The Chosen by Chaim Potok is a novel about two young Jewish boys living in New York City during the Second World War. One is the son of an esteemed intellectual and Zionist, while the other is the son of a Rebbe—an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic leader. The story of their unlikely friendship and journey into manhood shouldn’t have resonated with me as fifteen-year-old high school freshman fresh out of Catholic school in a mid-sized, predominantly Christian community, but it did. Reading The Chosen changed the way I looked at the world. At a time when my personal spirituality was changing and diverging from my family of origin’s beliefs, Potok’s work deepened my respect for other religious traditions, and, I think, helped me become a more open and accepting adult.
But The Chosen is one of only a handful of young adult novels that seriously addresses the religious life of teenagers. Flip open the average YA novel, and you’ll find witches and vampires, dead parents and cheating boyfriends, but you’ll rarely find a discussion of God, spiritual beliefs, or a teenager’s religious background. Some people may wonder if teenagers aren’t religious. Or they may wonder if young adult authors aren’t religious and, therefore, don’t feel compelled to create religious characters. According to recent statistics, however, that’s just not true.
Americans, in general, are a very religious people. According to the American Religious Identification Survey conducted by Trinity College in 2008, around 50 percent of Americans described themselves as Christian, and 25 percent described themselves as Catholic. Only 15 percent did not identify with any religious orientation. Religiosity is not limited to adults and small children. The National Study of Youth and Religion, conducted by the University of North Carolina, found that 78 percent of teens reported a belief in God.
The absence of modern religion in sci-fi or fantasy novels, which are often set in an alternate universe, is understandable, but what about contemporary paranormal fiction? Even when these stories have real-world settings, religion rarely makes an appearance, even as part of the background. What does it really mean to date a fallen angel? Or become an immortal vampire? These are life and death issues that should arouse an in-depth discussion of existential concerns but rarely do.
In contemporary fiction, young people deal with grief, family dysfunction, sexuality, drug abuse, and a variety of moral issues with barely a nod to the influence of their personal spiritual beliefs or the spiritual beliefs of their families. Why is religion so frequently absent from these books? Maybe because it is polarizing and divisive. According to the American Library Association’s list of the Most Frequently Challenged Library Books of 2011, four out of ten were considered offensive, due, in part, to a “religious viewpoint.” 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?
Personally, I love it when I find a good book that fearlessly takes on meaty issues like death, grief, and sexuality from a religious perspective. For example, the main character in Hush by Eishes Chayil is a Jewish girl named Gittel from an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic family. Her close friend committed suicide after being sexually abused by a family member. The elders in Gittel’s community tell her not to talk about what she witnessed, but trying to stay silent affects her personal relationships and her mental health. Regardless of Gittel’s religious background, women from diverse backgrounds will be able to understand and identify with her struggle to find her voice.
In the Possibilities of Sainthood by Donna Freitas, Antonia Lucia Labella is a Catholic teenager from a large, devout Italian family. She believes that saints are mythical, mystical royalty who guide her life and intervene in her relationships, and her lifelong goal is to join their ranks. She petitions the Pope on a monthly basis in an attempt to become the first living Catholic saint. Antonia is a fun, kooky character whose deep faith is both humorous and touching.
Another great book that deals with religion in a respectful, fascinating way is Faking Faith by Josie Bloss. The main character, Dylan, became a social pariah after she alienated her friends and got involved in a sexting scandal. Lonely and depressed, she becomes obsessed with the blogs of homeschooled fundamentalist Christian girls, and she travels to a small town in Illinois for two weeks during the summer to stay with her new friend Abigail. In some ways, Abigail’s life, which is based on hard work, humility, and faithfulness, is refreshing and inspiring to Dylan, but in other ways, particularly where women’s rights are concerned, it’s horrifying.
Finally, Sparks by S.J. Adams is about a girl named Debbie who spends years pretending to be a fundamentalist Christian because she has a crush on her best friend Lisa. When Lisa starts seriously dating another Christian boy named Norman, Debbie has an emotional meltdown and realizes that she has to start being honest about who she is and how she feels. In the process, she meets two fellow misfits named Emma and Tim who created a religion called Bluedaism, which involves going on holy quests that usually entail nudity, juvenile pranks, and misdemeanor crimes. Sparks is fast-paced and funny and grapples with teen spirituality without being heavy-handed or preachy.
What do you think about the lack of religion in YA?
Brittany is a freelance writer, aspiring novelist and small business owner who hopes that heaven will be like a bookstore with an endless supply of free books, free coffee and super comfy chairs.