Apr 29 2012 4:00pm

Are You There, God?: The Mysterious Disappearance of Religion in YA Fiction

The Chosen by Chaim PotokThe 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?

Hush by Eishes ChayilPersonally, 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.

Faking Faith by Josie BlossAnother 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.

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Laurie Gold
1. LaurieGold
I think there are still literary type YA novels being published with religious themes. The Book Thief may not be all that new (it was published, I think, in 2006), but I'd add that to your list. And there are others as well, although the names escape me. When I worked at B&N we devoted specific tables/shelves for required high school/AP high school reading, and there were three or four, including The Book Thief, on it. I think that YA fiction has exploded in general so that there are simply many more titles than there used to be. Just like general fiction, there's more "pulp" or genre fiction in the YA section than many years ago, so the more literary and intense novels like The Chosen are harder to find among the vampires and so on. One more thing...religion can still be found in "coming of age" stories that perhaps are not shelved YA but feature YA's and can be read by them. Many of them deal with religion and homosexuality.
Staci Stallings
2. Staci Stallings
I have several novels with teens and young adults at the center of them, and they don't shy away from tough subjects.

The Price of Silence -- currently
#42 in Books > Teens > Literature & Fiction at Amazon takes on gangs, guns in school, and bullying head-on.

Then there's Dreams by Starlight which, though not "religious" in nature clearly shows what even subtle bullying can do. And it leads into "Reunion" which is full-on Christian.

Then there's my Faith Series -- "A Work in Progress," "A Little Piece of Heaven," and "A Light in the Darkness" that follow the lives of college-age students grapling with God and how their faith or lack-thereof affects their own life and the lives of those around them.

So maybe they are "flying under the radar," but books like this do exist and hopefully help round out the "typical" way teenagers are portrayed in books and the messages they receive from those portrayals.
Staci Stallings
3. Sally Apokedak
There are lots of books with religious characters. It is not religion that's not allowed. It's any of the more conservative religions that would say that sex outside of marriage is sinful. That is not a welcome message in YA books. Instead we have books like The God Box, which shows that loving Christians think homosexuality is fine and hateful Christians think that homosexuality is sinful. This is a caricature of Christianity written by a man who is not a Christian, and it's frustrating.

Really, Christianity is shunned more than any other religion in YA books. I asked a couple of editors ten years ago at an SCBWI conference if I could put Christian characters into my books and be published by them. They both said, no. I asked if I could put Jewish characters in and they both said, sure.

It's not true that there are no Christian YA books, though. There are scads of them. They simply are not shelved in the teen sections of bookstores. They are stuck in the Christian section where no one looks for them. Two I read recently that deal with the big questions are REPLICATION by Jill Williamson and INTERRUPTED: LIFE BEYOND WORDS, by Rachel Coker (aged 16--WOW!). Both of these books are published by Zondervan which is an imprint of HarperCollins, but neither of them will be found in bookstores on the teen shelves. There is a bias against fiction that presents Jesus Christ as the way of salvation--as a needed sacrifice for sinful people.
T.K. Anthony
4. TKAnthony
There are SF/F authors who include religion/spirituality in their worldview. At the top of my list is Lois McMaster Bujold. Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan is one of the more famous theists in the Vorkoverse; Bujold's fantasy set in Chalion comes complete with theological acrimony between the Quintarians (who believe in five gods) and the Quadrenes (who believe in four), and the hero in the first book is possessed by a dead soul and a demon, in service to a god. Her Sharing Knife series goes from a plethora of gods to a society whose favorite expletive is "absent gods!" What people believe (even secularism is a faith) has always been interesting to me, because it drives so many of our choices--and how we feel about them. I'll read most anything, but novels that address spirituality in some way always feel more complete and grounded to me, so that's also the way I write.
Brittany Melson
5. BrittanyMelson
@lauriegold You're so right. I did notice a lot more religion in literary novels. Not sure why that is, though. It's still a mystery to me why it would be missing from more commercial/pulp fiction.

@stacistallings Thanks for the book recs. You're right that you can find religion in YA if you look hard enough, but it definitely feels "under the radar."

@tkanthony That exactly the way I feel about spirituality--that it makes the novels feel more "complete and grounded."

