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'The First to Die at the End' could be the newest Adam Silvera YA blockbuster

Adam Silvera speaks onstage at the 2020 Audie Awards Gala at Guastavino's in New York City on March 2, 2020.
Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan/Getty Image
Adam Silvera speaks onstage at the 2020 Audie Awards Gala at Guastavino's in New York City on March 2, 2020.

Young adult author Adam Silvera spilled an ocean of teenage tears with his wildly successful 2017 novel, They Both Die at the End, about a doomed romance between two boys. A new prequel is hitting shelves this week, with the only slightly less gloomy title The First to Die at the End.

But Silvera's fans love how sad his books are. They record TikTok videos of themselves weeping over his tragic endings.

"Now it's been on The New York Times bestseller lists for two years, and it's spent 15 consecutive months at No. 1, which has never happened before," Silvera told NPR. "That was all because of the word of mouth that began on TikTok. Of course, there were all the videos of people crying. Because I spoiled the ending with the title of the book, I was like, 'all right, I warned you. This is not on me.'"

The problem with writing a smash hit where both heroes die is how to follow up. Because the main characters do not survive, Silvera had to come up with a prequel. The First to Die at the End takes readers back into an earlier version of that world.

"It allowed me to bring back the main characters who did indeed die at the end," Silvera said. And he introduces new romantic leads. This time, the heroes are 18. One fled from Arizona to New York to escape his homophobic parents, where he falls in love with a native New Yorker with a serious heart condition.

Adam Silvera's mom suffered from a heart condition. He grew up in the South Bronx, a gay Puerto Rican kid, who was in high school when his father walked out. He was close to his mother and the fear of her dying haunted him.

"There was a point where my mom was admitted into the hospital 13 times within a single year and that was really frightening," Silvera said. "I was a kid." And that wasn't all. "I was 11 years old in New York City when 9/11 happened. Then, two months later, my favorite uncle died in a plane crash. It was such a concentrated period," he added. "I was educated on the fact that someone can be here one day and totally gone the next with absolutely no warning."

Darkness, he says, became a theme — and a way for Silvera to write out his anxiety.

"Death and fear and disease and mental illnesses," he explained, touching on his own history with suicidal ideation. "I have OCD. I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which is not something I talk about very often, but I went through dialectical behavior therapy to help treat that."

Part of what kept Silvera going, he said, was his desire to see more people like himself — a queer Latino — represented in literature. He wrote his first book at age 22. Now, 10 years later, he has authored at least half a dozen more. But it was not always easy, Silvera said, facing rejection by publishers who wanted him to whitewash his stories or who simply were not interested in the intersectionality of ethnicity and queerness.

Still Silvera pushed because he realized his voice would pave the way for even more diverse stories.

"One person gets their book out and it inspires five more readers who turn into writers and then so on and so forth and we're just continuing to get our voices out there," Silvera said.

A few school districts in Florida and Texas have banned Silvera's first novel, More Happy Than Not, about a 16-year-old who considers going through a memory-altering procedure to forget he is gay. But that novel refuses to be silenced. Both it and They Both Die at the End are scheduled for upcoming television adaptations.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brandon Gates