The Intersection of Faith and Fiction

Reality and diversity.

Those are two words I see emphasized over and over in YA literature. Be real. Be diverse.

The problem with this admonition is that we tend to get stuck in a rut as to what “real” and “diverse” actually mean. Writing realism means writing about sex and drugs and depression and divorce and fear and loneliness and relationships. Diversity means incorporating African American characters and bisexual characters and Hispanic characters and Jewish characters. And all of this is really, really wonderful. Not only do these elements make for diverse fiction and realistic fiction – it makes for INTERESTING fiction.

But there is one form realism and diversity which I haven’t seen much in YA. Where are the religious characters?

I’m not talking about the ones who mention their parents’ church in passing. I’m talking about those kids who wonders about the existence of God; the Muslim girls who are torn between the traditions of their parents and their friends; the boy who visits his priest with his questions about life and faith and girls.

I want to read books in which the characters’ faiths are incorporated as seamlessly as David Levithan incorporates homosexuality. I want to see novels where characters just happen to be Hindu or Jewish just as they just happen to be dark-skinned coffee lovers.

Religion is diversity too. But more than that, it’s part of being a young adult. The act of growing up raises questions about God, the meaning of life, tradition, faith, sin. If we ignore the aspect of faith (or lack of it) in our characters’ lives, we ignore what it means to be young. And we ignore what it means to be human.

Readers: can you name any YA books (besides Christian fiction) that have elements of spirituality/religion? Personally, Madeleine L’Engle came to my mind. I love how A Ring of Endless Light so unflinchingly questions the nature of good and evil and death and ethics. I’m also excited to read Melissa Walker’s Small Town Sinners and Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger. Any other recommendations?


Edit: Kate just sent me to this wonderful list of contemporary YA that deals with faith, sexuality and life after high school. Can't wait to check these out!




50 comments:

  1. Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy...its themes of good, evil, life, death, souls, etc. are amazing!

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  2. Shine by Lauren Myracle touches on religion, but it's more of how religion can be turned into a mob mentality against something it deems "sinful" or "against god". (ie being gay).

    I also really like the way religion is handled in the House of Night series. That's probably my favorite part of the book. Yeah they're vampires, but their goddess plays a huge role in the story and their daily lives. For people of a pagan/wiccan persuasion it is a great fiction series.

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  3. LEGEND OF THE EMERALD ROSE is my favorite book of all time. It's a YA historical fiction, mixed with Arthurian legend, romance and faith.

    Ted Dekker's LOST BOOK's series is a great YA Fantasy that has a strong allegoric-faith message.

    The love interest of my current WIP is a devout Christian. He's a good boy : ) never written a good boy before.

    but, I agree, we need more.

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  4. In my book LIFE, AFTER, which won a 2011 Sydney Taylor Honor from the Association of Jewish Libraries, the MC's Jewish faith is very much a part of her life although it isn't the primary theme of the book.

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  5. Blankets, a YA graphic novel by Craig Thompson, does a lot with religion in the midst of a love story. It's mostly autobiographical and he depicts a lot of the religious issues he struggled with in his youth. It's a quick read, which is good because it's nearly impossible to stop reading it.

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  6. This is something I've been thinking about lately, because I created a young adult character who wasn't especially religious and felt enormously guilty, because I am, and we (or me as a teenager anyway) are a severely underrepresented group! (This is true in a lot of grown-up fiction as well, at least here in Britain). I think I'm partly afraid of putting off the vast majority of people I knew as a teenager who had turned against religion and thought it was something people only did because of their parents, which isn't true, not in my case - but I don't want my book to get side-tracked with lengthy discussions of religion and I don't want to alienate readers.

    I can't think of any YA books with religious characters but all the characters in Caroline Lawrence's middle grade Roman Mysteries and new middle grade Western Mystery are religious, mostly Christian and one pagan.

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  7. This post is quite right... I feel like YA novels with religious elements can be very interesting and I'd like to see more of the books that aren't about stereotypes, that aren't completely about the character's religion like an issue book, etc.. A lot of the time, I feel like when I read a book where it mentions religion more than in passing as you said, it's either:
    1) stereotypes: i.e... the Jewish girl/boy with the crazy family, the (usually side character) christian girl/boy that's obsessed with faith or the church (often viewed badly), maybe the spiritual hippie or something like that.
    2) or it's an issue book. All about finding faith.

    I totally agree that I wouldn't mind seeing more books that incorporate faith in that maybe it helps shape the character, or contributes more to their past. Maybe part of their thoughts or actions in the book; but just part of the character, not all about their religion. More people that just happen to have faith in whatever religion (or none) without that being the focus point of the character or the book. More to them. I just think that would be realistic seeing as many people are religious or devotedly non-religious and that shapes a lot of people's personalities, in a bad way or a good way.

