Search on SLJ.com ....
Subscribe to SLJ
Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

#FSYALit: A Recap of the Discussion on Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit, presented by Karen Jensen and Ally Watkins at TLA 2016

Tuesday, April 19th, Ally Watkins and I presented an overview of the #FSYALit discussion (which is ongoing) at the TLA Annual Conference in Houston, Texas. Here are the slides we discussed.

And here are some of our notes:

SLIDE 1:

Introductions

SLIDE 2:

  • We are white christian women, our voices are very much the least important in this conversation
  • We did speak to titles that spoke to our experiences, but we worked really hard not to have conversations about books that didn’t
  • We sought out guest posters that were part of these religious experiences
  • This project wasn’t about debate IN ANY WAY. One of the things Karen said stuck with me: in discussions about religion, it’s hard not to feel that you’re coming from the right place. This isn’t about what we think or feel.

SLIDE 3:

  • The hub is on the front page of TLT under “projects”

SLIDE 4:

  • Here are the parameters of the projecct

SLIDE 6:

  • Faith and spirituality are two different things, though they are not mutually exclusive.
  • This intersection shown here is what many people think of with regards to their own faith and spirituality.

SLIDE 7:

  • Bryan Bliss wrote NO PARKING AT THE END TIMES, and also did a guest post for us, including comments from his agent Michael Bouret and his editor Martha Mihalick. He talks about the importance of honesty in YA lit, and that includes the inclusion of the faith lives of teens.

SLIDE 8:

  • These statistics only serve to illustrate the importance of this project: if 60% of teens are engaging in some sort of religious activity on a weekly basis, our collections need to reflect their realities.

SLIDE 9:

  • As such, we have to understand that the religious activities of the teens are as varied and diverse as the teens themselves.

SLIDE 10:

  • Some more facts and statistics. While millennials and younger adults may be leaving religion, teens aren’t millennials. Faith is part of many teens’ lives.

SLIDE 12:

  • Obviously, juvenile books are OVERWHELMINGLY focused on Christianity. This is starting to change, but what this means is that we have to be careful in collection development not just to pick up what’s easiest or most readily available. We have to be thoughtful and intentional in picking out books that reflect our community and showcase different beliefs and belief systems.

SLIDE 13:

  • TLT’s own Amanda MacGregor reviewed WHAT IF I’M AN ATHEIST for us and that review can be found on the hub. This is an informational NF book packed with statistics, what-if questions. Easily readable and quick, Amanda said such a book would have made her feel less alone as an atheistic teenager.

SLIDE 14

  • As neither of us are Buddhist, and we didn’t ever get any Buddhist guest posters, I don’t particularly feel comfortable endorsing any books. These are a couple that have Buddhism as a part of the story, and one that doesn’t.

SLIDE 15:

  • We had a guest post on Catholicism by Katie Behrens and she mentioned the books listed. You can find her book on our hub
  • Boxers and Saints is Gene Luen Yang’s look at the Boxer Rebellion told through two eyes: Little Bao, a Boxer and worshipper of Chinese gods, and Vibiana, a Chinese girl who has found friendship and faith in Christianity.
  • The Opposite of Hallelujah is one of my favorite books on faith. It’s about a teenage girl, Caro, whose sister Hannah is coming home after years of living in a convent. Caro barely remembers her and is unsettled by her presence in her life again. This one is a quiet read about grief, faith, life, and includes a beautiful transfer student, a science-nerd priest who admits he doesn’t have all the answers, and a family who’s just trying to hold it together.

