Thrillers have been surging again in YA literature for the last few years. The popularity of thrillers ebbs and flows in YA (raise your hand if you devoured I Know What You Did Last Summer in the 90’s like I did), but Kate McManus’ One of Us Is Lying brought this genre to the top again in a big way, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Thrillers are also a perennial favorite among the middle grade crowd. What’s the appeal behind this genre, and what can we offer young thrill-seekers?
Thrillers give you a rush of adrenaline
It’s no surprise that a lot of kids like to read something that keeps them on the edge of their seats. Thrillers are a subsection of the mystery genre, usually with high stakes, big secrets, and a race to uncover the truth that involves some risky business. Thrillers have the heart-pounding grab of horror, but usually without the big scares and monsters. This can be appealing to kids who like excitement, but find ghosts and creepy settings too scary. In a thriller, the protagonist gets to do a lot of things kids are expressly told not to: run, fight, spy, pick locks, and participate in general mayhem. Thrillers also have some variety: some have fantasy or sci-fi elements, and some are strictly realistic. This can help uncertain readers bridge the gap between genres.
Thrillers give kids the edge over all knowing bad guys – aka grown-ups
The enemy in a thriller is usually someone secretive, all-knowing, and all-powerful. They often seem one step ahead of the protagonist, and might manipulate the protagonist into doing certain tasks. Now who might that sound like in a kid’s life? Parents, teachers, mean babysitters – kid life is full of adults wielding all the power.
Of course, most kids don’t have adults literally blackmailing them into dangerous scenarios, but they probably do have a caregiver who seems to know everything, is constantly watching them, and who will take away their Switch if they don’t do what they are told. In a thriller, it’s the young protagonist who gets the upper hand in the end, and who can unmask the bad guy. (Incidentally, this is also how thrillers work psychologically for adult readers, except the bad guys are no longer stand-ins for our parents, but stand-ins for our bosses, or our governments). Thrillers for middle grade also often feature the protagonist being unjustly accused of something they didn’t do. Every kid has lived through this at least once. In a thriller, the protagonist can prove their innocence and be exonerated, in a way that kids sometimes can’t.
Thrillers can be quick reads
Thrillers are often faster-paced than the equally popular fantasy genre. While we love a good culturally-diverse mythology series, sometimes those books are thick bricks and even strong readers can struggle to get through them. Short chapters and cliffhangers can help entice readers to turn pages. Thrillers often (but not always) have less description and detail, and more dialogue and quick action. Thrillers that blend into other genres, like sci-fi or historical fiction, are the main exceptions to this. This genre is also usually made up of a good mix of series and stand-alone titles. This means that kids who like to get a connection to a protagonist can follow their favorite detective, and kids who shy away from big reading commitments can get a satisfying story in just 300 pages or less.
Ideas for Thrilling Programs
- Escape rooms. Racing against time to solve a mystery is a perfect thrill. Check out this ALSC post about hosting an in-person escape room, and this one about hosting one virtually.
- Spy activities and crime solving. Breaking codes or making invisible ink will help future spies communicate in secret against their evil adult overlords. Check out this post about mystery programs for more.
- Write your own thriller. One super simple way to host a creative writing program for kids is to make up cards in advance with typical elements from thriller stories. You’ll want settings (a secret passage, an old museum, a school after dark, etc), characters (the new kid, a detective, a smuggler, etc), and thriller elements (a secret letter, a stolen jewel, someone in disguise, etc). As a group, draw a card from each type and use those to create a story together. You can draw it on a whiteboard, outline it, or write it out. Next, turn the kids loose to draw their own cards and make up their own stories individually or in pairs.
What are your must-read middle grade thrillers? Help me add to my towering TBR list!
Today’s blogger is Chelsey Roos. Chelsey has been a member of ALSC’s Advocacy and Legislation committee, and is a children’s librarian for the Santa Clara County Library.
This blog relates to ALSC Core Competencies of I. Commitment to Client Group, and IV. Knowledge, Curation, and Management of Materials