When I sold my first YA novel nearly a decade ago, a friend asked me, “Do you think you’ll ever write a real book?” When I looked at her askance, she clarified, “You know, a book for adults.” There’s a pervasive misconception that books written for children are somehow smaller. That they take less work or are less challenging to craft. Too many people view content for children as less, but anyone who spends time with young people knows they’re more—more challenging, more skeptical, more demanding. Young consumers are passionate, but their attention can be difficult to capture and even harder to hold.
Those who’ve never read YA are quick to judge it. They wouldn’t know the children’s market is a forge. That most of authors come out with sharper tools and tougher mettle because of it. We learn to take risks in that oven, to bend genre and disregard rules. We tinker with POV and experiment with narrative structure, diving deep into theme and steeping ourselves in research just for a shot at seeing our work incorporated into a classroom. We become masters of pacing. Ruthless with a red pen. And we learn fast, above all, that an authentic voice is vital.
For many of us who venture into the competitive adult book market, we come carrying a well-equipped box of tools. While many of us are rebranded as debuts, you might be surprised by the authors who got their start writing for younger audiences.
I just finished reading (and loving!) The Wife Upstairs, a highly anticipated debut thriller by Rachel Hawkins. This twisted, contemporary Jane Eyre reimagining captures a gothic feel yet has the tone and pace of a domestic suspense novel, giving it a unique, genre-blended flavor on the page. But what I loved most was the intimacy and immediacy of the first person, present tense narrative. There’s a greater sense of urgency, the thrill of discovery more visceral when we uncover secrets and clues as the protagonist does. It rips away any insulation between narrator and reader, and it takes a deft hand to employ it with a flawed protagonist who teeters toward unlikeable. Hawkins’ debut was an instant New York Times and USA Today bestseller, but this wasn’t her first time making it onto those lists. The former high school English teacher first hit the NYT years ago with her captivating novels for young adults.
Lydia Kang got her start penning thrillers for teens, but she’s since branched out, publishing hugely successful non-fiction medical history books as well as historical crime novels, both for adults. Drawing inspiration from her career in medicine, Kang’s books are meticulously researched, the forensic and historical detail both rich and accurate without sacrificing pacing or bogging down prose. The balance is a fine line to walk, one most children’s authors spend years refining. With her riveting historical thrillers, Kang has proven she’s a master.
One of my favorite psychological suspense novelists is Megan Miranda. Her adult debut, All The Missing Girls, turned heads with its original narrative structure—a murder mystery told in reverse. The logistics of the novel’s design boggle the mind, and yet the story unfolds smoothly, propelling the reader backward to the moment of the crime. Add an unreliable narrator into the mix, and the result is both brilliant and unputdownable. But Megan Miranda was known for her smart, twisty thrillers long before her adult debut, having published seven YA suspense novels, many of which were narrated by complex and unreliable protagonists.A great book is a great book, no matter the age of the protagonist.
David Yoon’s highly anticipated Version Zero hits shelves this spring. Sold in an eight-editor auction, his debut was pitched as the “first great millennial thriller”, a “mashup between John Green and Fight Club”, the pitch hinting at Yoon’s YA roots. And why shouldn’t it? His young adult novel Frankly In Love—a Korean-American rom-com—also sold in a heated auction, eventually going on to hit the New York Times. And while one might wonder how a YA rom-com could prepare Yoon to write a tense speculative thriller for adults, the answer likely has less to do with genre than it does with the author’s masterful grasp of pacing, theme, and voice, regardless of the intended age group.
YA author Tess Sharpe debuted into the adult market with her thriller Barbed Wire Heart. Called a “major talent” by Kirkus and garnering several starred reviews, Book Reporter nailed it when they said, “it isn’t quite accurate to call this a debut novel, particularly since her prose and storytelling chops are equal to many a veteran author.” Sharpe had already published a highly acclaimed YA novel. Her authentic adolescent voice contributed to the success of Barbed Wire Heart, a narrative anchored by the formative childhood experiences of a deeply fleshed out adult protagonist. Moving deftly between the character’s past and present, Sharpe’s prose is both poignant and spare, her transitions seamless, creating a powerful page-turner.
A few weeks ago, I noted a deal announcement for an upcoming debut thriller for adults, written by Amy McCulloch, an accomplished children’s author with eight books for young people under her belt. Breathless, her “locked-room” murder and suspense novel set in a high-altitude mountaineering camp, sold in a six-way auction with rights already snapped up in sizable deals in several foreign markets. Described as “a gripping read” and “a richly researched thriller”, both might be an understatement given the author penned parts of the book at 21,000 ft in the death zone atop Manaslu in Nepal. I’m already betting this novel will be captivating, immersive, and tightly plotted—the culmination of years of experience and commitment to her craft.
I could list more crime and suspense novelists who got their starts in YA that might surprise you, like Chandler Baker, Laurie Elizabeth Flynn, or Lauren Oliver. Or others like Kimberly McCreight, April Henry, Kelley Armstrong, and Rachel Caine, who have successfully straddled both the adult and young adult thriller markets. But I’m still not convinced any of that should matter. A great book is a great book, no matter the age of the protagonist.
Finlay Donovan Is Killing It may be my adult debut, but it’s also my sixth published novel. I’ve been nominated for an Edgar and a Stoker, won an International Thriller Award, and was invited to the White House in 2015 to be recognized for my use of mathematics in children’s literature.
I look back with pride on these accomplishments, and yet I’m surprised by how many people discount them, as if I’ve leveled up somehow by publishing a book for grown-ups.