Thou Shalt Not — Religion and Teen Books
photo © 2010 Chris Willis | more info (via: Wylio)Last month while reading an article on diversity in ya fiction from the Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults, I stumbled upon an interesting issue. Although teen award-winners in many ways show excellent diversity, both these and teen best-sellers have a noticeable scarcity of religious protagonists. Religion is hardly rare among American teens, in fact, during the teen years it is common for involvement in one’s religion to increase as teens join youth groups and prepare for religious rites of passage, so the dearth of religious characters in YA fiction is a little odd. Teen books are notoriously blunt about confronting “taboo” subjects, as recently and infamously demonstrated by the Wall Street Journal editorial, Darkness Too Visible, which kicked off the entire #yasaves explosion. So why are teen authors leery of dealing with religion? Do they feel it is somehow too sensitive – more likely to offend than sex, drug use, and violence?
As a former religious teen (and a current religious adult) I can tell you that the treatment of religion in teen literature can be a minefield – opening a book involving Catholic characters or issues, I always wondered if the author would get it “right,” or if they would insult and belittle the faith that meant so much to me. So now I am issuing a challenge to YA authors thinking of writing books involving religion: Do it! But do it right. Here are my four commandments for making religion in teen books work:
1. Thou shalt not use religion as a one-stop conflict shop.
One of my pet lit peeves is when religion is added to a book solely to raise the stakes of an already controversial situation. If the main character gets pregnant, make her parents traditional Muslims! Presto – instant conflict! Engaging with controversy and conflict in a religious context can work very well and be very dramati c, in the right hands. If, however, the significant religious viewpoints aren’t handled with sensitivity then religion itself becomes the bad guy of the story – limiting the characters, promoting intolerance, and handing down needless restrictions. YA authors, if you want to use religion to up the stakes of your situation, please make sure to handle the issue sensitively. Don’t make believers into straw men holding straw beliefs.
I realize that religious people are just as likely to do bad things as non-religious people, but sometimes I think if I see one more creepy cult leader, Bible thumping mean girl or corrupt church official as a character in a religiously-themed book I’ll go into Red Mode in a Barnes & Noble and have to be escorted out by a salesperson. YA authors, if you often use this kind of character, try going in the opposite direction for a change. Religious leaders get into their line of work because they love their faith and want to share it. Most of them are are caring, sincere people, and some of them are quite fun. I personally have known some hilarious nuns.
3. Thou shalt not peddle gross misinformation.
Nothing makes a believer cringe like seeing a commonly-believed but incorrect trope trotted out as if it were incontrovertible truth – and then having to explain to their friends that their church actually contains very few murderous, self-flagellating albino monks. In the age of information, there is really no excuse for this kind of mistake – I mean, even the Pope is on Twitter now, people. If a quick Wikipedia search fails you, just call up your local rabbi/priest/imam/pastor and ask. For the most part, religious people love, love, looooove to explain their beliefs.
4. Thou shalt not make the book all about religion.
This commandment may seem odd in the wake of my previous ones, but just because a book involves a protagonist of faith doesn’t mean the book has to deal with that character grappling with their faith, coming to terms with their faith, or learning more about…their faith. Sometimes it’s fun just to see people like you appear in the kind of books you like to read – like a dystopian sci-fi disaster novel where the main characters are all Catholics. Or a cool graphic novel about a girl who just wants to be a dragon slayer, in a town where everyone is an Orthodox Jew. Even a book featuring atheist characters doesn’t have to be all about atheism. It could be, for instance, an awesome fantasy novel about a plucky young girl on the run with a con artist and a homicidal goose, trying to do the right thing in a crazy world of political backbiting and scheming.
Christianity and Judaism are perhaps the best-represented literary religions. For a manageable list of books, check out The Christian Book Awards and The Christy Awards (note, these are mainly from the Evangelical Protestant perspective), along with The Sydney Taylor Book Awards and Notable Children’s Books of Jewish Content.
Books featuring Islam are a little harder to find. The Middle East Book Award winners often feature Muslim characters, but usually from foreign countries. In recent years, a few books featuring Muslim protagonists have become popular – Does My Head Look Big In This?, Ask Me No Questions and Bestest Ramadan Ever to name a few. Hopefully, this trend continues!
Religions other than the “Big Three” face a sharp drop in visibility. I actually could not find any lists of books featuring Hindu protagonists. If you’re looking for books on Buddhism for teens, this list by Wisdom Publications may help. YA authors – maybe a niche for future works?
Did I miss any obvious books? Did I miss the boat entirely? Please let me know in the comments!
– Maria is reading Children of the Sea by Daisuke Igarashi.