@sallyapokedak When I think about Christian characters, I think about the way they're being dealt with on Glee currently, and I think that they can be presented in a realistic, contemporary way rather than being, what's the word, didactic maybe? My argument is that religion can be realistic, a necessary part of the setting/character development, and author/readers/editors etc. shouldn't be afraid of it. Thanks for sharing your experiences!
Laurie Gold
6. LaurieGold
Apropos of probably nothing, in the B&N in which I worked, there was an entire bay within the YA section on Christian Life, mostly non-fiction, and an entire section in Bibles of Teen Bibles (along with those specifically for women) and Devotionals, which was spread over the front and back--at least--of an entire row. We had an enormously large Christian section altogether, including a large non-fiction section and fiction section. This particular B&N was in a conservative area, with correspondingly large numbers of books by authors recognizable by those who follow a.m. radio and Fox News. I remember laughing one day, with just one copy of the latest book by Nobel prize winning, liberal economist, Paul Krugman yet an entire bay devoted to Glenn Beck.

Sorry about the ramble, but with religious material, 95% of it Christian, comprising a quarter or more of that entire bookstore, I wanted to chime in that religious books are thriving in Plano, TX. Perhaps the Christian Life bay in YA speaks to where Christianity is right now, I don't know. And, I might add, I'm not Christian.
Brittany Melson
7. BrittanyMelson
@lauriegold I should have mentioned in my post that there are teen books that I would label as "inspirational" or "Christian with a message," which definitely have their own niche and are probably doing fine (I don't really know much about the Christian/inspirational market). I was thinking more of the "Young Adult" section in the bookstore with its paranormal and fantasy and contemporary titles.
Although it's a smaller segment of the U.S. population (maybe 10%, according to statistics), I would also LOVE to see YA books with Buddhist, and Muslim, and Hindu, and Jewish, and Native American teens. Those books would be so fascinating to read, particularly if the characters' culture and religion weren't the point of the book, but rather an integral part of their worldview and way of thinking. I would also like to read about a teen atheist, who's certain there is no God. I just want characters to believe something or think about their life and eventual death in broader terms:)
Staci Stallings
8. Karen Mahoney
One of my favourite contemporary YAs of recent years is Flux's "So Punk Rock: And Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother" by Micol and David Ostow. It's about four Jewish kids who find sudden success with their indie-rock band. All kinds of interesting issues get addressed from a Jewish perspective - and it's very funny, too!

Brittany Melson
9. BrittanyMelson
@karenmahoney That sounds really good. I'll have to check that out.
Staci Stallings
10. Michelle Sutton
You need ot read Melody Carlson's YA books. She just received a Career Achievement award from Romantic Times in Chicago (at the Convention) a few weeks ago. All of her books are very relevant to today's youth and the issues they face. I love that she has a faith element in all of her books. One of my favorites is Damaged. It's a must read for girls who don't realize the dangers of date rape. As for me, my YA books are in the regular YA fiction part of the store and not the Christian section. I am not sure if that helps or not since there are no paranormal elements to my stories or any vampires in them. Oh well.
Staci Stallings
12. Betsy St. Amant
Great post. This is exactly why I wrote my YA novel "ADDISON BLAKELY, CONFESSIONS OF A PK" (preacher's kid) because I felt there was a need for it. It's published via Barbour Books and is in Barnes and Noble and other mainstream bookstores but like someone said - it's not in the Teen Section. Which is beyond frustrating. If anyone sees a copy, feel free to "misplace" it in the store ;)
Rakisha Kearns-White
14. BrooklynShoeBabe
As a Young Adult librarian, I believe that there are several books out there that focus on religous teens be them Muslim, Jewish or Christian. (Perhaps the religous spectrum is not as broad.) If you're looking for YA fiction with religous characters that are going to supplement what is taught in the bible or the sanctuary (church, mosque, synagouge, what have you), then you people are going to be disappointment. If you want books where the characters practice their religon, question their religon or embrace their religon, then you'll find them in the YA section.

Stephanie Perry Moore has written dozens of fiction books for Tweens and Teens (boys and girls) who live a Christian life. We have over 50 titles of hers in our catalog. Lurlene McDaniel, who also has dozens of books, also have fiction books for teens who are Christians.

There are also titles featuring practicing Muslim girls like The Bestest Ramadan Ever, Does My Head Look Big In This (a story in which a girl decides to break the school dress code and wear her head scarf), and Ten Things I Hate About Me.
Brittany Melson
15. BrittanyMelson
@brooklynshoebabe Thanks for the book recs. Those sound great.
Rakisha Kearns-White
16. BrooklynShoeBabe

You're welcome!

