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The Big Five (+1) in YA: Buddhism

2012 August 6
by Whitney Etchison
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Religion has always been an important, and often divisive, subject in societies throughout history. Currently, what with the political climate in the United States (particularly in a Presidential election year), the global conflicts involving religious groups, and the ongoing questions of faith that humans have pondered throughout our history as a species, it seems obvious that there should be literature for young adults addressing the topic of religion in meaningful ways. In this series of posts on religious diversity in YA literature, I hope to highlight a number of books that would be appealing to young adult readers who hold any set of beliefs.  Each post will focus on one of the five major world religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism), with a sixth post on Atheism/Agnosticism.

by flickr user JapanDave

The process of preparing 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, especially for Buddhism and Hinduism. I’ve shrunk the field even further by imposing some restrictions on what YA literature I want to consider for this series:

  1. No historical fiction. I want to highlight novels that take place in contemporary society.
  2. No non-fiction. I want to focus on novels that anyone might pick up because they look interesting, not books someone would read for the main purpose of learning more about a religion. (I may reconsider this in relation to memoirs.)
  3. No books published as part of a long series. (For example, the Payton Skky series by Stephanie Perry Moore.)

These are just my criteria for this particular series of posts. They are not by any means a judgment of worth or importance.

That being said, in this post on Buddhism, I will not talk about Siddhartha or the graphic novel adaptation Buddha. I also didn’t read most of the books on this excellent list from Wisdom Publications. In fact, after looking online at what lists I could find, searching my own school library and the public library system, I ended up with two titles that matched my criteria. That’s right — TWO young adult novels set in contemporary society that feature Buddhism. I had to purchase both titles (one for my eReader, and one in paperback) because they weren’t available at any nearby libraries.

My search strategy is certainly not infallible, and I hope very much that people will write titles I missed in the comments section on this post. Also, in retrospect, I do wish that I had included memoirs in my list, and I will probably read Novice to Master and Saltwater Buddha in the near future.

I did not do any research on Buddhism before reading these novels, and I am not very familiar with Buddhist practices beyond reading Siddhartha back in the day and what I have picked up from classes and other media since then. My reactions to each novel come from that background, and may be very different from someone who is a practicing Buddhist. These books did, however, make me want to learn much more about the faith (see “Books That Make Me Want to be More Informed” for a great discussion of this reaction to reading).

Taneesha Never Disparaging by M. Lavora Perry features a female protagonist, Taneesha, who has grown up with two Buddhist parents. Throughout the novel, there are representations of Buddhist beliefs and customs, including chanting, a home altar, and Buddhist meetings. Some teachings and passages from religious writings are included as well. Overall, the story was engaging, but sometimes bogged down with repetitive details and narration. Also, with a main character who is only in 5th grade, the narration was definitely on the younger side of “young adult.” I’d recommend the book to middle school students and the occasional high schooler who I think would appreciate the message of the book.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7-OuB8GafjA]

Buddha Boy by Kathe Koja was just awesome. The narrator, Justin, is an average teenage boy trying to get by in high school without making too many waves. He worries about being ostracized, and while he isn’t a popular kid, he has a few good friends. This all starts to change, frustratingly so for him, when a new student comes to school. Jinsen, aka “Buddha Boy,” is anything but normal, and when Justin discovers Jinsen’s amazing artistic talent, he can’t help but start respecting him and then actually becoming his friend. I think this would be a great book for anyone from grade 6 on up, and especially for reluctant readers since it’s a quick read and tightly plotted. There is a strong focus on art and a male artist along with a bully that many of us will recognize from our school experiences. Readers will root for Jinsen the whole way, and admire his ability to pull strength from his Buddhist beliefs.

Please leave any other books for young adults that feature Buddhism in the comments, and feel free NOT to stick to my criteria! I’d love to know of these books, mainly because the collection in my library is sorely lacking, and I need to work on that.

Next time: Christianity.

– Whitney Etchison, currently reading Blue Jean Buddha, edited by Sumi Loundon

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4 Responses
  1. August 13, 2012

    I LOVE this idea! I’m not surprised that you couldn’t find much, but did you try NoveList Plus? Their search mechanisms are such that you might have more luck. While I can’t think of any titles about Buddhism myself, I hope this doesn’t dissuade you from continuing this project! I look forward to seeing what’s next, and I hope a lot of aspiring and/or blocked writers take a look and start getting some ideas!

    • August 13, 2012

      Actually, I got curious and checked NoveList myself for titles about Buddhists. While I haven’t read any of these and can in no way vouch for their quality, suitability as per your criteria, or whether they really do delve into Buddhism enough, here are some things I found:

      Rebel: A Tibetan Odyssey by Cheryl Aylward Whitesel
      various books in what looks like a series by Jeff Stone (each title is a year in the Chinese zodiac, so Mouse, Dragon, etc)
      The Lastling by Philip Gross
      Zen and the Art of Faking It by Jordan Sonnenblick
      Roots and Wings by Manny Ly
      The Color of Earth (part of a trilogy set in Korea; I think it’s historical but maybe the other two come more current?) by Tong-hwa Kim

      Also, this anthology by Marilyn Singer looks pretty interesting: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/636360.I_Believe_in_Water

  2. Whitney Etchison permalink
    August 23, 2012

    Thanks so much for your comments! I took your lead and also went to NoveList Plus to check out the offerings. There are definitely a few more books that would have met my criteria, including Zen and the Art of Faking It by Sonnenblick and Roots and Wings by Ly.

    Again, thanks for reminding me of another great tool for finding books for young adults.

    • August 23, 2012

      My pleasure! Can’t wait to see what you come up with for the next four posts!

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