10 Young Adult Books That Should Be Made into TV ShowsHeader photo: Facebook Watch TV Lists young adult
If you have Facebook—and in 2018 (woe to our democracy), who doesn’t—then you have access to the platform’s nascent television network, Facebook Watch, where Sacred Lies, an adaptation of Stephanie Oakes’ 2015 YA debut, The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly, just premiered.
The adaptation, starring Elena Kampouris as a teenager who escaped from a cult after having her hands chopped off with a hatchet and Kevin Carroll as the FBI expert on cults sent to investigate her case, is dark and artistically unsettling, and such an outlier in the teen television landscape as it melodramatically stands that it is easy to argue (as in, I did) that it should be seen as teen television’s opening shot across prestige’s bow.
The book the show is based on, however, is no outlier: YA literature is brimming with prestige-level storytelling that, if not always dark and violent enough to match prestige as it is known in Westeros, Albuquerque, or Gilead, is at least more tonally far-ranging and complex than most teen television has been allowed to be in the last decade. YA literature is so chockablock with quality stories just waiting to shake up the teen and prestige television status quo, in fact, that I made an actionable list!
Below are ten YA properties that could be adapted into vibrant, critically acclaimed teen television this minute, along with who should do the adaptations, and where those adaptations should land. Hollywood? Call me.
Bruiser by Neal Shusterman
Year of Publication: 2011
Ideal Adaptor: Jeff Davis (Teen Wolf)
Ideal Network: Hulu
I really wanted to give Holly Black’s White Cat supernatural con artist series to Teen Wolf’s Jeff Davis, but as much as I love that story, and as much as I would love to see Davis incorporate Black’s brutally lovely writing into his own signature brand of compassionate horror, White Cat is ultimately not so far removed from the likes of Shadowhunters, The Originals, and, yes, Teen Wolf that it fits my own brief for this list.
Neal Shusterman’s standalone tough-guy-as-empath novel, Bruiser, however, does. In centering its story on a thuggish dude voted “Most Likely to Get the Death Penalty” by his classmates (think, Heath Ledger in 10 Things I Hate About You), who a pair of twin sisters learn is as lonerish as he is because he has an ability (curse) to take on the physical, emotional, and psychological pains of anyone he grows emotionally close to, it both upends the toxic narratives of masculinity that we are fighting tooth and claw every day, and offers multiple necessary models—for dudes and non-dudes both—of how to be empathetic towards the hidden complexities of others.
As for why Jeff Davis would be the best guy in Hollywood to take on Brewster, Tennyson, Brontë, and Cody’s utterly wolf-free story in Bruiser, well, anyone who watched Teen Wolf closely knows just how central masculine tenderness was to the whole show, and just how skilled Davis is at portraying tough dudes whose high emotional acuity only makes their strength the greater. It’s hard to imagine anyone better than Davis to make Brewster’s story matter.
And why Hulu? Well, Runaways needs a solid programming companion. Bruiser would do nicely.
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart
Year of Publication: 2008
Ideal Adaptors: Carter Covington (Faking It, 10 Things I Hate About You), Dana Goodman (Faking It), Julia Lea Wolov (Faking It)
Ideal Network: Facebook Watch
MTV’s deeply good and funny Faking It might have been all about (like, all about) relationships, but seeing how rich and zany its take on school identity politics was, it is clear that the same lens, trained not on Karma and Amy’s painfully progressive public high school in Austin but instead on Frankie Landau-Banks’ painfully regressive boarding school in New England, could produce the most cacklingly savage criticism of America’s moneyed white patriarchy of the Trump era.
As for why I’m certain Facebook Watch is the right platform for this one, Frankie’s whole approach to tearing down the regressive traditions at her school is one of clandestine shenanigans, and Facebook Watch is the only platform right now where watching anything still feels not just private and a bit secret, but kind of real. Beyond that, though, what Frankie does is pranks, and Facebook, having control over Instagram, can expand her story—like SKAM Austin’s—there, and by extension make her pranks feel like they are actually happening at some real school in the real world in ways traditional platforms couldn’t.
Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John
Year of Publication: 2010
Ideal Adaptors: Lizzy Weiss (Switched at Birth), Carrie Brownstein (Sleater Kinney, Portlandia), and any one of the talented filmmaking team behind Deaf Film Camp Mark Seven
Ideal Network: The newly announced MTV Studios (extremely wired Xennial voice: I remember when they used to play music videos)
AKA, “The Music One.” With Glee long off the air and Rise recently falling flat on its too-earnest face, there is space once more for a music-oriented teen drama—and I feel very strongly that it should be about high school’s glorious and long-lived garage band scene. Screw show choir. Screw musical theater. We are in an Age of Unreason! We NEED dirtbag teen rockers cathartically screaming their lungs out in front of hordes of dirtbag teen fans cathartically moshing in a close, sweaty pit.
