Writing a Young Adult Thriller? Then Read These Books!

by Dominique Richardson
published in Reading

My author dreams began with my obsession with reading. I’m a book fangirl at heart, so it won’t come as a surprise that I love the Reading with Purpose tenet of DIY MFA (side note: I really love all three tenets, but reading will always hold a little edge on the others). 

When I first jumped into the DIY MFA plan, I read and read, and read some more, with purpose; sixty young adult novels in one year, to be exact. It was a reading boot camp extravaganza, and I was so there for it. I took Gabriela’s advice to heart and read across the spectrum of essential reading: competitive, contextual, contemporary, and classic books. Not sure if I slept that year, but I blame the books. They wouldn’t let me. 

It’s so important that you read the books in your genre so you know what’s out there, where the genre is going, and how your book can stand out. And because of how important this step is, I wanted to give you a little jump start on what books you should be reading if you are writing a young adult (YA) mystery or thriller. 

So here they are, my top five picks for YA Thrillers (plus a bonus) to add to your reading list when writing a young adult mystery or thriller.

Top Five Young Adult Thrillers for Your Reading List (Plus a Bonus!)

1. One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus 

If you’re writing a YA thriller and haven’t read this book, then immediately stop writing, don’t pass go, don’t collect $200, and go straight to your favorite bookstore to pick up a copy of One of Us is Lying

At the time of writing this article, One of Us is Lying has spent 253 weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list for Young Adult hardcovers. Yes, you read that correctly. It’s still being printed in hardcover five years after its original publication date in 2017. And it’s been on the best sellers list almost every week since it was published. 

In my humble opinion, this one book single-handedly ushered in the current-day market for young adult thrillers. As the dystopian frenzy in Young Adult was winding down, this book landed on the NYT list and paved the way for all the outstanding mysteries and thrillers published since. 

Entertainment Weekly called it Pretty Little Liars meets The Breakfast club. Five high schoolers walk into detention and only four of them walk out alive. And the victim, Simon, was about to publish a scathing gossip column the very next day. One that would have exposed the secrets of each of his classmates who were in detention with him, making all four of them instant suspects in his murder.

McManus masterfully weaves a whodunit that keeps you guessing until the very end. And any aspiring young adult thriller author will be wise to read this breakout novel and learn firsthand why it remains one of the bestselling young adult thrillers today.

2. Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson

This masterful YA thriller was an instant #1 New York Times bestseller, and with good reason. Jackson, an award-winning author, wrote a complex mystery that delves into socially relevant themes today. 

Dhonielle Clayton, NYT bestselling author of The Belles, said, “Grown exposes the underbelly of a tough conversation, providing a searing examination of misogynoir, rape culture, and the vulnerability of young Black girls.” Jackson’s ability to weave complex issues into an unputdownable novel means her books should be on the shelves of authors looking to make an impact with their writing. Whether you are a POC author or not, it’s important to read widely and your reading list should not only be diverse in content, but authorship.

When Enchanted Jones is scouted at an audition by R&B singer Korey Fields, she believes her dreams are about to come true. But when she wakes up to find Korey Fields dead and has no recollection of the night before, her dreams descend into a living nightmare. 

Booklist gave this book a starred review and said, “Gripping in both its content and format… Jackson’s writing some of the best thrillers for teens these days.” So if your goal is to write a book that can sit on the shelves next to Grown, then this novel needs to be added to your DIY MFA reading list now.  

3. Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley

Consider these accolades: A 2021 Young Adult Best Book of the Year selection for both Amazon and Barnes and Noble; Printz Medal and Morris award winner; a TIME magazine Best YA Book of All Time selection; and instant #1 New York Times bestseller. Do you think a book with these honors should maybe be on your DIY MFA reading list? I think maybe so. And this is just a selection of the recognition Firekeeper’s Daughter has received. 

When a YA thriller makes these kinds of waves, then it means aspiring authors should be paying attention. This story follows a Native American teen protagonist who has to choose between protecting the people she loves or her tribal community. Another astounding story by a POC author who delves into her culture while crafting a high-stakes, page-turner. This novel deserves a spot on your list.