    Anyway. Great post, excuse the rambling-ness, ha.

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  8. Great post!

    ONCE WAS LOST by Sara Zarr does a great job of incorporating religion and faith without the typical stereotypes. There's so much going on in this novel -- it's a great read!

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  9. Leanne Lieberman's "The Book of Trees" deals with a young woman who goes to Israel for the summer to explore her questions about Judiasm. The books of Randa Abdel-Fattah expertely handle the conflict between being Muslim and fitting in with peers. Excellent point though- it is rare to deal with issues of faith in YA.

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  10. I'd also recommend "A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life" by Dana Reinhardt - a story about an adopted girl who is contacted by her birth mother and begins to think about her Jewish roots.

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  11. A couple whose main characters' identity includes Orthodox Judaism: Gravity, by Leanne Lieberman, and Never Mind the Goldbergs, by Matthue Roth. In both books, religion is portrayed as an integral part of the characters' lives and definitely affects their actions and choices, but they aren't "crisis of faith" books.

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  12. I love your comments. One writer who comes to mind is Donna Freitas. Faith figures in her YA novels.

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  13. Great post. My teen mentioned this same thing recently. He commented that he's noticed religious stereotypes in books (Muslim terrorists, Christian hypocrites, and cult-brainwashing plots), but he didn't see many where the characters were nice or normal. I thought that was interesting. At the time, I couldn't come up with a single example to prove him wrong (and I voraciously read YA).

    It might be good to see a novel about an average teen questioning God (A 2011 take on - I remember loving that book), or even where the characters were friends that had different beliefs but were tolerant/supportive of each other (like most friends are).

    The only book I could think of to add to your YA list was The God Box by Alex Sanchez (addresses religion and homosexuality).

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  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  15. My post above should have read "A 2011 take on Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret? I loved that book." But the title somehow got deleted when I tried to italicize it. Sorry! :)

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  16. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis,I'm sure we all know why it would fit the criteria. :)

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  17. A very interesting (and brave!) post. As a previous poster mentioned, Randa Abdel Fatah's books deal with religion in a young adult's journey as does my book, 'From Somalia, with love' about a young Somali Londoner who has to deal with the after-effects of her father returning from Somalia, after 12 years. For many young Muslim readers, it can be a struggle finding ANY characters that reflect their own particular issues with growing up. Nice to see that there is a move towards more representation from ALL sides of the spectrum.
    Thanks for the post.
    www.somalialove.com

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  18. SHADOW SPINNER by Susan Fletcher is set in a kind of Arabian Nights world. The MC is a practicing Muslim, currently being raised by Jewish parents, if I remember correctly.

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  19. GOD IS IN THE PANCAKES by Robin Epstein. It's about a girl named Grace who has a life or death decision to make. She seeks advice from God, as well as wise adults in her life.

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  20. It's funny because as an agnostic, I feel like there are no characters dealing with the prejudices I dealt with in my Bible Belt high school. Looking For Alaska dealt with some of the questions I had at that age (and still have), but I haven't seen anyone really deal with the social aspect and ostracization that happens.

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  21. Ah, I was going to say HDM but Jessica stole it! ;)

    These are all fantastic suggestions.

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  22. "Ruined" by Simone Elkeles sort of brings up the Muslim religion,but mostly the Muslim culture. "Back when you were easier to love" by Emily Wing Smith has Morman teenagers and how their religion effects the choices they make and what they can/can't do. "Caleb + Kate" by Cindy Martinusen-Coloma touches on religion. I can't remember if the characters were Catholic, but I know at one point they went to Church together.

    Even though religion aspects are in these books, I feel like there aren't enough books about the struggles that teens go through when it comes to their faith. Not just when it comes to drinking and sex before marriage or what food they can/can't eat/drink based on their religious laws, but weather or not they believe or have doubts about God and Heaven or Hell- the bigger stuff; the things people don't really like to discuss.

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  23. Fantastic post, Kristin! I agree with you. To so many incorporating religion makes their books "preachy." To me, that's only the case if the books push the reader to believe the same things. Characters can have faith without pushing it on the reader.

    You should read SORTA LIKE A ROCKSTAR. Its a wonderful book, and faith plays a bit role in the main character's life.

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  24. 'Losing Faith' by Denise Jaden is the first one that comes to mind.

    'Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature' by Robin Brande is an amazing one. It deals with the science versus religion issue, with a main character who doesn't agree that the two are mutually exclusive.

    'Tell Me A Secret' by Holly Cupala doesn't have religion as the very main focus, but I think it makes up a great deal of the MC's dilemmas when it comes to everyone in her community judging her.

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  25. Excellent post, and an issue I've thought about often myself.
    One lovely book that examines faith/religious issues is Marcelo in the Real World.

