Teen Screams: YA Horror for Every Kind of Reader

Horror, despite how it’s often categorized, is not a genre. It is instead a mood, applicable to any genre that elicits fear, disgust, surprise, or shock. For young readers with still-developing brains, horror can be especially appealing as they navigate their own emotional responses. Librarians must be familiar with the trends, and the kind of chills a reader may be seeking, all through the year.

Horror, despite how it’s often categorized, is not a genre. It is instead a mood, applicable to any genre that elicits fear, disgust, surprise, or shock. There are science fiction horror novels, romance horror novels, and contemporary realistic horror novels. Horror, like genre, often plays with tropes or with familiar characters. But because it’s not a genre, horror doesn’t follow specific conventions. Some horror provides a light chill, while some focuses on a sense of déjà vu. Likewise, not all horror has blood or a body count. Level of horror can be thought about in a similar fashion to how readers might think of romance: it’s as steamy or as chaste as one might like.Undead Girl Gang cover

Being captivated by horror is a feature of the human brain, starting from a young age. It’s an emotional experience, lighting up parts of the brain that process and store feelings, as well as the parts of our brain that help define who it is we are. Horror as an experience can be pleasurable or displeasurable, and for young readers with still-developing brains, horror can be especially appealing as they navigate their own relationships with that particular set of emotional responses. Librarians have to be familiar with the trends, and the kind of chills a reader may be seeking, all through the year.


Getting Witchy

Witches are a Halloween staple, but they’ve enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years. This uptick came prior to the release of Netflix’s Sabrina series, so it’s likely this category of horror will continue to grow—Sarah Rees Brennan’s novelization, Season of the Witch, publishing in July, is the first in a tie-in series to the show.

Zoraida Cordova’s “Brooklyn Brujas” trilogy takes a Latinx Brooklyn spin, offering up a story about a powerful bruja who wants nothing to do with the power she’s inherited. But in her attempts to avoid this power, she finds herself deeply entangled with a bruja she can’t trust, while also on a mission to find her now-missing family. Labyrinth Lost launched the series, and the final installment is anticipated in 2020.

In Shae Ernshaw’s debut The Wicked Deep, three sisters were sentenced to death centuries earlier in the seaside town of Sparrow and have cursed the community ever since. Each summer the sisters return to land for revenge, stealing away three girls in order to lure unsuspecting boys into their grips. But this year, a new boy arrives and Penny—who has always accepted the reality of living in Sparrow—faces the challenge of choosing to save the boy or herself.


Science Fiction

Not only are we seeing aliens in YA horror, but Nightingale coverwe’re seeing other terrors related to space exploration. Amy Lukavics weaves together the threads of mental instability, the panic years of 1950s America, and creatures of the beyond in Nightingale. Main character June, in addition to being institutionalized, is an unreliable narrator who happens to be a writer, giving us a sort of meta-narrative throughout. This is a bloody, gory title, with appeal to readers who like their horror strange—and strangely compelling.

Contagion is the first in a duology by Erin Bowman, which follows a small crew aboard a spaceship when they receive an urgent SOS to begin a rescue mission on a distant planet. It turns out to be anything but a standard mission, though, as the crew discovers only dead bodies, abandoned food, and a completely empty site.

On the horizon for early 2020 is Daniel Kraus’s forthcoming Bent Heavens. This dark read follows a girl whose father was purportedly abducted and what happens when she stumbles upon an alien, too. The story begs readers to consider not only what it means to be alien, but also what it means to be human.


Camp, Camp, and More Camp

Readers craving nostalgic horror will be pleased to know that R.L. Stine has re-upped his “Fear Street” series. You May Now Kill The Bride launches the new trio of horror titles. The books are perfect for readers who love the nostalgic atmosphere of Netflix’s Stranger Things, complete with 90s-style covers.

KNotes From My Captivity coverathy Parks’s darkly humorous Notes From My Captivity follows Adrienne on her quest to write the most amazing college essay for admittance to journalism school. That quest takes her to the Siberian wilderness with her stepfather, who believes there is a legendary family of hermits living there; she wants to debunk the myth. But when something terrible happens and Adrienne finds herself alone in the Siberian woods, is she able to continue being a skeptic?

Camp in the literal sense is still a popular horror setting. Shawn Sarles’s Campfire follows Maddie and her friends and family while camping; after a night of campfire stories, they find themselves in the midst of one of those stories coming to life.


Girl Gangs & Girl Power

Girls helping girls has been a refreshing microtrend in YA horror. Girls have moved front and center in horror stories—no longer relegated to the romantic interest or the damsel needing rescue.

Lily Anderson’s Undead Girl Gang follows Mila Flores and her best friend Riley’s adventures in their small, boring town. At least, it was that way until Riley and a pair of mean girls from a local academy die under mysterious circumstances. Mila’s forced to step up and get to the bottom of their deaths—and she does so by bringing them back to life. A fun read with witches, the undead, fat positivity, and feminism. And yes: it’s creepy.