Thankfully, dirtbag teen rockers (and all their moshing fans) have a gigantic YA footprint—so gigantic, in fact, that I’m kind of starting to resent MTV for not having already made this subgenre their explicit specialty a decade ago. Jesse Andrews’ The Haters! Tara Kelly’s Amplified! K.L. Going’s Fat Kid Rules the World! (Before you blast me, I am aware that Fat Kid was Kickstarted into a movie by SLC Punk’s own Matthew Lillard—I even backed it! Alas, an indie film, no matter how punk rock, does not our national appetite for serialized storytelling satisfy.) Any one of these would be welcome additions to the teen television landscape.
The garage band YA that would be most at home on teen TV in 2018, though, is Antony John’s funny, fist-pumping, joyfully raucous Five Flavors of Dumb, which takes place in grunge’s capital of Seattle and follows Deaf teenager/band manager Piper as she attempts not only to wrangle the five demanding members of her high school band, Dumb, into some semblance of order, but to get them a paying gig. Obviously Piper’s deafness is a major part of her identity, and informs her approach to managing the band/appreciating rock music in general, but it is not the entire or even most important point of her/Dumb’s story. A little bit feminist, a little bit DisVisibility, a lot punk rock—it is, as we liberal media critics so dearly love, the definition of inclusive and intersectional. And with Switched at Birth’s Lizzy Weiss all but available, Washington’s homegrown rocker Carrie Brownstein newly available, and the team at Deaf Film Camp Mark Seven cultivating young Deaf filmmaking talent at a breakneck pace, the right team for Piper and the ballsy bandmates of Dumb is ready, too.
This, but with five teens, and Piper managing from backstage, please!
Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero
Year of Publication: 2015
Ideal Adaptors: Gina Rodriguez and Jennie Snyder Urman (Jane the Virgin)
Ideal Network: Netflix
Not that Netflix needs to take any more great projects away from the slates of other networks, but between the bold teen television reputation (and audience) it has built for itself with On My Block, End of the F***ing World, and 13 Reasons Why, and the greater content freedom not being subservient to ads allows, there really is no better home for an adaptation of Isabel Quintero’s viscerally challenging Gabi, a Girl in Pieces than the streaming
king queen—and with the firestorm over Insatiable’s fat representation looming on Netflix’s August horizon, a thoughtfully executed series starring a self-loving gordita fat girl girl in pieces, whose source material is dedicated to “all the gorditas, flaquitas, and in-between girls trying to make their space in the world,” might be just the thing for them to take on in good faith to expand—or, if necessary, correct—their approach to telling empowering stories about being a teen girl, being fat, being anything other than what mainstream patriarchal, white culture expects from you. Plus, it would open up the kind of wildly complex lead role that could launch an under-the-radar fat Latina actress into stardom.
As for who should take the adaptation of Gabi Hernandez’s collage-filled, zine-heavy story on—duh. There’s no team better right now in Hollywood than the reigning lady boss of fostering on-screen Latinx representation, Gina Rodriguez, and her storytelling fairy godmother, Jennie Snyder Urman—who, not incidentally, is behind the new Latinx-focused reboot of Charmed, and so likely has a whole file of stellar Latina actresses in her pocket that were right for something, just not that. Between Rodriguez, Urman, and their shared experience dexterously mixing media, big ideas, Latinx representation and love all together in the same television story, the innovative charms of Gabi’s whole deal will be in great hands.
Kill All Happies by Rachel Cohn
Year of Publication: 2017
Ideal Adaptors: Madeline Whitby and Monica Sherer (Betch)
Ideal Network: The CW (limited series)
Millennial sketch comedy’s best-kept secret is Maddy Whitby and Monica Sherer’s Betch, which has been skewering the experience of being a young woman in the cultural minefield that is the 2010s for six (six!) seasons on go90 (RIP). Kill All Happies, which made Paste’s Best Audiobooks of 2017 list, is a recent YA novel about a girl named Vic Navarro throwing a blowout fiasco at a fast food franchise’s shuttered amusement park/going to all-out war with a local beauty-queen-turned-humorless-capitalist-monster (#relevant) on the eve of their high school graduation. The CW is home to a bunch of adult superheroes, two adult broads soap opera-ing through technicolor dreamworlds, and, somehow, hot Archie solving/doing murders.