    When I was going on submission for a MG, my agent suggested I take out some fairly casual references to God (MC does a quick prayer for something she's worried about) and a Sunday where the family goes to church and the MC talks briefly with her Sunday School teacher... agent was concerned editors might be turned off by them.

    I would say religion/faith is even more absent in MG... yet it's a regular and important part of millions of kids' lives.

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  26. This is such a good observation. I struggled with religion a LOT during my teen and young adult years. It seems like an odd thing to leave out of Young Adult literature.

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  27. As far as I can tell, at the heart of every good book is a theological center, whether intended or organic. You can't escape religion in books, or spirituality, or faith, but unlike diversity and realism, it's not a concrete thing. It's so hard to approach head on. But any story about human nature is by the same token about man's brush with divinity.

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  28. "But any story about human nature is by the same token about man's brush with divinity."

    WOW. Fabulous comment, Glenna.

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  29. "Godless" by Pete Hautman is all about a group of kids experimenting with what religion means. It's not very charitable towards religion (the kids create their own), but it doesn't really say that religion is bad, except for when it's used to a bad purpose.

    I thought it was quite thought-provoking. And, of course, as a YA novel, it's as much about the kids discovering themselves and growing up as it is about the religion thing.

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  30. Varian Johnson's "Saving Maddie" is about a ultra religious Preacher's Kid. I really enjoyed that book a lot and he does happen to be African-American, so plus for that.

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  31. I second books the recommendation of books by Sara Zarr and Emily Wing Smith. I'm fortunate to know both these wonderful women (who also happen friends, and from different religions) and know that they carefully consider this aspect of their characters' lives.

    I'd love to see more books that deal with religion in a normal, this-is-our-everyday-life way than just those with negative or stereotypical religious experiences.

    Too often I see books of that nature relegated to Christian or other religious fiction, which makes it almost a taboo to address in mainstream YA literature, ex. the anonymous commenter whose agent suggested removing any reference to religion, however benign. Because a character is Christian (or Jewish or Muslim or etc) doesn't mean that teens of other faiths (or even no faith) wouldn't like to read an honest portrayal of characters who are.

    Excellent discussion.

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  32. Love what the Blue Lipstick Samurai said! And I think it's true. But I did want to mention that Randa Abdel-Fattah has written some interesting books from the perspective of Muslim girls. In "Does My Head Look Big in This?", the protagonist, an Australian teen, copes with the reactions from friends and family when she decides to wear the hijab. In R.J. Anderson's "Rebel", Timothy, an Evangelical teen, is questioning his faith. There are some deliberate nods to C.S. Lewis in this book. And, in Catherine Fisher's "Darkhenge", a priest is a good friend of the family's. There's a heroic priest or two, as well as some absolute rotters and questions of faith and doubt, in Catherine Jinks's books, too. I'm sure I can think of a few more, but that's a start! Oh - William Nicholson. I just read his "Noble Warriors" series, and very much liked the way he dealt with faith and doubt.

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  33. Gah! The typos. Clarifications:

    I second the recommendations of books by . . .

    (who also happen to be friends . . . )

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  34. The Young Wizards novels routinely deal with issues of religion and spirituality -- they can't help it, since (in the series) wizardry comes to mankind from the Powers that Be, the subcreators of the universe.

    Wizards routinely have to deal with family religious issues -- and their own -- in their practice of the Art. One wizard has an older sister who was convinced the only way he could have acquired his power was by doing a deal with the devil. Another wizard, an autistic boy, may be the next thing to a saint. Angels and archangels have been found on Earth in disguise (on assignment, or in one case, playing hookey); churchgoing wizards, unable to stop a relative's death, rage at God for not stepping up to the plate after all *they've* done on God's behalf: wizardly sacrifice, and its echo in other older and more profound sacrifices, is a recurring theme.

    The challenge, of course, is not getting too somber about any of this stuff. So far I think I've managed. :) But without the inherent spirituality, I doubt the YW books would have half the appeal they do.

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  35. Yay! I LOVE the "Young Wizards", and was going to mention "The Wizard's Dilemma", in particular, but I thought my post would be too long!

    Also, Ursula LeGuin raises spiritual questions from an atheist/taoist pov. I am Catholic, but I abolutely love her books.

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  36. Really great post, Kristin. I completely agree. Sometimes I think when characters in books (or movies) are religious they become these stereotypes. As a Christian, I find it annoying whenever it's implied that all Christians are uptight, no fun, and hate everyone who's not Christian. Most of my friends are from other religions or athiests and I don't go around calling them sinners, like a lot of books and TV shows, etc. proclaim.

    Like you said, I'd love to see a character whose religion (Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist etc.) is as much a part of them as their love of sports or theater. It's not just important for kids to identify with people who feel the same way as them. It's important to understand what it's like (and, possibly, how many things are the same) for people of a different religion.