The story follows the journey of Daunis Fontaine, a girl who has never felt like she fits in—not at home and not at the Objiwe reservation nearby—as she was born from scandal. When she witnesses a murder, she goes undercover for the investigation. But threats start to strike closer and closer to home, and Daunis is faced with a decision that could tear apart the world as she knows it.

4. A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson

When a book is listed as a “multimillion bestselling mystery series,” then it might be a good idea to check it out. A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder was already a NYT bestseller, but it has also taken off on BookTok. The unpredictable plot twist and killer are part of what made this book so loved on BookTok. 

Jackson weaves in multimedia as part of the investigation the main character is conducting for the unsolved murder mystery. There are several expertly designed red herrings that make you think you know who the murderer is only to be surprised again and again.

As a review from Bookpage said, “fans of true crime will be hooked by the hunt for the killer,” true crime aficionados will not be disappointed when reading this book. Plus, the multimedia aspect of A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder will bring a unique touch to your DIY MFA reading list.

Everyone in Fairview knows the story. Five years ago, a pretty, popular girl, Andie Bell, was murdered by her boyfriend, Sal Singh, before he killed himself. Case closed. Or so they thought. Pip knew Sal when he was a kid, and he was always so nice, she couldn’t see how he could have been responsible for murder. So for her senior project, she decides to reexamine the case only to discover a trail of dark secrets which means the actual killer might still be at large. And now Pip’s life might be in danger too.

5. The Ivies by Alexa Donne (plus Bonus!)

If you love boarding school stories, especially when there is murder involved, then you have to check out The Ivies. Donne crafts a twisty murder mystery about teens who will do anything to get what they want. 

Kirkus Reviews described this novel as “a thrilling boarding school story with a satirical edge,” and J. Elle, NYT bestselling author of Wings of Ebony, said it was “a definite one-sitting read.” If you want to learn how to tell a YA thriller with shocking surprises and unexpected twists, then Donne’s The Ivies needs to be one of your next reads. 

The Ivies are the most prestigious universities in the United States. But on the campus of Claflin Academy, the Ivies are a group of five girls with a mission to do whatever it takes to get into an Ivy League. These girls don’t care who they have to step on or destroy to improve their chances of acceptance, with nothing, not even murder, off the table. A true nail-biter, The Ivies will keep you on the edge-of-your-seat until the very last page.

You may be wondering about the bonus! Well, not only do you get a book to add to your reading list, you also get something for your Write with Focus wheelhouse. Because Alexa Donne is not only an author, she is also a prolific publishing industry YouTuber with over 147,000 subscribers. 

On her YouTube channel, she talks about all things: writing, publishing, and books. And now it’s time for the drumroll, please, for your bonus reveal:

Alexa Donne’s Thriller Writing 10 Video Series on YouTube: Donne has created a ten video series on YA thriller writing. For your bonus for reading all the way to the end, check out this link where you will learn directly from the author herself on how to write the kind of twists readers raved about in The Ivies.

Now it’s your turn! Do you have any YA thrillers you think should be on the list? We’d love to hear about them in the comments. Please tell us what books you recommend and why!

Dominique Richardson Headshot

Dominique Richardson is the coauthor of The Everbeach Series—a young adult, romantic suspense series full of forbidden romance, deadly twists, and scandalous secrets that will keep you turning pages into the night. The first book in the series, Red as Blood, comes out February 28, 2023. Passionate about all things books and giving back to the community, she is also the Executive Director and cofounder of YA by the Bay, a nonprofit young adult reading and leadership festival, dedicated to inspiring teens to “be the author of your own life.” Raised between Jamaica and the United States, her biracial heritage finds a home in her books. She spends her free time passing on her love of unicorns to her twin boys, running in the Florida heat, and drinking all the coffee. She now lives in Tampa, Florida, with her family.

She would love to connect with you! Find her online on Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok. If you’d like to stay in the know about her upcoming book releases, sign-up for her email list. To learn more about the YA by the Bay Young Adult Book Festival, check out the website.

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