SLIDE 16:

  • Karen and I both write at length about THE DISTANCE BETWEEN LOST AND FOUND, a story about a girl feeling ostracized from her youth group after an unnamed event that happened sometime in the past. But when she goes on a wilderness trip and gets lost with two other friends, she has to find out what she’s really made of. This one speaks a LOT about church culture, power dymanics, and a lot of other important things.
  • We also talked about CONVICTION, which was a Morris Award finalist. Conviction is Braden, whose father has been accused of a terrible crime. Throughout the book, in the present and in flashbacks, we watch Braden wrestle with what the truth is and what his responsibility is to it.
  • Author Melissa C Walker wrote a post for us about writing a faith (evangelical christianity) that wasn’t her own
  • Librarian Jen Leitch discussed PURITY by Jackson Pearce for us.
  • Librarian Katelyn Brown discussed how she connected with Miranda Keanally’s THINGS I CAN”T FORGET
  • Guest post: I Was a Sixteen Year-Old Jesus Freak (Just Not In the Way You Think) a guest post by Terra Elan McVoy.

SLIDE 17:

  • Author Shveta Thakrar did a post for us about Hinduism in YA, illustrating several titles such as
  • Born Confused, a cross-cultural comedy about a Hindu girl who is appalled that her parents have arranged for her to meet a “suitable boy”…until she actually meets him.

SLIDE 18:

  • We had a guest post about Muslim representation by the AMAZING Kaye…who is now writing her own book about a Muslim family! We are so excited for her
  • Marvel is a comic about a teenage Pakistani-American Muslim girl who gets coated in a weird chemical when she sneaks out one night…and suddenly has superpowers. She has to help people. It’s part of who she is, and that’s rooted in her culture and religious beliefs, also. So she becomes Ms. Marvel.
  • WRITTEN IN THE STARS is about a Muslim American teenager facing an arranged marriage that she doesn’t want: she’s fallen in love with someone else. But when her parents take her to visit Pakistan, she finds out that they want her to marry her arranged match…now!

SLIDE 19:

  • The Jewish experience is just as a vast as any other religion and these books cover it really well
  • We had really interesting conversations with some Jewish friends about one particular title: LIKE NO OTHER: Devorah is a Hasidic good girl, never having challenged her upbringing. Until she meets Jaxon, a fun loving, completely non-Jewish boy. They get stuck in an elevator together during an emergency and suddenly start sneaking out to see one another. But how much are they willing to risk to be together? We’ll talk a little more about this in an upcoming slide.

SLIDE 20:

  • We had a couple of different posts on different opinions on Mormonism. Sam Taylor wrote a post on Mormon representation, and she successfully booktalks all of the books shown here and a couple of more. Her post can be found on our hub!

SLIDE 21:

  • Our friend librarian Maureen Eichner talks about the representation of Christian Orthodoxy in YA lit. This quote from her helps illustrate the importance of religious and spiritual representation in young adult lit.

SLIDE 22:

  • We had an EXCELLENT post by scholar and former Printz committee member Robert Bittner about GLBTQ teens and religion. Teens aren’t just one thing at a time, and we need to remember to look for books that serve our GLBTQ teens that identify with a faith system.

SLIDE 23:

  • You didn’t think the two of us weren’t going to talk about feminism, did you??
  • Post on Rae Carson’s books
  • Tessa Gratton’s post

SLIDE 24:

SLIDE 25:

  • Always err on the side of asking people of that faith! And if you don’t have a good answer, that’s ok! Talk to your teens about this. Ask them what they thought, if they were well-represented.

SLIDE 26:

  • You have to take your own beliefs out of the equation. The two of us are both women that belong to one faith, but we serve patrons of all faiths. The entire community has to be represented, and our teens deserve to be exposed to faith and belief systems that aren’t otherwise familiar to them.

SLIDE 27:

  • Here are some best practices

RESOURCES

Dark Shadows in a Glittering Metropolis: Magic and Religion in Jaclyn Dolamore’s Dark Metropolis Series (a guest post for #FSYALit)

faith and SpiritualityToday I am very excited to host a guest post as part of the #FSYALit Discussion on the Dark Metropolis series by Jaclyn Dolamore. Dark Metropolis is a book that I became familiar with as a Cybils judge and it is truly a fascinating book. Set in a dark world of fantasy, it adds a very interesting twist to the zombie tale while taking a very hard look at the issue of economic inequality. I could talk about this book forever, but instead let’s listen to what L. N. Holmes has to say.

