Hot Topic Tuesday: Teens and Religion

My family wasn't very religious growing up.

The only time I went to church as a young child was with my great grandma, if I was staying with my grandparents on the family farm. My great grandma would put me in her old Chevy pickup and drive us into town. I felt so grown-up, all dressed up and going to church.

When I was in elementary school, my best friend, Laurie, took me to her church (Presbyterian) where I joined the hand bell choir and had fun in Sunday School. I liked church, even though I specifically recall sitting there in the pew, trying to understand the sermon, and most of the time, not really getting it. But I tried! Christmas time was my favorite time to go to church, with all of the pretty decorations, including the gigantic Christmas tree they cut down and decorated every year.

But then we moved away, and there was no more church for me for a long time. As I got older, I had questions. Questions like - I had never been baptized, so if I died, would I go to hell? Did God still love me if I didn't go to church? How could I get to know God and have a personal relationship with Him?

Even now, as an adult, years away from my teen years, I still have questions about God and the world and everything in between. We're now members of a church and have been for many years, but going to church doesn't mean the questions stop. And I actually think that's a very good thing.

I really enjoy reading books where a teen is struggling with faith or questioning his/her faith. There aren't a lot out there, though. I think it can be challenging because it has to be done in a way that isn't preachy and it really can't be the entire focus of the book.

Tomorrow we'll be spotlighting Denise Jaden's LOSING FAITH, and if you're like me, and enjoy books with a religious element, you'll definitely want to check it out. Brie, the main character, is sort of the black sheep of her religious family. When her sister dies in what appears to be a suicide, Brie can't believe it, and dives into a a mystery that will keep you reading long after you should turn off the light.

Two other books I enjoyed with religious elements: ONCE WAS LOST by Sara Zarr and THE POSSIBILITIES OF SAINTHOOD by Donna Freitas.

The main character in ONCE WAS LOST, Sam, is the daughter of a pastor. Her faith should be rock-solid. But certain things happening around her, including the kidnapping of a local girl, are making her doubt her faith. Kirkus (in a starred review, one of four!) called this a "riveting" read, and I have to agree.

In THE POSSIBILITIES OF SAINTHOOD, Antonia, wants to become the first living saint in the history of the Catholic church. Her first request after her father died was to become the Patron Saint of Daddy's Heart. Family, friends, and first loves fill the pages in this warm and wonderful book. Publisher's Weekly gave it a starred review (another book with four starred reviews) and called Freitas' debut novel, "fresh and funny."

Hot Topic Questions: Would you like to see more YA novels exploring faith and religion? Any other books you can think of and recommend that do a good job exploring without hitting the reader over the head? As a teen, is/was religion important to you?


27 comments:

Brent from The Naughty Book Kitties said...

I have a very personalized religion. Do I believe in God and Jesus and all that jazz? Yes. But would I call myself a Christian? No. So, I definitely don't mind YA books with a religious feel, because I think it's always a great thing to look at something with a new perspective. Keep 'em coming! (The religious YA, I mean.)

Great post!

Brent

Hannah Harrington said...

One YA book I read (and loved!) that deals somewhat with religion is SCRAMBLED EGGS AT MIDNIGHT-- it's not the focus of the story, but one of the main characters, Elliot, has a father who runs a Christian fat camp. From what I remember, the book does touch on the distortion of religion and Elliot's mother and him have at least one conversation about that.

One that I haven't read yet (it's on my list) that seems to deal with religion too is EVOLUTION, ME & OTHER FREAKS OF NATURE.

I wasn't raised religiously-- I never went to church after the age of five. By the time I was a teen I'd come to conclusion organized religion was so not for me and identified as agnostic (which hasn't changed). I did take a Comparative World Religions Class my senior year, and it was one of my favorites. We had a priest and a rabbi as guest speakers and visited our local mosque. I found it all really interesting.

Micol Ostow said...

As an author who *writes* about teens grappling with faith, I would certainly like to see more books on the subject!
Another good recommendation is CONFESSIONS OF A CLOSET CATHOLIC, by fellow Contemp Sarah Darer Littman.

Jess said...

As a Christian, I would like to see more books that have/show/explore a Biblical worldview that don't need to be tucked away into the Christian fiction section, that can be related to by more than those already converted, that can spark discussion. I think I may be asking too much.

Melissa Walker said...

So happy to see this post! My next book, SMALL-TOWN SINNERS, is all about exploring faith. It makes me nervous to deal with such a personal topic, but I fell in love with the characters and I hope it sparks discussion among readers. Fingers crossed!

I'm also excited to read LOSING FAITH!

