiled food and limited water. Readers will find themselves completely riveted by this story of desperation in an unfamiliar world although there are small slivers of hope, too.
No Exit by Taylor Adams
Although this one may technically be categorized as New Adult/Adult, college kids feel close enough in age to fit under the YA umbrella and I would be remiss not to include one of the most intense, gripping road trip thrillers you will ever read. On the way home to see her sick mother, college student Darby Thorne is stranded by a blizzard at a Colorado highway rest stop in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, she finds herself forced to spend the night in the rest stop with four complete strangers, which seems bad enough but only gets worse after she stumbles across a horrifying discovery. A kidnapped little girl is locked inside one of the parked cars! Full of shocking twists and turns, this book will have you on the edge of your seat, unable to put it down until you reach the shocking conclusion.
Grace Year by Kim Liggett
A YA speculative thriller, Grace Year takes place in a world where girls are banished for their sixteenth year to release their magic into the wild so they can return purified and ready for marriage. During her “Grace Year” journey, teen Tierney James quickly realizes that there’s more to fear about the Grace Year than the brutal elements and poachers in the woods. Their greatest threat to existence may be each other. A spine-tingling thriller, the Grace Year deftly examines the complex and sometimes twisted relationships between girls, the women they will become, and the difficult decisions they must make.
The Wild Lands by Paul Greci
Paul Greci’s The Wild Lands is a pulse-pounding YA survival story full of shocking plot twists after natural disasters and a breakdown of civilization have cut off Alaska from the world and destroyed its landscape. Once the food also runs out, the few who remain alive begin to turn on each other, forcing Travis and his younger sister, Jess, to cross hundreds of miles in search of civilization. The wilderness they must pass through is filled with hungry animals and desperate human survivors with nothing left to lose. This high-stakes survival tale will have you speeding through the chapters, wondering which characters will make it out alive.
This Is Not A Test by Courtney Summers
Okay, so this one does have zombies, but the book is really not about zombies at all. The biggest danger to the teens in This Is Not A Test are themselves. After a zombie apocalypse, six students take cover in their high school hoping to survive. One bite from the zombies swarming outside is all it takes to kill a person and bring them back as a monster, but to protagonist Sloane Price, that doesn’t sound so bad. Six months ago, her world collapsed and since then, she’s failed to find a reason to keep going. As Sloane eagerly waits for death, she’s forced to witness the end-of-days through the eyes of five people who actually do want to live. This book is both exciting and bleak—a perfect combination for a survival tale—and Summers’s writing is brilliant.
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
A historical fiction YA thriller, Between Shades of Gray is the story of fifteen-year-old Lithuanian Lina Vilkas during World War II. After Lina is arrested by the Soviet secret police along with her mother and younger brother, the family is deported to Siberia into the deadly work camps. Lina fights for her life, vowing to survive the harsh conditions and struggling to retain faith in mankind amidst the terror all around her. This Carnegie Medal Finalist is a perfect read for survival enthusiasts who also enjoy taking in a bit of history.
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
The OG young adult survival book that is basically required reading for survival enthusiasts. For those who haven’t read the Newberry award-wining book yet, some of the contents may feel a little dated, but it is still well worth exploring. Thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson, haunted by his knowledge of his mother’s infidelity, is traveling by single-engine plane to visit his father for the first time since his parents got divorced. When the plane crashes in the Canadian wilderness, the sole survivor is Brian. Left with nothing but his clothing, a tattered windbreaker, and the hatchet his mother gave him as a present, it will take all his smarts, ingenuity, and sheer will to keep Brian alive. This one is a true classic for all YA survival lovers.