My Guilty Pleasure

The bountiful state of young adult and middle grade literature in North Carolina

By Emily Colin

The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments, Veronica Roth’s Divergent, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars — these are just a few of the young adult book series that have achieved best-seller status in recent years and hung on tight. Each of them has become a movie or TV series — some arguably far better than others. They’ve garnered a diverse international readership, from the teenagers for whom they were written to adults who fell in love with young adult (YA) lit all over again. And they tackle tough issues — poverty, war, loss, terminal illness, being different from the norm in a censorious, unaccepting culture.

I will freely admit that reading YA lit is one of my guilty pleasures (let’s just say that you could fit an entire K-12 education within the years since I graduated from college). For me, the appeal is, in part, the intensity and extremity of the characters’ emotions — which comes along, of course, with being a teenager. But it’s also the quality of the writing and the complex, intricate, original world-building that’s present in so many of the YA fantasy novels on shelves today. And then there’s the fact that so many YA books are written as series, which I adore.

There’s some debate as to precisely how the genre is defined, but walk into any bookstore or type “YA lit” into your search engine of choice, and you’ll have a solid idea of what the market will bear: A lot. Even The New York Times has its own Young Adult Hardcover best-seller list, and the Books section of NPR’s website has an entire page dedicated to YA titles — solid fodder for those of us who feel as if we must keep our YA reading habit a dirty little secret.

One of the best parts of discovering the emergent world of YA lit was realizing just how many talented writers we have right here in North Carolina — and being able to engage with them in person. Last summer, I drove to Chapel Hill for the Flyleaf Books stop of the “Dangerous Ladies’ 2.0 Tour,” featuring North Carolina YA authors Beth Revis (A World Without You), Megan Miranda (The Safest Lies) and Megan Shepherd (The Hunt). The last was one of my favorite YA reads this past season, with points for sheer originality — imagine a human zoo in outer space, and you’ll get the picture. It’s the first book in a trilogy, and the third volume — The Gauntlet — came out on May 23. Run, don’t walk, to the nearest bookstore and devour all three of them in one gulp.

I bought Beth Revis’ book at the Dangerous Ladies’ tour and sacrificed many hours of sleep, turning the pages until the sun rose. A World Without You delves deep into mental health issues, walking the delicate line between imagined truth and reality with finesse, so that the reader is left guessing until the last minute. This is one of the magic tricks that YA lit can do so well — give teens a glimpse into others’ lives, create a sense of community, and help them feel that they are not alone. Too heavy for a summer read? Pick up a copy of Revis’ new Rebel Rising, a novel focused on the early life of Jyn Erso, the heroine of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Although my personal taste runs to YA, I have a 12-year-old son, and we listen to a lot of middle grade (MG) audiobooks together. When it comes to figuring out what to download next, I often turn to the inimitable KidLit Drink Night Podcast, a self-described “podcast for grownups about kids’ books” hosted by North Carolina author Amy Kurtz Skelding and facilitated by the Superfriends — fellow North Carolina kid-lit authors Karen Staman (MG writer and Gryffindor), Stephen Messer (Windblowne) and Leigh Statham (The Perilous Journey of the Not-So-Innocuous Girl).

KidLit Drink Night has introduced me — and, by proxy, my son — to some fabulous North Carolina middle grade authors, including Hillsborough-based John Claude Bemis, whose most recent series, an imaginative retelling of the Pinocchio story for MG readers, features two books thus far: The Wooden Prince and the just-released Lord of Monsters. I also hold KidLit Drink Night responsible for the spellbound hours we spent listening to the Serafina series, MG mystery-thrillers set at Biltmore Estate with a strong-willed — and highly unusual — female protagonist. Written by Asheville-based author Robert Beatty, the third book in the No. 1 New York Times best-selling series Serafina and the Splintered Heart came out on July 4.

YA and MG lit can provide a fabulous venue for imagination and escape, but it can also give young readers the opportunity to explore challenging issues through the lens of fiction. Prolific North Carolina author Alan Gratz’s new MG novel, Refugee, which came out on July 25, follows the stories of three displaced children seeking refuge from unrest — a Jewish boy in 1930s Germany, a Cuban girl in 1994, and a Syrian boy in 2015. And Asheville writer Joanne O’Sullivan’s April debut, Between Two Skies — which received starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus and Shelf Awareness — tells the story of a teenage girl dealing with devastation, loss and romance in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

As I write this, some exciting new kid-lit releases are just around the corner: the anthology Brave New Girls: Stories of Girls Who Science and Scheme (coming August 1), featuring stories from North Carolina writers Michelle Leonard and Karissa Laurel; and UNC Wilmington professor David Macinnis Gill’s September release, the YA supernatural thriller Uncanny. September is a hot month for North Carolina kid-lit authors: You won’t want to miss Leigh Statham’s Daughter4254, a YA dystopian novel that began its life on the online storytelling community Wattpad, where it garnered over 1 million reads.

One of the stars in North Carolina’s YA firmament is Renee Adhieh, the author of The Wrath and the Dawn, a reimagining of The Arabian Nights, as well as the recently released Flame in the Mist, set against the backdrop of feudal Japan. Another member of the Dangerous Ladies tour (though the cast rotates and I didn’t get a chance to see her in Chapel Hill), Adhieh is involved with the We Need Diverse Books project, which is committed to the inclusion of diverse characters in literature for young people. This diversity — of ethnicity, religion, gender, ability, sexuality, culture and more — is crucial to allowing YA and MG lit to do what they do best: create a mirror in which young people can see themselves, and a portal through which they can step, carrying with them their flawed, vivid, amazing selves . . . envisioning a world in which hope matters, actions make a difference, and even the most fragile of dreams are embers that just require a breath of oxygen to roar to life.

Colin’s first novel, The Memory Thief (Ballantine Books, 2012), was a New York Times best-seller and Target Emerging Authors Pick. Publishers Weekly calls her second book, The Dream Keeper’s Daughter (Ballantine, 2017), “a splendid mix of time travel, romantic yearning, and moving on after grief,” and Romance Reviews Today recognized it with their Perfect 10 Award.

Emily Colin is the former associate director of DREAMS of Wilmington, a nonprofit serving youth in need through the arts. Visit her at or find her on Twitter, extolling the virtues of being a Gryffindor, at @emilyacolin.

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