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Playing hooky goes terribly awry in young adult thriller 'You'll Be the Death of Me'

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

I never did, but most everybody else probably played hooky at some point during school. Maybe you ditched class to grab some food or go to the mall - innocent teenage stuff. Well, that was the plan for classmates Ivy, Cal and Mateo, characters in Karen M. McManus's latest thriller for young adults called "You'll Be The Death Of Me." And from the title, you've probably already guessed that things don't go as planned. Karen McManus, whose previous books include the bestselling YA thriller "One Of Us Is Lying," joins us now from Cambridge, Mass.

Welcome to the program.

KAREN MCMANUS: Thank you so much for having me.

RASCOE: So first of all, can you kind of set the scene for us and tell us about these characters in "You'll Be The Death Of Me"? Like, what ties them together?

MCMANUS: Yes. So these three characters were good friends in middle school. And their friendship was cemented when they snuck out of a very boring class trip and spent the day in Boston. And then they drifted apart, as kids often do. And now in their senior year of high school, they're no longer friends. But all of them are at the start of a very bad day when the book opens. So when they run into one another, they think, why not recreate that amazing day we had in middle school? - with, as you mentioned, not so great results.

RASCOE: So I know you can't give away too many details, but can you tell us a little bit about this mystery that is kicked off when these kids go out and play hooky?

MCMANUS: Yeah. So what happens is, you know, they very quickly realize they have almost nothing in common. They're regretting this day off. And they go to get some coffee. They end up spotting one of their classmates who happens to be the person who just beat Ivy out for the student council elections. She follows him essentially to the scene of his own murder, and then the three of them have to figure out what to do with this horrific event. And so their classmates begin to speculate what may have happened. And all of them actually do have ties to what happened that they're not sharing with one another.

RASCOE: This book does touch on the opioid epidemic. And so what went into the decision of, like, touching on that topic?

MCMANUS: Yeah. I do like to grounds my mysteries in real-world issues. And this is a suburb these kids live in that on the surface looks very calm. It's a fairly privileged community, but it's still affected. And a lot of my readers, I'm sure, know people who are affected by the crisis. I certainly had people I care about have issues of addiction. And it's something that I wanted to address what feels maybe like just a small ripple as part of this overall crisis can have long-reaching effects, and that I hope, you know, my readers, particularly my young readers, think about that as they're making decisions.

RASCOE: You've published five thrillers so far. And I know that you say that your ideas come from all sorts of sources. Can you give some examples of, like, how things you've maybe encountered in the real world end up making up the foundation or just, like, the starting point of a book? How do you go from that to a book?

MCMANUS: Yeah. It's always different. This particular book had its genesis when I was on a panel with other young adult authors, and "One Of Us Is Lying" had just come out. And people were calling that the "Breakfast Club" but with murder. And so they were joking with me, I should just add murder to all the '80s movies, like "Pretty In Pink" with murder.

RASCOE: (Laughter) Yeah.

MCMANUS: And I remember thinking, OK, "Ferris Bueller" would actually work because that starts with somebody doing something they shouldn't. And that is a solid foundation for the type of book that I write. But it was just a tiny little kernel of an idea. It's set in Boston, of course, where I live. So I would be downtown looking around, and I would be thinking about penguins at the aquarium and how I could work those into the story somehow.

RASCOE: That was a part of it. Go see the penguins.

MCMANUS: Yes.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

MCMANUS: Very important takeaway.

RASCOE: (Laughter) Yes. Speaking of John Hughes' movies, this was "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" with murder. And I - you know, I love a murder mystery, so I think all stories should have a little bit of murder in them. That's something that I liked. But (laughter) with John Hughes, who got famous in the '80s - for people who may not know - with a series of very beloved comedies about teenagers, that's a different genre. But is there something about the way Hughes wrote about teenage life that inspired you? Or, like, did you take anything from that?

MCMANUS: Yeah. You know, I think there are some really universal themes that he tackled. With "Ferris," you know, there's this notion of kind of, like, finding yourself and asserting your independence. And Ferris, of course, is enormously self-confident, which is wonderful about him. My characters don't have that. But they do learn about themselves and about their strengths and their weaknesses, and that allows them to resolve what they're facing.

RASCOE: So your books are both about and for young adults. What is it about, like, your characters of that age that compels you to write about them?

MCMANUS: It's such a fascinating time of life. You are experiencing a lot of things for the first time, so emotions are very close to the surface. And I think when you couple that with the kind of mysteries I like to write and those high stakes, you're putting characters in situations where they're having to make choices that start to define who they're going to be as an adult.

RASCOE: And they're too young to be jaded.

MCMANUS: Yes.

RASCOE: That's the thing about teens. The world hasn't, like, totally beat them up - not yet.

MCMANUS: Not yet.

RASCOE: (Laughter) So I said earlier that I'd love to, like, add murder into, you know, every story because that's my thing. I like that.

MCMANUS: Me, too.

RASCOE: But it's not necessarily something that you intuitively think, like, let's do this for young adults. So why is it something that you think, let's add a little bit into that for these young people, for teenagers?

MCMANUS: I write the kind of books that I would have loved to read as a teen. And when I was 10 years old, I was reading Stephen King, so I was definitely reading up. And not every kid wants to do that or should do that. But I think kids can handle these themes. There's usually a lot going on underneath the surface, too, that can apply to their lives, ideally. And I think all of us are, like, a little bit anxious. We worry a lot about the bad things that could happen in life, and there's something sort of comforting about experiencing that in a book where you control that pace, and there's usually at least some kind of resolution.

RASCOE: Is there a way that you do this to try to be sensitive towards the age of the people that might be reading it to make sure that it's not, like, too much or too heavy?

MCMANUS: Yeah. I tend to maintain distance from whatever the crime is. It's usually not taking place within the protagonist's family, for example. They usually don't see it when it happens. They have people who support them in their life, you know, often their parents. There's some very good family relationships. And there's also moments of lightness and connection. Usually in my books, there's a little bit of romance. And so there's this theme that, you know, bad things can and do happen, but you can't get through them with the right support, and you can still, you know, be happy. You can still experience the good things in life, also.

RASCOE: Karen M. McManus is the author of "You'll Be The Death Of Me." Thank you so much.

MCMANUS: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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