As far as the first two go, both Betch and Kill All Happies are bright, boisterous, and full of unapologetically loud, unapologetically flawed female voices, with Kill All Happies featuring a majority non-white cast—including a pair of biracial Mexican-Korean brothers as love interests for multiracial Vic—and Betch’s Season Six “DADCHELLA” is serendipitous proof-of-concept for Kill All Happies’ key third act “Olds crash the party” turn.
As far as The CW goes, the bright, boisterous, loudly female-forward worlds of Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are going away after next season, which will leave Riverdale—already isolated (sort of) in the sea of superheroes—to wallow in its moody broodiness alone. Cue: Kill All Happies’ cheery, frenetic froth, the perfect antidote for even Jughead’s gloom. A story about a single long night’s party, it’s even built to burn bright and fast, meaning The CW can put in a single half-season order for 2019, then happily go off shopping for the next longterm project for 2020, while Sherer and Whitby can get their hands dirty with their first serialized project before themselves moving on to something new. So while I hope the Betches reemerge somewhere great after go90 unceremoniously shutters this week, whenever they are ready for a new challenge, Kill All Happies could become their, and The CW’s no-holds-barred, tits-to-the-wall, this is what being young and alive in the age of obsessive niche internet fandoms breakout. Truly a win-win-win.
Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert
Year of Publication: 2017
Ideal Adaptors: Mara Brock Akil (Being Mary Jane, Black Lightning), Dee Rees (Mudbound)
Ideal Network: Freeform
From The Bold Type to Siren to Cloak & Dagger, Freeform is not messing around with its brand evolution. Were it to add Brandy Colbert’s intersectionally powerful, Stonewall Book Award-winning Little & Lion to its lineup, that evolution would only be stronger. Like the last series of the ABCFamily/Freeform bridge generation, The Fosters, Little & Lion features a multiracial family who strongly love one another but also regularly deal with incredibly serious subjects (in this case, mental illness). Like Pretty Little Liars and The Bold Type, Little & Lion delves into sexuality and features multiple queer characters. Like nothing but itself, it weaves those stories together into something new and lovely.
To get writer/producer Mara Brock Akil and filmmaker Dee Rees behind the adaptation—together wielding experience in stories about strong families working through tough stuff and stories about black women finding their voice in the world—Freeform could have a show on its hands that is not only narratively compelling, but visually arresting.
The Montmaray Journals by Michelle Cooper
Year of Publication: 2008-2012
Ideal Adaptor: Heidi Thomas (Call the Midwife, I Capture the Castle, Lilies)
Ideal Network: YouTube Premium, with a year-after deal with PBS’s Masterpiece à la Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife
There are few YA series I try to handsell to more people than Michelle Cooper’s Montmaray Journals trilogy, which follows the “eccentric and impoverished” royal family of the skeletally populated fictional island nation of Montmaray before, during, and after the Second World War via (Princess) Sophie FitzOsborne’s teenage diaries. As a period piece with upstairs-downstairs culture regularly turned on its head, it is an Anglophile’s dream; as a WWII story, it is gutting; as a way to sneak some pretty progressive sexual politics into British-ish royal history, it is dead clever.
It is, in other words, exactly what Heidi Thomas of the low-key cultural juggernaut Call the Midwife is perfect for—and it is exactly the next compelling direction YouTube Premium should turn in order to capture its least likely demographic yet: The period fiends.
Were it to cut a deal with PBS similar to what Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife did—allowing the public broadcaster to air Montmaray seasons as part of Masterpiece months after their original air date, in this case, behind YouTube Premium’s paywall—it would be even more likely for the show’s fandom to eventually shell out for the Premium subscription.
I, meanwhile, will get to live in the FitzOsbornes’ world once more, and revel in the expansion of teen television to include beautifully styled period sets.
On the Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
Year of Publication: 2008 (2006 in Australia)
Ideal Adaptors: Josh Thomas (Please Like Me), Imogen Banks (Australia’s Puberty Blues), Reese Witherspoon (Big Little Lies)
Ideal Network: HBO (limited series)
One of the truths most universally acknowledged in the world of Young Adult literature is that the Australian YA scene is absolute fire—while the titles are always midlist or lower, rarely does a YA book come out of Australia to anything less than critical acclaim.
