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Thou Shalt Not: Religion and Teen Books

Beautiful Girl Praying for redemptionphoto © 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.

Scary Clown, Nun and Priestphoto © 2010 David Fulmer | more info (via: Wylio)2. Thou shalt not make the religious guy the bad guy – all the time.

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.

At Studyphoto © 2007 Akuppa John Wigham | more info (via: Wylio)If this blog post has made you want to run out and read some religiously-themed books, here are some lists for you!

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.


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Maria Kramer

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  1. Sarah Debraski Sarah Debraski

    I loved how in The Dead and the Gone the characters’ religion was such a part of who they were and the story. It didn’t overwhelm it, but it felt integral to me. I recently read two adult books I loved, Maine by J.Courtney Sullivan and Faith by Jennifer Haigh, where I felt the authors did a great job of making faith be such a part of the story that it felt like its own character to me.
    Readers should also check out the 2007 PPYA list, Religion: Relationship With the Divine.

  2. Maria Kramer Maria Kramer

    Thanks for your comment, Sarah! I’m glad to find another fan of ‘The Dead and the Gone.’ And thanks for linking to that great list. It reminded me that Osamu Tezuka’s ‘Buddha,’ a graphic novelization of the life of Siddhartha Gautama, is a great resource for young people looking to learn more about Buddhism!

  3. Sarah Sarah

    AMEN! =P

    I’m a teen librarian in a suburban area that has significant demographic of religious teens, and much of the “dark” and “edgy” fiction that has been being discussed online so much lately doesn’t always have the same sort of appeal to them. I’ve always wondered where, in all of the “diversity of YA,” are the characters that *those* kids can relate to, and they’re asking the same thing!

    Thank you for your post, I hope YA authors will take up your challenge!

    • Maria Kramer Maria Kramer

      Thank you, Sarah! I hope the lists are at least a bit helpful to you and your patrons. :-)

      • Sarah Sarah

        Absolutely! =)

  4. Sarah Flowers Sarah Flowers

    Thanks, Maria, for a great post! That piece about religion in YA lit was was struck me in the JRLYA article, too. Your four commandments are right on target! Madeleine L’Engle is a good example of an author who could integrate religion seamlessly into great stories. Besides recognizing the truth about one’s own religion in fiction, it can be a great way to learn something about someone else’s. Thanks again for your excellent analysis!
    Sarah Flowers, YALSA President
    Twitter: @yalsapresident

    • Maria Kramer Maria Kramer

      I’m glad you liked my post! And thank you for mentioning Madeleine L’Engle; when I was young I found reading “A Wind in the Door” to be a very spiritual experience. She’s a great example of an author who is “spiritual” without being overtly “religious” — a good recommendation for readers of diverse faiths!

  5. What a great post! There are a few YA authors who do this well–Sara Zarr, Carol Lynch Williams–but not enough writers/publishers are willing to take the risk. You don’t have to share the same beliefs as the characters to be able to connect with their faith.

    • Maria Kramer Maria Kramer

      You know, I have put Sara Zarr’s books on read-alike lists and recommended them to people time and time again without actually realizing that she’d be a good candidate for this post. D’oh! An interesting thought just occurred to me — are most of the overtly religiously-themed books out there aimed at girls? Anyone have any insights on this?

  6. Great post, Maria! I will definitely take a look at the lists and resources you linked to!

  7. hey maria, how can I mail you a copy of a book for possible review?

    • Maria Kramer Maria Kramer

      Hi, Mary Ann, thanks for reading! Here at The Hub we don’t accept books for review, as we only review books from YALSA’s lists, or books that have won YALSA awards. Thank you for the offer, though!

  8. Melanie Melanie

    Great article and I agree with your commandments. I was pleasantly surprised when I read the Dead and the Gone and I’m looking forward to reading some of the books you suggested.

    • Maria Kramer Maria Kramer

      Great! I really recommend ‘Hereville’ by Barry Deutsch — it’s fun and a quick read, but it still has a lot of meat. And one of the most beautiful, lyrical odes to the traditional Sabbath that you are ever likely to encounter.

