May 01, 2012

Um, Hello, God? Is This Thing On?

An article which might have sneaked past you this weekend, Macmillan's Heroes and Heartbreakers blog added a new post to their section of YA Crush, titled, Are you there God? The Mysterious Disappearance of Religion in YA Fiction, by Brittany Melson.

Melson's piece intrigued me - it was only a few weeks ago that the National Library Week's Most Challenged list of 2011 was published, and as usual, Lauren Myracle topped the list with ttyl and the rest of that series. But, there was the usual resignation - the second reason Myracle's novel and other novels on the top ten list (including Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, and the ever-gorgeous Sherman Alexie) were banned -- for "religious viewpoint."

Really people? That's what you've got?

Isn't religion - the freedom from and the freedom of - one of the bedrock Five Freedoms? How can we seriously be considering depictions of religious life in fiction as objectionable? Thus, when I ran across a piece decrying The Mysterious Disappearance of Religion in YA Fiction, my ears perked up.

I, too, read Chaim Potok's The Chosen as a junior high student and connected in an equally unlikely way with the tale of two post-war Jews, one the son of a Zionist, the other the son of an Hasidic rabbi. The book was all about the big theological questions as applied to life and at that point, when I was trying to clarify my own religious values in and above what I had been taught, this was a thought-provoking addition to my inquiries, if also hugely - hugely - outside of my personal experience. The issue I have with Melson's including this book, however, as "one of only a handful of young adult novels that seriously addresses the religious life of teenagers" is that it was written in 1967 -- ! Much like her post title pulls from a novel published in 1970, this novel comes from a looong over era in YA lit.

Maybe it's all in what Melson means with the word "seriously" in that reference. With information as easily as a keystroke away, teens and young adults are not lacking definitions of religion, or religious life, with which they can address their own questions, but rather models of such a life. I'll get back to that modeling in a moment.

Like the "problem novels" of the same time period, where divorce or diversity or eating disorders were the hot-button issues identified via "worst-case scenario" set ups, novels depicting religion in the past put it on a pedestal to be analyzed, and then proceeded to pass judgement. Young adult fiction overall has moved away from that interaction with subject matter. Today's successful, mainstream novels lack a preachy, judgmental tone, and avoid coming up with conclusions FOR the readers. But, that doesn't mean there are no novels discussing faith seriously - what Rilke described in Letter to a Young Poet as "Living the questions…along some distant day into the answers…." There are all manner of novels living the questions to varying degrees - and they cover Christianity of all stripes, Judaism, the Muslim faith, and the agnostic stance. What they do NOT provide is an answer - it's the question that's important, please take note.

I am still a little bewildered that Melson didn't even mention Sara Zarr. (Once Was Lost, How to Save a Life.) As a writer of books which model Christian families living lives which include both faith and failures, her books strike a quietly, solidly realistic tone.

Okay, so Sara is always YA's go-to girl for novels which depict a religious experience without preaching or casting judgment. We LOVE us some Zarr. But, there are more people out there writing, and they're not writing from some time-warp in 1967. Consider Sheba Karim (Skunk Girl), Micol/David Ostow (So Punk Rock), or Melissa Walker (Small Town Sinner), or Preacher's Boy and others, by Katherine Paterson, or even Come Sunday, by Nikki Grimes -- those count. Or, for the delicious twist of fantasy, A.M. Jenkins (Repossessed), Rae Carson (Girl of Fire and Thorns) or go medieval with The Healers' Apprentice, by Melanie Dickerson. Science fiction choices are many, but include most recently Glow, by Amy Kathleen Ryan.

Randa Abdel-Fatta broke ground with Does My Head Look Big In This? And, there's Robin Brande (Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature), Matthue Roth (Never Mind the Goldbergs), Mitali Perkins (Sunita Sen), Dana Reinhardt (A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life), Emily Wing Smith's heartfelt The Way He Lived, Margaret Peterson Haddix's Leaving Fishers, and Pete Hautman's Godless or Timothy Carter's Epoch. And those are just books read by me (and people in my blogging circle) whose titles I could think of offhand.

While I appreciate the timeliness of Melson's question, there is not some mysterious disappearance going on. Faith in young adult fiction has simply "suffered a sea change" from straightforward didacticism or explanations of dogma and theology to being more of a cultural background in which characters are rooted and grow.

Melson asks a few other questions in her piece which as a writer I'd like to address - "Is it possible that some parents, with their penchant for censorship, are influencing what types of books get written and published? In the end, the question becomes: do teens not want to read fiction with religion in it, do authors not want to write it, or are agents and editors afraid to represent and promote it?"

First, I'd like to offer up the idea that while writers are influenced by their environment and by their own upbringing, the parents of unknown teens are a highly unlikely shaping mechanisms to their stories. Most of us write with only the vaguest audience in mind; many of us write for our various past selves. We're not thinking of anyone's parents, nor do I believe that teens shy away from reading about faith -- unless it's telling them how to have it, what type they should have, or creating it as an Issue in a preachy, moralizing way. Adults don't even want to read that, much less teens who have thousands of other options for their entertainment. Second, I'd like to suggest that perhaps agents and editors, seeing the big-picture marketing-wise, may offer guidance to their authors, but they can hardly, as a group, be characterized as afraid to represent and promote fiction containing religious content. Caution in many ways is justified, as we live in an increasingly polarized society in terms of faith - there are those who really do feel that because of theirs, and their moral stance, that they have the truth of things, and know what's best for everyone in society. It's obviously not always easy to maneuver through the submerged tensions on the topic of faith in fiction, but writers who write best are both reflecting their worlds, and opening a window on the world to others.

