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#FSYALit Roundtable: 5 YA Authors Talk About Faith, Teens and YA Literature, part II

Yesterday, we shared with you the first part of our YA lit Roundtable with authors Kelly Loy Gilbert, Bryan Bliss, Anthony Breznican, Stacey Lee and Aisha Saeed. Today we are honored to share the conclusion of that roundtable discussion on faith and spirituality in YA lit with you.

Did you worry about writing critically about aspects of faith (if you did)?

Aisha Saeed: Absolutely. There is always fear when you address something with a critical eye that people may become offended or upset. While Naila’s faith has no bearing on what happened to her, the fact that she is Muslim may cause people to equate the practice with her faith. I was also nervous about showing how the “it’s your destiny” rationalizations can keep people stuck in bad circumstances. Ultimately though, I believe these issues need to be talked and examined critically if we want to see change happen. I think creating Naila, a Muslim character, who doesn’t believe her circumstances stemmed from religion is important. I also believe it’s important to examine and question how people use predestination as a means to silence dissent. While it’s not the most comfortable conversation to have perhaps, we have to talk about these things if we want to change thinking.

Kelly Loy Gilbert: My faith is what gives me hope for the world and what shapes all my beliefs about love and truth social justice; it’s incredibly important to me.  But I have characters who wield religion as a weapon and twist it to their own ends, and of course I hope that won’t be read as some kind of blanket criticism leveled against faith.

Bryan Bliss: I kind of already got at this above, but the simple answer is: no. If you believe in something greater than yourself – God – and you’re afraid to pull back the drapes and reveal some of the dirt… well, that doesn’t bode well for your divine being, I think. I realize that sounds kind of snarky, but how else can you see it? I personally don’t believe in a God that’s afraid of questions or even criticism. Hell, the Bible is filled with stories of people who make mistake after mistake – who wrestle with God. It feels like good company, even if it means getting your hip broken…

Anthony Breznican: In my book, we have a crooked, thieving priest, and a nun who means well but is misguided by compromise. Father Mercedes is unmistakably twisted, but to me Sister Maria is a hero. I would hate if people saw them as some sort of slam on the faith, although they are definitely a criticism of a powerful organization that could do a lot of good when it’s not obsessively protecting itself. But there are many wonderful people who do contribute to the world in positive, generous, and kind ways under the auspices of the church, and I don’t want to besmirch their good deeds. I only wanted to say we have to be careful when trying to do good, because it’s very easy to end up going the other direction.

Have aspects of your books been considered controversial?  What are your thoughts on that?

Anthony Breznican: I have had a few teachers in Catholic schools says that the hazing in my book, and the insidious cruelty that accompanies it, would never happen at their school. They say things like, “We have hazing, but it’s not nearly that bad.” And all I can think is, yeah, you’d fit in great at my fictional school, where the adults tell themselves lies like that every day. Someone else said my book was hate speech against Catholics. That’s utter nonsense. I think the heroes of the book, both the kids and the adults, are the ones who truly uphold the tenets of the faith by using their station to help and protect others — not just themselves.

Bryan Bliss: I wouldn’t say it’s controversial. It’s hard to defend Brother John – the radio preacher – in any way. Mostly, people seem to get really worked up by the parents and their decision. But like anything religious, I’m sure there’s something in there that could offend someone!

Kelly Loy Gilbert: I think some of mine might be, because ultimately it’s a book about complicated, flawed humans who make difficult choices–in some cases, choices that go directly against things they publicly believe.  But I think it’s important to read stories that ask for empathy and compassion even when it feels difficult to give.

What do you wish you saw more of in YA lit about the spiritual lives of teens?

Aisha Saeed: I think that there must be space in YA literature for characters who have faith as an integrated part of their life. This is the reality for so many teens and should be reflected. Such books should not be shelved into “special sections” as being “religious literature” because as humans we do not section off the different components of who we are, and faith is often a big part of who a person is and what makes them tick. Stacey Lee’s novel Under A Painted Sky does an excellent job of weaving in faith alongside a compelling story. This should be explored not in special books focused on just the topic of faith but in any book in which faith plays a role in how a person operates.

Anthony Breznican: I think it’s interesting to see more YA with people who have faith in the ideas that a religion puts forth, even if they don’t have faith in the religion or the people who oversee it. I think we need to separate the idea of “right from wrong” from particular clubs. No one group has a monopoly on decency and kindness.

Bryan Bliss: Real teenagers facing real questions of faith. It doesn’t even have to be the plot of the book, honestly. But there’s a lot of teenagers who need a guide through their questions. I can think of no better guide than young adult literature.

About the Books

Conviction by Kelly Loy Gilbert

Ten years ago, God gave Braden a sign, a promise that his family wouldn’t fall apart the way he feared.