      Also, apparently other bloggers are having some trouble finding uplifting and religious fiction! Check out the comments of this post from the National catholic Register for some reader suggestions of teen and adult titles:

  9. Sorta Like A Rock Star by Matthew Quick is the last YA book I read that included religion but didn’t turn it into the main theme, which was absolutely refreshing. The protagonist, Amber, has a unique journey into religion. Having a non-religious mother and atheist friends, Amber becomes a Catholic when she starts going to church with a friend. She eventually stops going to church but still believes in JC (as she calls him) and has some pretty rad prayer sessions, not to mention an unexpected relationship with a Korean pastor and a Zen-haiku-writing Vietnam Vet. Faith is an important theme in this story, but it’s not just about faith in one’s religion; it’s about faith in the people you love and who love you. I highly recommend this book for those who are skeptical that YA can include religion and still be awesome.

    • Maria Kramer Maria Kramer

      Thanks for the recommendation, Lindsay. Sounds like a neat book!

  10. Mia Mia

    I loved this post and have been meaning to comment on it for a week. I wanted to send a shout-out to Gene Luen Yang (one of my favorite graphic novelists and writers) who says “I’ve always struggled with how to incorporate my faith into my comics in an authentic way. One Lent, I decided to do a comic adaptation of the Rosary Prayer rather than giving up chocolate or soda. It was eventually published by the good sisters at Pauline Books during the Year of the Rosary” You can see more at his website I think his books are filled with a lot of kindness, even if the religion isn’t specified.

    • Maria Kramer Maria Kramer

      As a kid I had comic-book versions of the life of Mother Theresa of Calcutta that I LOVED, so I am all over this comic book rosary, Mia.

  11. I think the reason you aren’t seeing any books with religious protagonists is because there is a minority of people out there who are very much NOT tolerant of religion portrayed positively, and are very much offended by those who do believe.

    I have had a great response to my YA, The Healer’s Apprentice, from most people who have read it. However, I’ve also gotten some really scathing reviews on Amazon from people who were offended by the very mention of Jesus, by the fact that my protagonists are strong Christians (Catholic) and by the fact that they trusted in God to help them. At the same time, it was a Christy Award finalist, finaled in a lot of other contests, and won the National Readers Choice Award for Best First Book.

  12. Great post, Maria. Something Melanie said brought a question to mind. Do you know if the Newbery or Printz awards have ever been issued to books with inspirational themes?

    • Maria Kramer Maria Kramer

      Off the top of my head, I’m afraid I don’t know of any. I took a quick glance at the lists, but nothing really jumped out at me. You’d have to look at each book individually and see, I think. Anyone out there have a favorite Newbery or Printz-winning book with religious themse/protagonists?

  13. Audrey Bennett Audrey Bennett

    I’m so pleased to find these comments and this post. I have begun writing YA books about characters who rely on their faith to face life’s issues, and am concerned I may never find a publisher. My published friends say that Christian publishers want sanitized content and mainstream publishers balk at “the J word.” I hope to find one interested in books about authentic Christians–who live in the world–just as our Savior did.

  14. I keep the url for this post handy. Every time I read it, I’m even more certain that I’ll find a publisher for my book, which I think of as “Realistic Christian YA Fiction.” The characters are Christian, and make decisions based on their faith, but the book itself is about real life.

    • Maria Kramer Maria Kramer

      I’m glad this post has encouraged you, even a little. :-) Good luck, Audrey — I’m rooting for you!

      • Psst! There are a whole bunch of us over at

  15. […] for this series has been … interesting. As Maria Kramer describes so well in her post “Thou Shalt Not-Religion and Teen Books”, there is a striking dearth of YA literature that features religious themes or characters, […]

  16. Library.Lil Library.Lil

    There are 2 Newbery winners that I can think of that have pretty specific religious themes: Bronze Bow (1962) and Waterless Mountain (1932). Bronze Bow is Christianity and Waterless Mountain is about a Navaho boy training to be a medicine man. There are others where religion is part of the book, but not the main theme, like Number the Stars, Bridge to Terabithia, Witch of Blackbird Pond, Miracles on Maple Hill, and The Cat Who Went to Heaven.

    • Maria Kramer Maria Kramer

      Thanks for the list, Library.Lil! I especially liked Bronze Bow, and would recommend it to anyone out there — it’s aged well. I’m sure this list will be very useful!

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