PS. At the bottom of the blog is the flier for the UNLV YA and Children's Literature Conference and above is a link to the conference in the header. Thanks Jon.
This recognition of the need for diversity has allowed writers in the young adult genre to break all sorts of boundaries and taboos, to write about sex and sexual identity, about abuse and violence, about suicide and self-harm. It has also raised important discussions about the need for authenticity in representing the experiences of characters from different backgrounds. While there is still much to do, the increased diversity we see in today’s young adult literature is surely helping more and more readers find a home in these books.
Why is spirituality in young adult literature still so taboo? Why do we see more books with characters who are wrestling with their sexual identity or their cultural heritage or suicidal thoughts than characters who are seeking to understand God or their faith? Patty Campbell suggests that writers and publishers might steer clear of the topic for fear of offending some readers (and thus cutting into potential sales) or out of a mistaken interpretation of the Constitutional separation of church and state. I’ve read from authors writing about this topic on the Internet that they worry about either misrepresenting religious beliefs or having their own efforts misinterpreted as proselyting or advocating for a specific faith. Although the vast majority of Americans share a belief in God, the issues of personal belief and practice are complicated and not always discussed openly in the public sphere.
This shouldn’t prevent us from seeking out books for young readers that explore these issues–issues that can play an important role during a teenager’s formative years. But these books can’t be preachy and moralizing; I believe most teen readers will see through this and dismiss it, not to mention that such an approach won’t really help those who are striving to make sense of faith and spirituality. Instead, young readers need literature that highlights the real role that religion or spirituality can play: how it addresses their deepest metaphysical questions, how it helps them make sense of right and wrong in their lives and in the larger world, how it guides their lives in positive ways. This literature also needs to address the wrestles so many of us have with faith, both the personal struggles (What do I believe? Where is God in my life?) and the more global (Why do bad things happen to good people? Where is God to be found in a world of war and exploitation and suffering?).
I am hopeful that with the interest in diverse literature for young adults we will see more and more books that break this taboo. I’d like to highlight two recent books that I feel embody authentic and complex explorations of religion and faith.
When life is good and everything’s happening the way it’s “supposed to,” belief in God can seem easy and natural. But what happens when your life is upended and God doesn’t seem to be listening anymore? This is the question at the heart of Sara Zarr’s book, told through the perspective of Sam Taylor, the daughter of a pastor and part of what had seemed to be the perfect family. Now her mother is in rehab for alcoholism and her father seems more interested in preparing for his Sunday sermons than in addressing the family crisis. He becomes only more distant when a local girl is abducted and Sam’s dad is called upon to offer spiritual comfort for the girl’s family. Sam is left alone to wrestle with her doubts about God, who doesn’t seem to be listening to her pleas for help or performing any miracles in the search for the missing girl.
Zarr presents Sam’s struggles with faith in honest and touching ways that ring true to readers who have had similar questions and doubts. And as powerful as they are, her questions don’t define Sam: she also has to deal with the public shame of her family falling apart and with the possibly romantic attention she’s receiving from the older brother of the kidnapped girl. Perhaps most importantly, while Sam does begin to find some answers to her questions, those answers aren’t easy and don’t come in a neat little package. In fact, she even discovers that her father doesn’t feel like he has all the answers, in spite of his vocation and the faith that the members of his flock have in him. Zarr has crafted both a poignant story about a young girl dealing with grief and loss as well as a nuanced and authentic portrayal of the complex relationship between faith and questioning.
A great middle-grade read, Littman’s book is more lighthearted but no less genuine in its treatment of faith and religion as seen through the narrator, Jussy Silver. Jussy’s family is Jewish, and she finds herself torn between the more orthodox traditions of her grandparents and a real curiosity about the Catholic church and its practices. She asks about dietary and Sabbath traditions during family dinners, and later practices making confession and saying Hail Mary’s in her closet. But she’s also insecure about her looks and weight (no thanks to an older sister who looks like a fashion model) and she’s worried about losing her beloved grandmother Bubbe. And, if she’s being honest with herself, her attraction to Catholicism is influenced in part by the crush she’s developing on her best friend’s brother (whose family is Catholic).
Jussy’s questions about religion and what she believes are especially poignant in the context of her prayers for her grandmother and the grief she feels when Bubbe passes away. The pretending in the closet and the questions at dinner become very real for Jussy as she tries to understand her loss and seeks comfort in faith. While many readers will likely smile a bit at Jussy’s naïveté when it comes to her sins and the guilt she feels, her feelings are nonetheless real and will resonate with readers. An insightful Father and a patient Rabbi help put some of Jussy’s fears to rest and set her on the path to finding comfort and peace, and to exploring more seriously the way that faith will shape her identity.
Neither of these books makes religion the centerpiece; instead, both protagonists are relatable and recognizable to any reader: they struggle with feelings of insecurity, they are dealing with the loss of a family member, and they work through some budding romantic feelings as well. But they also take religion seriously, and are asking genuine questions about faith and its role in their lives. They will be a rich source of insight to readers who find themselves asking and wondering, and I hope they signal the beginning of more books that do the same.
Dr. Jon Ostenson
Department of English, BYU