But Braden got it wrong: his older brother, Trey, has been estranged from the family for almost as long, and his father, the only parent Braden has ever known, has been accused of murder. The arrest of Braden’s father, a well-known Christian radio host, has sparked national media attention. His fate lies in his son’s hands; Braden is the key witness in the upcoming trial.

Braden has always measured himself through baseball. He is the star pitcher in his small town of Ornette, and his ninety-four-mile-per-hour pitch al- ready has minor league scouts buzzing in his junior year. Now the rules of the sport that has always been Braden’s saving grace are blurred in ways he never realized, and the prospect of playing against Alex Reyes, the nephew of the police officer his father is accused of killing, is haunting his every pitch.

Braden faces an impossible choice, one that will define him for the rest of his life, in this brutally honest debut novel about family, faith, and the ultimate test of conviction.

No Parking at the End Times by Bryan Bliss

Abigail’s parents have made mistake after mistake, and now they’ve lost everything. She’s left to decide: Does she still believe in them? Or is it time to believe in herself? Fans of Sara Zarr, David Levithan, and Rainbow Rowell will connect with this moving debut.

Abigail doesn’t know how her dad found Brother John. Maybe it was the billboards. Or the radio. What she does know is that he never should have made that first donation. Or the next, or the next. Her parents shouldn’t have sold their house. Or packed Abigail and her twin brother, Aaron, into their old van to drive across the country to San Francisco, to be there with Brother John for the “end of the world.” Because of course the end didn’t come. And now they’re living in their van. And Aaron’s disappearing to who-knows-where every night. Their family is falling apart. All Abigail wants is to hold them together, to get them back to the place where things were right. But maybe it’s too big a task for one teenage girl. Bryan Bliss’s thoughtful, literary debut novel is about losing everything—and about what you will do for the people you love.

 

Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

Missouri, 1849: Samantha dreams of moving back to New York to be a professional musician—not an easy thing if you’re a girl, and harder still if you’re Chinese. But a tragic accident dashes any hopes of fulfilling her dream, and instead, leaves her fearing for her life. With the help of a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha flees town for the unknown frontier. But life on the Oregon Trail is unsafe for two girls, so they disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys headed for the California gold rush. Sammy and Andy forge a powerful bond as they each search for a link to their past, and struggle to avoid any unwanted attention. But when they cross paths with a band of cowboys, the light-hearted troupe turn out to be unexpected allies. With the law closing in on them and new setbacks coming each day, the girls quickly learn that there are not many places to hide on the open trail.

This beautifully written debut is an exciting adventure and heart-wrenching survival tale. But above all else, it’s a story about perseverance and trust that will restore your faith in the power of friendship

Brutal Youth by Anthony Breznican

Three freshmen must join forces to survive at a troubled, working-class Catholic high school with a student body full of bullies and zealots, and a faculty that’s even worse in Anthony Breznican’s Brutal Youth

With a plunging reputation and enrollment rate, Saint Michael’s has become a crumbling dumping ground for expelled delinquents and a haven for the stridently religious when incoming freshman Peter Davidek signs up. On his first day, tensions are clearly on the rise as a picked-upon upperclassmen finally snaps, unleashing a violent attack on both the students who tormented him for so long, and the corrupt, petty faculty that let it happen. But within this desperate place, Peter befriends fellow freshmen Noah Stein, a volatile classmate whose face bears the scars of a hard-fighting past, and the beautiful but lonely Lorelei Paskal —so eager to become popular, she makes only enemies.

To even stand a chance at surviving their freshmen year, the trio must join forces as they navigate a bullying culture dominated by administrators like the once popular Ms. Bromine, their embittered guidance counselor, and Father Mercedes, the parish priest who plans to scapegoat the students as he makes off with church finances. A coming-of-age tale reversed, Brutal Youth follows these students as they discover that instead of growing older and wiser, going bad may be the only way to survive.

Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed

This heart-wrenching novel explores what it is like to be thrust into an unwanted marriage. Has Naila’s fate been written in the stars? Or can she still make her own destiny?

Naila’s conservative immigrant parents have always said the same thing: She may choose what to study, how to wear her hair, and what to be when she grows up—but they will choose her husband. Following their cultural tradition, they will plan an arranged marriage for her. And until then, dating—even friendship with a boy—is forbidden. When Naila breaks their rule by falling in love with Saif, her parents are livid. Convinced she has forgotten who she truly is, they travel to Pakistan to visit relatives and explore their roots. But Naila’s vacation turns into a nightmare when she learns that plans have changed—her parents have found her a husband and they want her to marry him, now! Despite her greatest efforts, Naila is aghast to find herself cut off from everything and everyone she once knew. Her only hope of escape is Saif . . . if he can find her before it’s too late.

A special thank you to Kelly Loy Gilbert for organizing this roundtable and to all our authors for participating.

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