I’ve always been a fan of magic. As a Christian, that might be a controversial statement. The Bible has many verses rebuking magic and its practitioners. However, the fictional magic of fantasy novels is what I truly like, because it is an excellent literary device for examining the human condition.

darkmetropolis

Take, for example, the Harry Potter series. Some Christians despised it, but other Christians defended it as a “Book of Virtues with a preadolescent funny bone” and “a meaningful connection to the most significant principles of Christianity.” In the books, J. K. Rowling used magic as an avenue to discuss abuses of power and the consequences of good and evil choices.

Jaclyn Dolamore also uses magic to discuss big ideas with her readers in her young adult series, Dark Metropolis. The heroine Thea, a waitress at a cabaret club in an alternate 1930s Germany, becomes unintentionally involved in a government conspiracy when her best friend, Nan, disappears. Freddy, a “reviver” that brings people back to life with his magical power, is connected to this conspiracy. When he starts frequenting the club where Thea works, the two form an unlikely duo against a city where people are gradually disappearing.

Although not as famous or as polished as the Harry Potter series, Dolamore’s fantasy strongly relies on magic as a plot device. Neither inherently good nor evil, enchantments oftentimes serve the whims of the caster. There are people who choose to abuse it—the government in the first book and Ingrid and King Otto in Glittering Shadows (book two)—and others who simply use it for practical purposes. Many non-magic users are directly affected by these actions.

glitteringshadows

In the books, Christianity and magic are not at odds. On the contrary, in Dark Metropolis, Thea notes that Father Gruneman of her church “reminded her of a fairy-tale creature himself, a wizard who had crawled out of a magic cave” (Dolamore 21) after he hands her a book of fairy tales. He later refers to Freddy’s magic as “a gift” (Dolamore 144). Father Gruneman embracing magic allows for him to deal with its existence objectively and take necessary action to help Thea and Freddy when they need it.

Dolamore’s books focus more on Norse mythology than Christianity, however. This is subtly mentioned in Dark Metropolis and further explored in Glittering Shadows. Without giving too much away, the origin story of magic in book two is a direct nod to a specific Norse legend. The characters mirror the plot as they focus more on this mythology than religion.

Ironically, it is an important character of book two that is connected to the Norse mythology that tries to explain the purpose of Christianity. Ingrid argues with Nan in book two that “even as you are looking for humanity in yourself, humans are looking to transcend those feelings inside of themselves. That’s why they go to church” (Dolamore, 194). While Ingrid’s motivations are not entirely pure during this argument, her ideas about religion may ring true for some Christians.

Admittedly, the books were not always enjoyable reads. Oftentimes the plot dragged. Thea was irritatingly indecisive at times. There were many instances where the plot and character development could have been stronger. While the first book focused mostly on Thea and Freddy, Nan’s story was far more interesting. Finally, there were too many instances where the characters were too passive in their actions.

That being said, Dolamore did well with portraying old stories in new ways. Her exploration into folklore, mythology, and religion—and how they intertwine—may be stimulating enough to readers to keep their interest. Fans of Cassandra Clare may also appreciate Dolamore’s style.

Dolamore’s descriptions of magic were vastly different from Rowling’s, and yet I found it to be an interesting commentary. The serious tone in the Dark Metropolis series encouraged philosophical thought about these subjects without dictating answers for the readers. It created a world where magic and religion could co-exist.

About DARK METROPOLIS:

darkmetropolisCabaret meets Cassandra Clare-a haunting magical thriller set in a riveting 1930s-esque world.

Sixteen-year-old Thea Holder’s mother is cursed with a spell that’s driving her mad, and whenever they touch, Thea is chilled by the magic, too. With no one else to contribute, Thea must make a living for both of them in a sinister city, where danger lurks and greed rules.
Thea spends her nights waitressing at the decadent Telephone Club attending to the glitzy clientele. But when her best friend, Nan, vanishes, Thea is compelled to find her. She meets Freddy, a young, magnetic patron at the club, and he agrees to help her uncover the city’s secrets-even while he hides secrets of his own.

