Bestselling YA: A Look at the 2022 Market

Aside from one graphic-novel romance series, novels about death and murder dominate the current YA scene. Where’s hope?

What are kids reading these days?

As we all should know, “best-seller” doesn’t mean good. In fact, it’s relatively rare that a wildly popular novel will meet high standards either of literacy or common morality (much less Christian morality). Even so, it’s an interesting cultural exercise to browse some of the most popular YA titles to see what the kids are reading (the ones who are reading, whose number shrinks every year). Harry Potter still rules the Amazon list of YA top sellers, currently shared with the 6-volume Crave fantasy series and 4-volume Heartstopper, a graphic-novel series featuring two boys in love at an exclusive private school. Heartstopper looms large on the Barnes & Noble list, too (and there’s a series on Netflix)–probably the most successful gay romance novels to date. Gay plotlines and characters are increasingly common, but “queerness” in itself is not the main draw of bestselling mystery or fantasy.

Though it’s hard to predict what will catch the interest of teen readers in any given year, darkness and death seem to be perennial attractions for this age. Take the the dystopian boom of 12 years ago (sparked by The Hunger Games), Jay Asher’s suicide drama 13 Reasons Why, and John Green’s cancer classic, The Fault in Our Stars. E. Lockhart’s Family of Liars, the long-awaited prequel to We Were Liars, now climbing to the top of every bestseller list, promises to delve deeper into the depressing history of a dysfunctional clan.

Hope vs. Darkness

We hear that teen depression is at all-time highs, usually attributed to lockdowns and social media. Literature may also be a factor, at least for those who read–see Emily’s series on Reading as Spiritual Warfare. Death and trauma figure largely in the three teen novels reviewed here, all of which have enjoyed best-seller status for at least five years.

Serious themes are appropriate for teens who are beginning to think seriously, but they need hope even more. (Everything Sad Is Untrue, one of our all-time faves, is a brilliant example of tackling tough subjects with hope.) And sometimes they just need to laugh. We’re always on the lookout for hopeful YA novels, as well as light-hearted YA novels, both of which seem increasingly hard to find. What are your teens reading, watching, and listening to? Some darkness in their reading diet is not a problem for a well-balanced teen, and it’s neither advisable nor even possible to shelter them from a sinful world. They must learn to confront the world instead, and some reading outside wholesome boundaries can help develop awareness and capacity. But watch out for imbalance, and be aware, at least in a general sense, what’s out there and in the house.

All three of the following novels were available in Playaway format at my library, so I could listen to them while doing house or garden work. None of them are “recommended,” but if your teen is interested in a buzzy title that may be problematic, see if a Playaway is available so you can listen to the content and talk about it together. That’s a great way to help young people understand how the world thinks, and how much it needs Christ.

One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus. Delacorte, 2017, 416 pages.

Reading Level: Teen, ages 14-17

Five students walked into detention at Bayview High that September afternoon, but only four walked out: Bronwyn the overachiever, Addy the homecoming queen, Cooper the athlete, and Nate the drug-dealer. Left behind was Simon the gossip king, whose “About That” app was the scourge and guilty pleasure of the entire student body. Many of his classmates have reason to want Simon dead, but who would have had the nerve or means to actually kill him? Because he’s dead of a severe allergic reaction, and it appears someone hid, or misplaced, or stole, his epi pen.

A twisty murder plot has instant appeal and the perspectives of all five characters (Simon included, through a private blog) present different angles to the same story. But the obvious stereotypes hide “secret” stereotypes (such as Cooper is gay, Nate has a troubled home life) and the surprise ending may not be a surprise to anyone who knows it’s supposed to be a surprise. Language, sex, and unsavory characters (especially Simon) make this a questionable use of time for teens, but its Amazon page boasts 22,619 reader reviews, the sequel came out last year, and the series is streaming on NBC Peacock now.

They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera. Quill Tree Books (paperback), 2018, 416 pages

Reading Level: Teen, ages 14-17

Death-Cast called a little after midnight to give Matteo Torrez the news:

I regret to inform you that sometime in the next twenty-four hours you will be meeting an untimely death. On behalf of everyone here at Death-Cast, we are so sorry to lose you. Live this day to the fullest, okay?

Nice of them to warn him. But who are “they”? and why does Death-Cast single out so many teenagers? That’s never explained; it’s just the near-future world Matteo lives in. And it presents him with the age-old question: if you learned that you had just one more day to live, what would you do? Especially if you’re only 18? You could log into and leave funeral directions, or go to the CountDowners app to contact others (select age, interests, location) who received the same call. Matteo, largely friendless and motherless—and dadless, now that his dad is in a coma (this kid can’t catch a break)—visits his one friend first, though he can’t bring himself to tell her the bad news.

Less than an hour later, Rufus Emeterio receives his call from Death-Cast while in the middle of beating up his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend. Rufus does have connections, but no family. (They all died in a crash—the death ratio is really high in this book.) Needless to say, the one friend he needs is the one he will unexpectedly meet during his last 24 hours. It’s clear by the end that Matteo and Rufus are headed for more than friendship—but then they die.

These characters are more nuanced than in One of Us is Lying, but in spite of the author’s best efforts to make death “meaningful” without Christ, there’s no way. Still, the novel is provocative enough to rack up over 24,000 reader reviews on Amazon, and a TV series is in production.

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson. Delacorte, 2020, 400 pages

Reading Level: Teen, ages 14-17

Five years earlier, a sensational murder case rocked Pippa Fitz-Amobi’s home town. Andrea (Andy) Bell, age 17, left her house to pick up her parents at a country-club gathering and never showed up. Her car was located, but not Andy. Clues and tips yielded no results. About a week later, the body of her boyfriend, Salim (Sal) Singh was discovered in the woods with a plastic bag over his head and an empty bottle of sleeping pills by his side. The dots were easy to connect: Sal had murdered Andy and then, unable to live with his crime, committed suicide.

Pippa was in middle school when it happened. Now she’s a senior at the same high school. For her Capstone project—something like a senior thesis—she’s proposes a study of how news media influence the course of a crime investigation. Her ulterior motive (one her faculty advisor would never approve) is to essentially reopen the investigation, because she doesn’t think Sal did it. Just a hunch, but what if she’s correct? From this unique, if unlikely, premise the novel becomes a standard murder mystery with suspects to be eliminated and secrets to be uncovered. There’s some bad language and one ancillary lesbian character, but no sex—just a developing boy-girl romance that may develop further in the two sequels. Two sequels have been published so far.

More at Redeemed Reader:

Reflection: Further thoughts on dark YA can be found here, here and here.

Reviews: It’s a challenge to find good YA reads, but we try. To browse all our YA reviews, start here. Also see 10 True Stories for Teens, Rounding up Some Good YA Reads, and Worthy YA: The Best Teen Reads of 2017.

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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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  1. Cody on May 18, 2022 at 11:44 am

    I don’t mind predictable plots when they’re not trying to be unpredictable, but predictable twists annoy me, so it sounds like I wouldn’t be a big fan of One of Us Is Lying.

    • Janie Cheaney on May 19, 2022 at 6:34 am

      I’m not a big mystery reader, but if I can figure it out midway through, it’s not much of a surprise!

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