A more gruesome read is Rebecca Schaeffer’s Not Even Bones, which follows 17-year-old Nita who dissects the bodies of the supernatural that her mother acquires and sells on the black market. When mom brings home a living creature instead of a dead one, Nita decides she can’t allow a murder. Too bad Nita herself is a supernatural creature and is sold off for trying to do something good. This is the first in a series with comparisons to Dexter.

Claire Legrande’s Sawkill Girls might be best described as It with a female cast. On the island of Sawkill Rock, where teen girls have gone missing over and over, teenagers pass around scary campfire stories about a monster. But it’s not just a legend, and when Marion, Zoey, and Val’s paths cross, they’ll need to use their collective rage to get to the bottom of what’s caused harm to others. Legrande’s book explores the complexity of female relationships, including friendships, sisterhood, and mother-daughter bonds.Wilder Girls cover

Rory Power’s debut Wilder Girls might be best described as a gender-flipped Lord of the Flies. For eighteen months, the Raxter School for Girls has been under quarantine after the arrival of Tox. First a teacher dies. Then another. Then slowly, the students start to become infected. They know not to wander too far, for fear of what the Tox might be doing beyond the security of the school. But when one girl goes missing, another decides to find her, even though it means facing the Tox head on. The queer themes in this book are especially appealing.


Riffs On Familiar Tales

One theme that remains perennially popular is the twist on familiar, classic horror. The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein is Kiersten White’s addition to the collection of excellent takes on the Frankenstein tale. But rather than focus on the Doctor, White’s story follows Elizabeth, taken in by Victor Frankenstein from a life of starvation. The two become inseparable, but that’s because Elizabeth understands she needs to keep his anger and violence at bay in order to protect her own survival. As it turns out, the real monster might be man himself.

Open Mic Night at Westminster Cemetery by Mary Amato is written as a play, following Lacy as she finds herself waking up in the burial place of Edgar Allan Poe. She has no idea how she ended up here, but learns that she must provide entertainment to the fellow dead.

This September, we’ll be treated to more Poe, too. His Hideous Heart, an anthology edited by Dahlia Adler, boasts a stellar lineup of YA talent writing their own takes on some of Poe’s classic stories.


The Undead Past

While the trend of zombie-themed YA may hDread Nation coverave waned, two outstanding titles hit shelves in 2018. Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation is the first in a series that follows Jane McKeene, who was born just days before the undead began to wreak havoc during the U.S. Civil War. Jane, by law, attends combat school, studying how to protect the well-to-do. When folks begin to go missing near her school in Baltimore, she finds herself needing to step up to put her education to work. As in all zombie stories, the undead serve a bigger purpose in holding a mirror up to humans themselves.

Set in a similar time period, but this time in West Texas, is Emma Berquist’s Devils Unto Dust. No one leaves the gated safety of Glory, as the shakes are out there and eager to find fresh blood. But when Willie’s father is sought by a man who is owed a great deal of money, she’s forced to make the trip to another town and find him. Berquist’s stand-alone book is aptly pitched as True Grit meets 28 Days Later and is perfect for readers itching for a Western horror. There’s no romance here, but there is a whole lot of family love and a deep exploration of grief.


Looking Ahead

If anything, we’re seeing more horror being published for YA readers in the next couple of seasons. The difficulty, though, is many of these books aren’t being marketed or labeled as horror because of how confusing a label it is. But rest assured that readers who love horror are open to a wide range of genres. Their desire is for a feeling, as opposed to a specific category.

A few titles to anticipate in the coming months include Kim Liggett’sThe Grace Year, pitched as The Village meetsThe Handmaid’s Tale meets The Lord of the Flies; Here There Be Monsters by Amelinda Bérubé, pitched as The Blair Witch Projects meets Imaginary Girls; and Dawn Kurtagich’s Teeth In The Mist, compared to work by Ransom Riggs and Kendare Blake.

Horror in YA has, for many years, been predominantly written by white authors, mirroring the greater YA landscape. But with more diverse voices being published, as well as more inclusive horror being seen on the big and small screens (see the continued growth of horror on streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, as well as forthcoming projects like Lovecraft Country from Jordan Peele), chances are we’ll see a wider range of voices penning these stories for young readers.

If you’re itching to add more horror into your library or reader services, make sure you get to know the Summer Scares program via the Horror Writers Association, Book Riot, Library Journal/School Library Journal, and United for Libraries. The titles selected for the program are meant to encourage horror reading in libraries all year long.

Kelly Jensen is a former teen librarian who worked in several public libraries before pursuing a full-time career in writing and editing. Her current position is with Book Riot, where she focuses on talking about young adult literature in all of its manifestations. Her books include Here We Are: Feminism For The Real World and (Don’t) Call Me Crazy, which was named a best book of 2018 by the Washington Post and earned a Schneider Family Book Award Honor. Her third anthology Body Talk, a collection about the physical and political nature of the human body, is upcoming in Fall 2020.

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