Together, they find a whole new side of the city. Unrest is brewing behind closed doors as whispers of a gruesome magic spread. And if they’re not careful, the heartless masterminds behind the growing disappearances will be after them, too.

Perfect for fans of Cassandra Clare, this is a chilling thriller with a touch of magic where the dead don’t always seem to stay that way. (June 2014 from Disney Hyperion)

About GLITTERING SHADOWS:

glitteringshadowsThe revolution is here.

Bodies line the streets of Urobrun; a great pyre burns in Republic Square. The rebels grow anxious behind closed doors while Marlis watches as the politicians search for answers—and excuses—inside the Chancellery.

Thea, Freddy, Nan, and Sigi are caught in the crossfire, taking refuge with a vibrant, young revolutionary and a mysterious healer from Irminau. As the battle lines are drawn, a greater threat casts a dark shadow over the land. Magic might be lost—forever.

This action-packed sequel to Dark Metropolis weaves political intrigue, haunting magic, and heartbreaking romance into an unforgettable narrative. Dolamore’s lyrical writing and masterfully crafted plot deliver a powerful conclusion. (June 2015 from Disney Hyperion)

You can find all the #FSYALit posts here.

Meet Our Guest Blogger

lnholmesLeeAnn Adams (or L. N. Holmes, if referring to her by her pen name) is a writer and editor for Germ Magazine. She is the winner of the 2012 Katherine B. Rondthaler Award for Poetry, the 2013 President’s Prize for Creative Writing, and has won first place for her nonfiction in a literary magazine from the North Carolina Media Association Statewide Media Awards. Her writing is featured in Garbanzo Literary Journal, Salt Magazine, Incunabula, the Wilmington News Journal, and is forthcoming in F(r)iction. She would love for you to visit her at her WordPress, Facebook, and Twitter pages.

The Faith of The Girl of Fire and Thorns, a #FSYALit guest post with author interview

Today as part of our ongoing discussion on Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit (#FSYALit) guest Catherine Posey is discussing The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson. She even reached out to author Rae Carson who was kind enough to answer some questions for this post. You can find all the #FSYALit posts here.

girloffireandthornsWhen I first encountered Rae Carson’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy, it’s needless to say I was intrigued. A heroine with a “Godstone” embedded in her body? A girl destined to become a leader in the land who doesn’t necessarily fit the bill of the perfect looking, size 0 young woman? A high fantasy with a unique magical system and feminist dimension? Yes, please! Then, to make things even better, once I dove into the books, I discovered that the novels featured a rich faith dimension that didn’t feel preachy. This, more than anything else, solidified my love of the novels, considering my own interest in the realm of faith and spirituality in both literature and readers.

Of course, there’s a lot to say about the topic of faith in Carson’s trilogy, and I obviously can’t cover it all here. But I can highlight several aspects I think are worth mentioning.

The Will of God

The religious culture of the books reflects multiple faith aspects, but one overarching theme is the notion of the “will of God” or the “plans of God.” For example, Elisa’s struggle with the fact that she is the bearer of the Godstone is apparent throughout the trilogy. Since she was born with the Godstone, obviously it is God’s will for her to play a unique role in her country’s history. Right? In the second book, The Crown of Embers, Elisa’s Godstone reminds her that “God has plans” for her, and that she hasn’t fulfilled them all. The way she comes to term with this part of her identity invites discussion about how sometimes we feel a desire to do something significant, but actually doing it feels impossible. We can sense a “calling” to do something, but we don’t feel adequate. Both of these sentiments are explored in the trilogy, making it something that some religious readers may be able to relate to. It isn’t necessarily easy for Elisa to come to terms with what she is “destined” to do—nor does she understand exactly what she is supposed to do.