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  37. Oh - while I'm at it, there's been an awful lot of good historical fiction dealing with faith issues. Karen Cushman, Jinks (again), Madeleine Polland, Elizabeth Speare, and so many more. I particularly love Ann Holm's "I am David".

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  38. Borderline by Allan Stratton was a really good read.

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  39. Wow. Thank you SO much for posting this, Kristin! I was a homeschooled Southern Baptist in my teen years, and wrestled some years with agnosticism before finally becoming a Catholic... I feel like a huge part of growing up and self-discovery is learning what you believe about God, religion, the afterlife, and your own soul, and how all that relates to the people and ideas around you. That's so lacking in much of the YA fiction I've read--and I look for it. Sounds like I have a few things to add to my to-read list, now. :)

    Looking for Alaska did have some beautiful thoughts, there at the end. Bree Despain's The Dark Divine featured a preacher's family rather well, though the lack of reference to prayer surprised me a little.

    This isn't what we traditionally class as YA, but some of Orson Scott Card's Ender and Bean books include religion in characters' lives. Nicholas Sparks' A Walk to Remember also features a 17-year-old Baptist pair.

    It seems that the more common inclusions of faith involve escaping some situation where religion became controlling and/or abusive. And certainly, those stories exist. But the world my friends and I grew up in has involved more of things like learning that your parents aren't God, but you respect them anyway--or that you might not approve everything your gay (or straight, for that matter) family member does in their bedroom, but you love them anyway--or that you accept evolutionary science, but believe God created the world anyway. There's, if you'll forgive me, a hell of a lot of soul-searching involved in any of those questions. More than enough to fill books.

    I'd love to see good stories about characters who practice religions other than my own, too. I loved reading Chaim Potok's Asher Lev books... but again, those are not really YA.

    There are a lot of great comments here. Blue Lipstick Samurai's is especially fantastic. I wholeheartedly agree, and perhaps that's why, despite my passion for religious themes, I feel like I can get away with writing high fantasy. :)

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  40. Terra ELan McVoy's Pure is about a group of girls who wear purity rings and what happens to their friendship when one of them starts having sex. EXCELLENT book--I know that it's taught in a Lutheran school's 8th grade class.

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  41. WOW! You all have such fantastic comments on this subject! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I'm so enjoying this conversation.

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  42. **SPOILER ALERT**
    The Dead and the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer features a seventeen-year-old NYC boy who looks--as he always has--to the Catholic church for guidance when the world is plunged into chaos after an asteroid pushes the moon too close to the Earth. It's the sequel to Life As We Knew It, which follows a girl in rural Pennsylvania during the same time. The two characters have very different lives, including their views on religion, and they're brought together in the third book, This World We Live In.

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  43. Eishes Chayil's Hush is an awesome YA book dealing with Chasidic life in NYC, love, marriage, friendships, sexual assault (and how a community deals with it) and whether or not Gentile women are the only ones to have boobs. It's one of the best books I've read in the past year. The main character is quite religious but also struggles with major aspects of her faith.

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  44. I know it's been mentioned already, but Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr was really great.

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  45. I cannot recommend Does My Head Look Big in This by Randa Abdel Fattah highly enough. And if you want to read a nuanced conflict of faith and culture, her Where the Streets Had a Name is fantastic and deals with the Arab-Israeli conflict really well.

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  46. I love books that involve faith for all the reasons everyone has listed here -- most especially that they go straight for the big questions kids face about life and how to be in the world and address them head-on -- and I've had the privilege of working on a number of such books. So if you'll pardon the shameless editorial bookmongering here, you might check out:

    EIGHTH-GRADE SUPERZERO by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich -- about a boy in Brooklyn and a church youth group service project that changes his life, now in paperback
    MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD and THE LAST SUMMER OF THE DEATH WARRIORS by Francisco X. Stork
    THE MIRACLE STEALER and ST. MICHAEL'S SCALES by Neil Connelly
    THE BOOK OF EVERYTHING by Guus Kuijer
    CROSSING TO PARADISE by Kevin Crossley-Holland
    IN THE SHADOW OF THE ARK by Anne Provoost

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  47. "A Friend at Midnight" by Caroline Cooney - one of the first books to make me cry, and a great depiction of a teenager raised in Christianity in the real world.

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  48. Unwind as thought-provoking where religion is concerned.

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  49. Gravity by Leanne Lieberman deals directly with issues of faith and homosexuality, in particular how one girl reconciles her orthodox Jewish faith with her homosexuality.

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  50. Ten things I hate about me by Randa Abdel-Fattah is about a muslim Lebanese teen, pretending to be anglo to fit in Australia.

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