Ellen Hopkins said...

BURNED is about a Mormon girl questioning her faith. I can tell you that more authors probably don't look at this subject because of possible backlash. I got much and my books (all of them, not just BURNED) have been largely banned from some areas with heavy Mormon populations. (Although, to be fair, some LDS readers loved the book.)

The funny thing is, every one of my books has at least one scene with a main character talking to God, looking for God, looking for meaning beyond God, etc. That, of course, is because as a Christian teen I did the same thing. But I bet most of my readers hardly even notice those moments. You can include them without making it a theme of the book.

Lisa Schroeder said...

"The funny thing is, every one of my books has at least one scene with a main character talking to God, looking for God, looking for meaning beyond God, etc. That, of course, is because as a Christian teen I did the same thing. But I bet most of my readers hardly even notice those moments. You can include them without making it a theme of the book."

I love this Ellen - and I totally agree.

Bee said...

I'm a deist so I'm neither hung up on religion nor am I dismissive about it totally.

I'm cool with YA books dealing with faith and religion as long it doesn't preach. And it's interesting to read YA with religious elements cos I don't really get to read much of them.

My fave YA with a religious element is Angela Morrison's TAKEN BY STORM which is about a Mormon girl who falls in love with non-Mormon bot and is left questioning herself in the face of temptation. It's a beautiful book and never gets in-your-face.

Lydia Sharp said...

I don't think YA needs to explore religion as the *main* focus of the story (but if the authors choose to, more power to them), but an absence of a religious element--whether or not the characters are necessarily "religiously inclined"--sometimes doesn't feel natural. If the characters have (or had) religion in their lives, why shy away from mentioning it. What we believe or don't believe is a huge part of what makes us who we are. And at that age it seems we go through a "questioning of faith" period more so than any other time in life, aside from when we have a life-altering experience in adulthood that makes you question *everything.*

Claire Dawn said...

Here's what I hate. Either books explore a concept, or they don't mention it all. ie, if a character isn't struggling with religion, there's no religion at all.

As a teen, I was religious on the inside. You couldn't always tell by looking though. I just gave away Losing Faith on my blog, and I'm about to dive into reading it myself.

Carly Reads said...

While I'll quickly discard any YA book that becomes too preachy when it comes to religion, I don't mind if a book has a religious theme. EVOLUTION, ME, & OTHER FREAKS OF NATURE by Robin Brande (who is awesome!) is one of my favorite books, and it deals wonderfully with the idea of reconciling faith with science.

So excited about the release of LOSING FAITH! It's next on my TBF list.

Mindi Scott said...

I attended private Christian schools from third grade on and, aside from a few years when we didn't go to church, I was there with my family most weeks until exactly six days after I graduated from high school. Church was a big part of my life for a long time, but as soon as I was "allowed" to get away from it, I did.

So my personal background made a lot of the content in LOSING FAITH is very familiar. The terminology, the church-going culture. Even though it isn't a part of my life anymore, I really liked seeing those elements in Denise's book! It was real and relatable and definitely NOT preachy or hit-you-over-the-head stuff.

I think that there certainly could be more religion in YA. I won't necessarily choose to read books with a big focus on it because it isn't of particular interest to me, but since a good portion of the U.S. population identifies with religion or believes in some sort of god (even if many aren't regular churchgoers), it makes sense that more characters would do the same.

beth said...

I'm a very religious person--which doesn't mean I stand on a soap box and try to convert everyone I meet--just that I have a very clear personal faith. I would love to see more books that explore faith--one I loved was Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature.

Sarah Darer Littman said...

Faith has shown up in all of my books, to a greater (Confessions of a Closet Catholic, Life, After) or lesser (Purge, WTGP) extent, because it's always present in my life. There are times I need the comfort of familiar rituals to ground me and the sense of community I get from attending synagogue and feeling part of a great whole. Other times, I feel my faith just as strongly in quiet contemplation in the outdoors, or, recently, when participating in an interfaith ceremony in support of our local Muslim community.

If there was any "message" in CONFESSIONS it was that we should search for the many commonalities in our respective faiths, rather than be divided by the rituals that separate us.

Minamostaza said...

I've never read a YA or any other book about religions. I think that's because I haven't got the chance to find one.

I do believe in God. I'm a catholic because my whole family is, I din't choose it (parenst did) and I just followed them. Now that I'm 18 I have lots of questions about my religion. I like being a catholic, I do. I don't want to rebel myself against it, but there was one time when I was really mad for going to church at 10 am after being awake the whole Saturday night. So I told my mom I wasn't going and that I was seriously considering into changing to another religion. My mom looked at my surprised and didn't say a word about it. So I just had to ask her what was the problem? My mother sees it from a different perspective as I look at it, but for her being a catholic is very important just as being part of other religion is.