God’s will. How many times have I heard someone declare their understanding of this thing I find so indefinable?” [Girl of Fire and Thorns]

Her grappling with questions while still holding on to her faith is apparent in all three books. The bumps along the way in Elisa’s journey reinforce this idea that the road ahead for all of us will not always be clear or make sense, but as the saying goes, it’s often not about the destination, but about the journey.

“It’s nice to consider that God many not count imperfection as an obstacle to working out his will in the world.” [Crown of Embers]

Appealing to a Higher Power

It is clear that for Elisa, her “Godstone” is a source of power for her, and symbolizes her connection to a higher power. She often taps into the Godstone and begins “praying” when she needs peace or is in danger. This is another example of how her spirituality plays a role in her life. But, it might be helpful to note that it is usually when Elisa is in trouble or in need of power that she appeals to God. Some of the phrases Elisa says to herself in the midst of stressful situations resemble Biblical scripture, but this in no way turns the story into anything stuffy or too religious. It does, however, create parallels with readers whose religion is focused, in some way, on a holy book.

“Aloud I say, ‘The gate that leads to life is narrow and small so that few find it.’ My Godstone lurches, and the force inside me begins a slow spin.” [Crown of Embers]

A Destructive Spirituality

Though the trilogy includes references to “God’s plans” and the notion of “destiny” through Elisa’s journey to become a powerful and important leader in the land of Joya d’Arena, the books don’t shy away from illuminating how the idea of “God’s will” can manifest negatively. For example, the animagus in the beginning of The Crown of Embers at first threatens to send fire into the crowd unless Elisa gives in to his demands and turns herself in. However, he burns himself up instead, becoming “a living torch,” and screaming, “It is God’s will!” This is a clear example in the series of how people’s faith and religious beliefs can have a negative effect on themselves and/or others. This is something else I appreciated about how Carson wove faith elements throughout her trilogy—she doesn’t shy away from depicting the way faith and religious beliefs can be destructive, in some cases. At the same time, the faith aspects of the trilogy were overall more positive to me than they were negative.

A Spirituality of Connectedness

Many of the relationships in the story communicate ideas that appearances can be deceiving, and that compassion and kindness should be offered, even if undeserved. If someone betrays a friend, can that relationship ever be redeemed? These are some of the issues and questions the books bring up, reinforcing yet another spiritual dimension of the story. Elisa grows in love and compassion for those she encounters; her ability to help those close to her heal from life threatening wounds illuminates the notion of making sacrifices for people.

“I will do anything. I’d give my own life and heath if I could. He’s a good man, the best man…I imagine pouring my life force out of my body, through our clasped hands, filling Hector, knitting his wound. The Godstone becomes a fire.” [Crown of Embers]

****

It’s clear that The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy illuminates important aspects of faith and spirituality, whether it’s through Elisa’s raw honesty about her struggle to understand her purpose or her willingness to forgive those who have wronged her. I would also argue that Rae Carson’s fantasy series effectively portrays faith dimensions that have the potential to appeal to readers of various faiths.

Rae was kind enough to answer some of my questions around this topic of faith and spirituality in teen literature, and I’m extremely excited to share with you those questions and answers!

The religious/spiritual aspect of The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy is such a rich dimension of the narrative—what led you to include this aspect of the story? Or did it just emerge organically?

Thank you. I was a deeply religious teen who never saw myself represented in books. This was baffling to me. In the U.S., the vast majority affiliate with some kind of religious faith, which makes religion a huge part of the coming-of-age experience. So where was my story? Why didn’t anyone write about my experience?

Growing up religious comes with a lot of confusion: Why do all these churches teach things that are so vastly different? What happens when you realize that your beliefs are diverging from those of your parents and peers? Why do people do such horrible things in the name of religion, while others derive such comfort and peace from their faith?

I wanted to explore all of those hard questions, and I wanted to write stories that reflected the reality of so many teens who grow up in a faith environment.

Do you think your own spirituality affects your writing? Any thoughts on how that happens or any thoughts about this with other books?

