Ask Me When This Trend Will Die? I Can Not Tell a Lie by Josh Newhouse
This is not your parents’ Nancy Drew mystery. While there are elements of Nancy and her gang in all mysteries subsequent, the real inspiration I see in the current growing subgenre of what I have dubbed PG-13 Serial Killer Fiction, is the lead character of Veronica Mars, with a hint of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and just a dash of the adult serial killer chaser fiction like James Patterson’s Alex Cross series.
Truly, the hunt for mass-murdering sociopaths does not sound like traditional young adult literature, however, I have noted the trend growing in recent years of bringing these tales to the new generation of readers by featuring empowered teenage females with unusual gifts as the foil for the killer. Today we are going to look most closely at two recent examples, Ask Me by Kimberly Pauley and When By Victoria Laurie, however they are definitely not in a vacuum. Despite having a team of gifted teens as protagonists, I would plunk the fantastic ensemble thriller, The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes right in the mix, and despite having a male lead with no distinctly supernatural powers, I feel I would be remiss in not mentioning Barry Lyga’s I Hunt Killers series, featuring a literal son of Son of Sam, in Jasper “Jazz” Dent, whose special skill is his uncomfortably close knowledge of the mind of the serial killer based on his dad’s infamy.
As a media specialist, I have been getting asked for the scary books for over 10 years now. In middle school, for 6th and 7th graders especially this has typically meant ghost stories, and other tales of supernatural horror. I believe as they mature, our 8th graders are increasingly looking for chills, yet the quest for supernatural villainy has been replaced by a fascination with all-too-human villainy in a still-scary and slightly supernatural package… hence the rise of this dark array of titles.
In my experience both of these titles appeal especially well to my 8th grade advanced female readers, as well as high schoolers. Unsurprisingly, both books feature strong yet flawed female leads. There is a little bit of wish fulfillment in the special-nature of the abilities of both main characters, yet both are cautionary tales in the sense that their abilities put them dead in the spotlight, and this is often uncomfortable.
In Ask Me, Aria is a modern-day Oracle; both blessed and doomed to answer any question she may hear. The idea of knowing everything as a teenager may sound like a dream, but in Aria’s case it becomes a nightmare, estranging herself from her peers, putting her and those she loves in danger and obscuring the truth until it may be too late. At times bitingly funny, while at other times surprisingly morose, Aria is a great entry character for students looking for themselves as protagonist, and hero.
Similarly, in Laurie’s When, the heroine Maddie sees the future, and once again is doomed not to be believed until great tragedy comes into her life. While Aria sees all of the answers, Maddie sees just one for each person she encounters in life or in photographs, “When will they die?” Again this sounds like a great ability to have, being able to save lives, yet Maddie discovers that this too divides her from those who know her as a freak, others an ominous indicator of sad times coming, and even as a target of investigation and possibly murder. Knowing when people will die is not a great power if you are powerless to change what you see.
In both books, it’s a refreshing change for the reader to see the males as the damsels in distress, eye candy or characters defined only by the main characters’ relationship with them. Adults too fall by the characterization wayside, falling into those who are either suspicious of the ladies with these abilities or buffoon-like foils in large part.
Whether it’s in the building tension of trying desperately to locate the killer of Ask Me, or the pain of not being able to prevent a sad loss in When, both books will have readers enthralled. Neither has content I would consider above the PG-13 marker, though as always your mileage will vary, and as both are entertaining well-written reads, I would strongly suggest you read them first. The two make a great one-two punch.
If you asked When’s protagonist when the trend will die, she would probably project a date many years in the future, while Ask Me’s truth-teller would probably say “Projection hazy. Try again later.” As long as we have estranged teenagers, especially teenage girls looking for heroes, and quality writers like Pauley, Laurie, Barnes and Lyga out there creating them, the PG-13 serial killer subgenre is here to stay! I look forward to following its evolution, and welcome your feedback in the comments on anything especially with regards to:
- What books have I criminally neglected to mention within the sub-genre?
- Why do you think this sub-genre blossomed of late?
Josh Newhouse (@NewhouseOn) shares on a variety of topics as the muse hits him at https://newhouseon.wordpress.com/. His involvement in various capacities with the Florida Sunshine State Young Reader’s List, a voracious reading appetite and connections with colleagues from across the country have allowed him to follow these mantras: Be nice to people, and good things will happen. Share everything you learn in pursuit of learning and innovation. Read everything and share it with the world around you. Be a part of a larger learning community. At home Josh has a wonderful wife also in education, and a smart-as-a-whip two-year-old girl and eight-year-old boy who challenge him and make him feel truly fulfilled. Thanks to the Nerdy Book Club for this opportunity, and to the authors for writing the books to make it happen.