And, of course, I'm here preaching to the choir, as it were.

Melson wrote a thought-provoking piece, reminded me of an old novel I'd forgotten I'd even read, and goosed me into thinking up other writers who, like myself, grew up with religion and reflect faith in their work. If you can think of other books and writers whose modeling of faith made a difference to you, join the discussion!


Wow. 'Tis the season for teensy rants. Check out Sarah Ockler's - she has a lot of good to say about the Mysterious Disappearance of Race in YA. Only, it's not so mysterious, actually.

13 comments:

marjorie said...

Great post, Tanita.

I was baffled by the title of the Macmillan blog post; the word "Disappearance" implies that something is gone that was once there. As someone who writes about Jewish children's literature, I don't see any huge change in the number of books published in which religion plays a part. Hey, you named a ton of them! (Some other YA authors who've published books in just the last 3 years dealing with religion: Anne Voorhoeve, Margarita Engle, Veera Hiranandani, Amy Fellner Dominy, Chris Moriarty, Andrea Alban, Julie Chibbaro, Robert Sharenow, Haya Leah Molnar, Kathryn Lasky, Jacqueline Davies, Robin Friedman and Leanne Lieberman.)

Genevieve said...

Terrific post, Tanita - thank you!

I've read a bunch of the ones you and Marjorie listed, but I'll put the rest on my list to read soon. Glad to see you countering this theory with some facts, and names of good books.

Ashley Hope Pérez said...

Great recs... thanks for a level-headed response to the "alarm." Also, ahem, HAPPY FAMILIES?

tanita davis said...

@ Marjorie -- Thank you, thank you. I had heard of Kathryn Lasky - must now look up each of these listed, and excited to do so!

@ Genevieve -- Thanks for dropping by!

@ Ashley -- Oh. Duh. Well, not to blow my own horn or anything, but yeah. I guess HAPPY FAMILIES (out May 12! Eek!) counts. ☺

Amy said...

lol yes. I see this come up all the time, and I'm always like...what? I actually feel like the YA market has more such books than the adult market does. So thanks for the post and the recs!

tanita davis said...

@ Amy - Thanks for dropping by!

LinWash said...

I am so grateful for this post!!! I wondered the same thing! Thank you!

Karen Sandler said...

I made a point of adding religion/spirituality to Tankborn because I saw how it added depth to books I had read and enjoyed (specifically Lois McMaster Bujold's Sharing Knife series and her Chalion books). Religion in SF/F makes the world and its characters seem that much more real.

Liviania said...

Excellent post. In my four years of blogging, I've learned that the one thing that scares people away from a book the fastest is the mention of religious themes. And I have no clue why, since most of us have personal experiences with faith.

tanita davis said...

@ Lin ~ when I started really thinking about it, I realized that even a tiny bit of research netted me a whole bunch of titles...

@ Karen ~ YES. TANKBORN, how could I forget?? Themes of faith seem to flow just so smoothly in SFF, because the mind is already open. I can see people need to read more SFF...

@ Liviania ~ ::sigh:: Everyone fears getting the Scolding Finger, I guess, but I dunno - we're really past that now. I sense a whole lot of readers got burned somehow in their childhoods by being given graphic novel versions of the Old Testament or something (that actually happened to me)... because why else are they all so spooked to the point of often being utterly unwilling to read a book with religious content?

A very good question...

Deborah Fletcher Blum said...

I think spirituality can be very important to kids and so it has to appear in the writing but I have felt some kind of unsaid pressure not to talk about God per se. Even though I am an observant "believer" (Jewish) I don't want to alienated my readers who do not have any grounding in religion - my MG book is not about religion though I do have some picture books in the works on the Jewish holidays.
I am trying, for the moment, to emphasize the humanistic values that I feel all religions share:
Kindness, compassion, tolerance -- these are very, very important for kids to learn regardless of religion or believe in God and kids learn values best through stories, so keep writing everyone!

tanita davis said...

@ Deborah ~ I think many of us can really get at the meaning of a thing through stories (which is why story problems in math were such a grave disappointment... I wanted more story, less math! ☺) and I hope that I, too, focus on humanistic things and avoid dogma and specific theologies. That's truly the best way.

A friend in my writing group often asks us to alert her if the characters in her novel start to veer toward too much toward what she calls "the Tribe;" she wants to be sure that those of us not Jewish understand all the nuances and cultural details of her Jewish characters. We're fascinated by her novel; that most of the characters are Jewish is relevant insofar as they have a certain point of view, but none of us are feeling overwhelmed with religion or even culture. It's so much in how things are presented...

Anyway, thanks for dropping by!

Carrie Arcos said...

Great response to the article. I think it's inauthentic to have so many books shy away from spiritual questions. Young adults are full of them and last I checked we aren't a nation of atheists (speaking in terms of Americans). I think the key is asking questions and not necessarily trying to provide answers.