Not even a little. I gave up religion a long time ago.

However, being nonreligious does not prevent me from empathizing with people who hold different beliefs than I do. In fact, as an author, it’s my job. I worked very hard to make my treatment of faith respectful, empathetic, and even affectionate. Many people assume that I’m religious because of my books, and I’m delighted that readers found the faith elements in the trilogy so convincing.

Are there any books you read as a young reader (teen or younger) that really affected you in a profound or meaningful way?

I loved Judy Blume’s brilliant Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. I probably read that book five times at the age of ten. I was also profoundly impacted by the original Star Wars trilogy, which is as unsubtle and fond a commentary on spirituality as I’ve ever seen in fiction, particularly in regards to the power of belief and the dichotomy of good and evil.

Any books for teens (fantasy or other genres) that you would recommend for readers looking for an engaging and creative plot, but maybe are also interested in faith aspects as well?

I strongly recommend Aaron Hartzler’s Rapture Practice and John Corey Whaley’s Where Things Come Back. Both explore religious themes with humor, affection, and honesty. Teens who, for one reason or another, must deal with stringent “content” restrictions can safely enjoy anything by Ted Dekker or Lisa T. Bergren.

Thank you, Rae, for taking the time to answer these questions! It’s a pleasure to have you participate in this post!
 ****

About The Girl of Fire and Thorns

Once a century, one person is chosen for greatness.
Elisa is the chosen one.But she is also the younger of two princesses, the one who has never done anything remarkable. She can’t see how she ever will.

Now, on her sixteenth birthday, she has become the secret wife of a handsome and worldly king—a king whose country is in turmoil. A king who needs the chosen one, not a failure of a princess.

And he’s not the only one who seeks her. Savage enemies seething with dark magic are hunting her. A daring, determined revolutionary thinks she could be his people’s savior. And he looks at her in a way that no man has ever looked at her before. Soon it is not just her life, but her very heart that is at stake.

Elisa could be everything to those who need her most. If the prophecy is fulfilled. If she finds the power deep within herself. If she doesn’t die young.

Most of the chosen do. (Publisher’s Book Description)

Meet Our Guest Blogger:

Catherine Posey has a Ph.D in Curriculum & Instruction (Emphasis: Children’s Literature). She is a blogger at Bookish Illuminations. You can find Catherine on Twitter: @KatePoseyPhD

DEVOTED: Religion, Feminism, and the Case for Compassion , a #FSYALit guest post by author Corey Ann Haydu

faith and SpiritualityEarlier this year I read and was deeply moved by a book called Making Pretty. I was so moved by the author that I wrote her an email explaining to her what my life was like growing up and how I knew exactly what the two main characters in her book were thinking and feeling, and how important it was that someone had given voice to that. That author was Corey Ann Haydu. We talked a little bit and she was completely kind and empathetic as I reached out to her about her book. Then it came time for Ally Watkins and I o read Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu for the Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit Discussion. We read it, we talked about it a bit, and then Ally sent me an email and said, “Corey Ann Haydu really wants to talk about Devoted for #FSYALit, would that be okay?” Which, of course, it was, because I believe that the more voices involved in a discussion the better it is. And also because I deeply admire and respect Corey Ann Haydu because of the books she writes. So here she is today sharing her thoughts about Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu.

devotedBack in graduate school I wrote my first YA novel. It was about Amish teenagers on a Rumspringa and about non-Amish teenagers who became their friends.

There are a lot of reasons to be interested in Amish culture— most of us have not grown up in that culture. Many of us will never even meet someone who has grown up in that culture. It is a small, contained universe unto itself. But what interested me more than rituals and traditions and linguistic nuances or the logistics of dating and marriage was that after teens go on their Rumspringa (a period of time where the rules are relaxed and often teenagers enter the non-Amish world before committing personally to their faith), they come back. Not a few of them. Not even a sight majority. Almost all. They try the world—sex, drugs and rock and roll as it were—and return to their Amish life.