I'm not gonna change my religion, I just have lots of questions concerning this topic and I'm very open minded when the religion topic is being discussed. I like to hear what people from many other religions think.

Wendy Delfosse said...

Exploring beliefs is completely natural to teens. I've worked in youth groups & teens can be very passionate about their faith - as much or more than adults - so it makes sense to be true to the characters that are as well. The key is the being true to the characters - thinly veiled preaching at the reader will show through.

Melody Carlson (especially in her Diary of a Teenage Girl series) definitely does teens exploring religious issues. She's a CBA author with sometimes very outspoken characters but my teen self could totally have related to some of them. So yeah, it was important to me as a teen, too.

Adam Russell said...

I think if there's a hole in YA literature right now, it would definitely be in the religious department. Even simple things like a character claiming Christianity can paint the entire narrative in a different way. Tom Leveen does this masterfully in PARTY, utilizing a Christian character who nearly loses his "religion" over an incident (won't say what). And then, of course, John Green in LOOKING FOR ALASKA did an incredible job with this more toward the end. Very subtle, but masterful.

To me, that's just as powerful and suitable and satisfying as a full-on religious plot, character, or setting. I'm actually dealing with that right now in both the books I'm writing, so this article was quite helpful.

Becca C. said...

One of my WIPs is about a secretly-agnostic girl in a fundamentalist Christian family, but it isn't the biggest theme of the book. I'm really interested in Judaism, so I'd like to see more books about Jewish teens. Also, there aren't many books about teens in my own religion, Wicca, so I'd like to see more of that.

Rosemary said...

I loved Pete Hautman's _Godless_, in which a wicked-smart 15-year-old talks his friends into creating a mock religion in which they worship the town water tower. As the premise suggests, it's funny, but also a very serious exploration of the nature of belief. Really good.

Jackie N. said...

I'm a teenage mormon girl and I think that Jack Weyland does a great job portraying teen problems like drugs, alcohol, teen pregnancy, eating disorders, and more into his teen novels. They also all have religious aspects that I enjoyed. They are simple yet heartfelt reads.

Aimee said...

Kate Constable's WINTER OF GRACE is great (although possibly only available in Australia). I second the nomination for ME, EVOLUTION AND OTHER FREAKS OF NATURE - smart, funny and thought provoking.

Lindsey Leavitt said...

I appreciate books with religious teens who don't necessarily question their faith, but how their faith fits into society, school, values, life.I thought Terra McVoy did an excellent job with this in PURE. I'd like to see more stories of teens leaning on their religion/God to make sense of the world.
And I echo Lisa's recommendation of POSSIBILITIES OF SAINTHOOD. I adored that book.
I personally questioned my faith through much of my teen years. It wasn't so much that I doubted, I just asked WHY a lot, and that searching helped renew my faith.

Jennifer Hoffine said...

I agree with the person who said there should be more YA characters who are religious w/o it being an "issue" of the book. Same with gay characters. It seems like both those character traits are non-existent unless they're one of the main themes of the book.

Loved ONCE WAS LOST, EVOLUTION, ME AND OTHER FREAKS OF NATURE, and LOSING FAITH. All of them explore the issues without preaching.

youngandwriterly said...

I also think it's strange for YA contemp books to either ignore religion completely or be too preachy about it. It's a normal part of people's lives and we should be able to reflect that in our writing as well. We can use it as an opportunity to humanize and contextualize the discussion with humor and real, passionate characters. Because all that conflict is bound to make for good plots, right?

My WIP is about Muslim teens struggling to reconcile their faith and the culture around them as they balance double lives.
Two of my favorite religious themed books featuring Muslim girl protagonists are by Australian author Randa Abdel-Fattah, "Does My Head Look Big in This?" and "Ten Things I Hate About Me."
Godless was also a really good satirical novel about religion.

NiaRaie said...

I'm definitely looking for more YA books that deal with religion, even if it's not the same as my own. I just want to see religion acknowledged in YA books b/c it's a real part of teens lives, and I think authors should write about it w/o fear of backlash. YA lit is supposed to be a realistic portrayal of life as teens and know it. That life typically includes an opinion about religion, whatever that opinion may be.

Your Librarian said...

A couple of other teen titles I really enjoyed were Pure by Terra Elan McVoy and Leap of Faith by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Both of these feature girls who are exploring elements of their faith that are different from what their parents believe, and I really appreciated that.

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