2014 Edgar Award Finalist
A Junior Library Guild Selection
Georgia Author of the Year Winner
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Reading Level: Young Adult
Nikki’s life is far from perfect, but at least she has Dee. Her friends tell her that Dee is no good, but Nikki can’t imagine herself without him. He’s hot, he’s dangerous, he has her initials tattooed over his heart, and she loves him more than anything. There’s nothing Nikki wouldn’t do for Dee. Absolutely nothing.
So when Dee pulls Nikki into a crime—a crime that ends in murder—Nikki tells herself that it’s all for true love. Nothing can break them apart. Not the police. Not the arrest that lands Nikki in jail. Not even the investigators who want her to testify against him.
But what if Dee had motives that Nikki knew nothing about? Nikki’s love for Dee is supposed to be unconditional…but even true love has a limit. And Nikki just might have reached hers.
"What McVoy gets so powerfully right in this novel is the way that love can descend like a fog, impairing one's judgment and obscuring the truth." — Publishers Weekly, starred review
Beyond the Book
In advice to writers, Stephen King says, “Write the truth.”
Ernest Hemingway also famously said, “Write what you know.”
My thesis director and writing mentor, Mark Winegardner, went further to say, “Write what you most want to understand.”
It was this thought that motivated me to start writing Criminal. In 2011, I heard about a murder case in which a young man was accused of killing one of his girlfriend’s parents, out in broad day. When I discovered he had an accomplice—another young woman with whom he’d also been romantically involved—I was even more intrigued.
"Readers may think it's easy to judge Nikki's thoughts, actions and feelings as she works through her obsession with Dee, but this reaction only serves as testament to how realistic and tightly written Criminal is." — Shelf Awareness
“Who would do such a thing? And why?” Of course I was thinking of the shooter, but really I was most perplexed by the second girlfriend—the one who allegedly helped him do it. Who was she? Why did she go along with it? Did she know about his other girlfriend, the fiancée? And what happened to her after the fact?
Reading helps us to imagine things we haven’t experienced on our own, and to, ultimately, empathize with our fellow humans. In writing Criminal, I aimed to explain to myself—and to therefore understand—what it would be like to be a girl very different from me and most of the characters in my other books: someone without resources, without confidence, without an education or good family, and often without hope—so much so that she’d participate in such a horrible crime.
The result of my imaginings (and my research) is in this book. I didn’t write it to justify, or excuse, any kind of criminal behavior in the slightest. Instead I hope that in doing so, my readers and I can get closer to understanding that people who make terrible choices like this are more than just the results of their crimes.
The following discussion questions were generated with the help of fellow book club members, many of whom are lawyers, and who consulted with me on the writing of Criminal.
"Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy … is the best book I've seen and read this year." … School Library Journal
- Nikki is deeply influenced by her boyfriend, Dee, but what about the women in her life? How do you think she is positively (or negatively) affected by each of them?
- Have you ever been in Bird’s position—friends with someone who stays with a boy/girl friend whom you know is bad for them? What are the difficulties of this situation?
- Why do you think Nikki has such incredibly low self-esteem at the beginning of the novel? What factors in her life have led to this?
- There’s very little physical description of the characters in Criminal. Did this affect your ability to connect with them? Where in the book were you able to see and understand them outside of a physical description?
- There are very few positive male role models in Nikki’s life. How much of an impact do you think that has had on her, and who she has become as a young woman?
- What is your initial impression of Nikki at the beginning of Criminal? Does that viewpoint change? How and where?
- What events and interactions cause Nikki to fully understand her role in Deputy Palmer’s murder? How do they affect her evolution as a person?
- What business is left unfinished at the end of Criminal? Are there elements of the story that you wish had been more clearly tied up? What can you imagine happening to the characters after the book’s close?
- What, if any, of your own biases and assumptions were challenged by reading Criminal?
- When and how have you been like Nikki?
"Criminal is not an easy book to read … [but is] for any teens who might consider themselves lost and desperate for love and belonging." — School Library Journal
"Terra Elan McVoy, queen of summer camp and girls being friends with boys, has created such a tense, horrifying, addicting read in 288 short pages … a tight, well-written story that still leaves a lot of room for discussion." — Rather be Reading
"McVoy's stark and succinct language respects the mind of her audience. There is nothing candy-coated about these truths." — Creative Loafing