There are some more.

There's one about a Preacher's Kid who falls in love with the "bad girl" who comes back to town and joins his father's church. It's a pink cover and I swear Violet is in the cover. lol. (I sound like one of the kids today.)

There's also a couple of books about religious communities a la Sister Wives.

Amen, L.A. by Cherie Bennett & Jeff Gottesfeld-- Midwest daughter of pastor moves to Beverly Hills and starts to forget her Christian values.
Staci Stallings
17. ToniPilcher
I wrote my MA thesis on Mormon characters in YA. There weren't many options, but here are the books I looked at:
A Dance for Three by Louise Plummer
Charlotte's Rose by A.E. Cannon
The Shakeress by Kimberly Heuston
Taken by Storm by Angela Morrison
The Way He Lived by Emily Wing Smith
Back When You Were Easier to Love by Emily Wing Smith
The Boy Who Dared by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

As a Mormon myself, I have also noticed that many Mormon authors (especially authors of sci-fi and fantasy) include aspects of their beliefs in their stories without directly addressing religion. I imagine that this happens frequently for authors of other faiths, too.
Brittany Melson
18. BrittanyMelson
@brooklynshoebabe and @ToniPilcher Awesome. More book recommendations. I think that was the best thing to result from this post. Lots of really great sounding books that I don't think I would have discovered on my own. Thanks!
Staci Stallings
19. Marie M
Adding to the others: Never Mind the Goldbergs by Matthue Roth has a very devout punk Orthodox Jew as the narrator (there is a beautiful scene where she explains to a friend about how Shabbos is the only thing that makes sense to her, sometimes).

Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier has a agnostic narrator who is touched by her parents' relationship with Hinduism (and a friend's Sikh faith) and comes to appreciate it and want to learn more about it as the story progresses.

A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend has a Quaker narrator who struggles with some of her religion's precepts, but appreciates it nontheless
Staci Stallings
21. Kaity-Jane
Jill Williamson, Heather Burch, Chuck Black, Karen Hancock, Jenny B. Jones, Stephanie Morrill, and Robin Jones Gunn all write Christian YA. Williamson(Paranormal/fantasy/sci-fi), Black(Fantasy), and Jones(Contemporary) are exceptionally good at it.
I think you just have to look for it. It's becoming more and more popular as time progresses.
Staci Stallings
22. Kaity-Jane
Oh, and Lisa Bergren is is undoubtedly one of the best authors out there.
Brittany Melson
23. BrittanyMelson
@Kaity-Jane Great. Thanks for the suggestions. I have so many authors and books to add to my reading list:)
Staci Stallings
24. Audrey Bennett
I am frustrated by the lack of Christian characters in YA books for another reason altogether. I teach students from all over the world. They are genuinely curious about what Christians believe. So I've written my own books with Christian characters who behave according to their faith.

I understand that mainstream publishers will find my books too "Jesus-y" and Christian publishers may find it too "realistic."

Which is why I think we have a terrific opportunity right now. I believe there's an audience for my work...and I can publish it electronically and get it out to people pretty easily. We may well be the first writers in an all-new genre!
Brittany Melson
25. BrittanyMelson
@AudreyBennett That's great. I'll bet there is a market for those sorts of books that don't easily fit into the traditional marketplace and electronic publishing can be a good alternative for those books. Thanks for your comment:)
Staci Stallings
27. Julie C. Lyons
What a refreshing post to read! I'm about one week away from publishing my YA Novel, CHASING HOPE, and some of my jitters are due to the very issues you discuss (censorship, the lack of vampires in my book, etc.).
In Chasing Hope, there are three main characters (Hope, "Miss Lillian", and Radio Rev), and all three are on very different yet extremely profound soul-searching paths: Hope is the teenager who wants to rebel and find her "voice", Lillian has recently discovered religion and the message of a radio evangelist, and Radio Rev is that evangelist...who has some dark secrets of his own. Knowing how much my students (I'm a teacher, too!) and my own children gravitate towards SciFi, fantasy, etc. it is truly refreshing to know that there are readers out there who would like to find novels with these themes. If you're interested, I can let you know when my book will be available on Amazon. Thanks for reading and allowing me to be part of this forum!
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