Melina Marchetta’s On the Jellicoe Road (just Jellicoe Road in the US), though, is on another level entirely. Not one person I know who has read it has come away doing anything less than raving, weeping, and firmly affixing it to their Top 10 list. I have only just gotten enough space from my first reading ten years ago to enjoy reading it again, so I won’t do any spoiling for you of this story that is part mystery, part boarding school drama, part emotional flashback, but know that if teen television wants to take a real stab at prestige-level artistry (beyond Facebook Watch), there are fewer perfect places to start than this.
As for the bold adaptation team and network I’m proposing, look: With Big Little Lies making such a transpacific splash, Josh Thomas floating around Hollywood, presumably ready for a new project, and HBO reportedly looking to expand its market to include more commercially attractive projects, the time is right for Australian YA to hit premium cable. Add Imogen Banks’ long CV of Australian television to the mix, and I can’t see Jellicoe Road being anything less than the next watercooler favorite.
Vivian Apple at the End of the World by Katie Coyle
Year of Publication: 2015 (2013 in the U.K.)
Ideal Adaptors: Lakshmi Sundaram (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Master of None) with Stephanie Savage and Josh Schwartz (Runaways)
Ideal Network: BBC America
BBC America is not generally among the networks thought of when teen television is discussed, but it has spent the last half dozen years regularly proving just how capable it is at doing precisely the things that no one would ever think of when BBC America is discussed, so it seems about time for them to get in on the teen scene. Cue: Vivian Apple at the End of the World. Its absurdly serious/conspiratorial sensibilities fall neatly in line with the Dirk Gentlys and Orphan Blacks of the network’s recent past, and having been originally released only in the U.K. (where it was titled Vivian Apple Versus the Apocalypse), it even has a weirdly specific British connection, to boot.
Why I picked Vivian Apple for adaptation at all, though, is a matter of greater urgency. The events that lead to America’s descent into a dystopian hellscape ruled over by murderous religious zealots in the Vivian Apple books was obviously recognizable re: our status quo when the first book was released in the U.S. in 2015, but as the evangelical support of Trump has calcified and bolstered violent white, cis, and straight supremacy in the last couple years, the book’s spooky relevancy has only grown. To get quiet Vivian, her loudmouth BFF Harpreet Janda, and her hypocrisy-smashing sledgehammer on our screens now isn’t just a matter of personal interest—it is, as far as I am concerned, a matter of cultural necessity.
And as for the adaptation team I’ve assembled? Stephanie Savage and Josh Schwartz, the creative collaborators behind the dreamy SoCal vibes on Runaways and the cutting New York social scene on Gossip Girl, need little explanation, and even less introduction. Lakshmi Sundaram, on the other hand, might not be as familiar to you—that is, unless you have read my breakdown of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s best 9 episodes and noticed that her name was attached to just about all of them, including “Halloween II,” the Pontiac Bandit series, and “The Swedes.” She’s Schur-trained and has the comedy-with-heart chops: Vivian and Harp deserve no less.
The Sharp Time by Mary O’Connell
Year of Publication: 2011
Ideal Adaptor: Jenn Kaytin Robinson (Sweet/Vicious)
Ideal Network: Apple
Look, I don’t feel great relegating the truly excellent, utterly slept-on The Sharp Time to a studio/platform that I have yet to be convinced is truly going to be A Thing, but as a studio/platform that doesn’t yet exist, Apple is in the unique position to validate and normalize the idea of prestige-level teen fare by planting a property like The Sharp Time smack in the middle of its initial programming, right there alongside Oprah, Reese Witherspoon, Damien Chazelle, Kevin Durant, and the Sesame Workshop. They already have teen movie queen Hailee Steinfeld on board for an Emily Dickinson bildungsroman—pairing another, less buzzworthy teen project with that would be an almost surefire way to make a significant prestige teen television move.
As for who I would most want to adapt The Sharp Time, which follows teenager Sandinista Jones through the grief, rage, instability, and urge for revenge following her mother’s death, the list starts and ends with Sweet/Vicious’ Jenn Kaytin Robinson. The friendship at the heart of The Sharp Time may not be between two girls, but Robinson knows from friendship borne of grief—and she knows even more from complicated stories of vengeance. She also has the aesthetic vision to balance the poetic sadness of Sandinista’s story with the funky eccentricities of the vintage clothing shop so much of that story (and Sandinista’s healing) takes place in.
Apple, call your office: I want to see this on your upcoming slate ASAP.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.