I wrote the book to try to understand why, to get a whiff of what it’s like to choose faith. I wanted a book that was about choosing a more rigid lifestyle, and mostly I wanted to understand how that choice could be positive or hopeful or one that I could stand behind. I wanted to imagine a world in which I would make that kind of decision, or at the very least live in the skin of someone for whom that choice would be the right one.

My book didn’t get published, and I’m glad it didn’t, because Jennifer Mathieu’s DEVOTED is really the book I was looking for, I think.

Partly, religion interests me because it intersects with feminism in challenging and complicated ways. That’s what Mathieu’s book understands as well. To really explore the way religion and feminism, choice and restriction, intersect, an author has to enter the space with openness and a lack of judgment. Abuse is wrong—we can all agree on that. Oppression is wrong too. But where does oppression end and where does surrender to faith begin? How much of religion is culture, and how much is faith? Where does choice come in, and how can we come to understand it, when it conflicts with our personal views? When is community a positive and when does it turn dangerous? Can faith exist without community?

It takes a special book to investigate so many questions, and a special writer to resist judgment and answers, to make way for the nuances of faith.

DEVOTED is about the Quiverfull community, and a religious faith that many of us associate with 19 Kids and Counting, although from my understanding they are not officially part of the movement. That the book has entered the world at the same time as horrifying revelations about the cast of the show have come to the surface is in some ways a gift to those of us who struggle to understand what happened in that home. It is an even greater gift to those of us who want to understand how faith and feminism and co-exist, how space can be created for dedicated religious practice and open-minded ideals. How devotion isn’t tied to fear, even if they do sometimes, sadly, meet each other.

The success of DEVOTED has to do with the way Mathieu is willing to explore the light and the dark with equal amounts of respect. The book is interested in the troubling aspects of Quiverfull as much as it is interested in the positive light that faith in general shines into so many people’s lives.

This is a feminist novel.

The wonderful thing about feminism is that it’s about women living their truths and being allowed the space to be rounded and filled out. Mathieu’s book leaves room for that to mean different things for different people. It takes a stand against practices that leave women suffocated and trapped, but it isn’t about only what is wrong with religion. It isn’t about one kind of woman or a right kind of woman or a right kind of relationship with faith. Feminism, ideally, has something to do with flexibility. DEVOTED, I think, understands that. In fact, it helped ME understand that.

I’m not a person with a very religious background. I call my old church “hippie church” and mostly was in it for the donut holes at coffee hour and the fact that the amazing minister was a history buff who taught us, fearlessly, about Christianity’s complicated history with oppression. He didn’t want us to get confirmed without understanding the context of our confirmation. He wanted us to grapple with all religion, and make the choice that worked best for us. I was into the donuts and the live nativity at Christmas and the idea that Jesus maybe did or maybe did not exist but could totally teach us lessons about being a kind person. I liked singing in the choir.

It would be easy for me to feel like that is the “right” amount of religion in someone’s life. It was right for me. But books are the place where I can explore the idea that more religion, greater faith, even a more traditions and stricter value systems” are right for other people. DEVOTED lets us question from both ends—why might someone stay active and invested in their faith; why might someone else reject all whiffs of religion?

The power of this book is in the way it doesn’t shy away from that complicated place where religion and feminism meet. It lets that space remain complex but not irreconcilable. It draws the lines we have to draw around oppression and abuse, but it asks us to remain open to the idea that faith and feminism don’t have to exist in separate universes.

This is a feminist novel about a problematic religious community that leaves room for more than just judgment on the concept of faith and communities of faith.

DEVOTED is proof positive of what I believe in most of all—that there’s no place for judgment in writing and in literature. There’s only room for compassion.

And for all my lack of faith, compassion is something I have total faith in.

Meet Corey Ann Haydu:

Corey Ann Haydu is the author of OCD LOVE STORYLIFE BY COMMITTEEMAKING PRETTY and her upcoming middle grade debut, RULES FOR STEALING STARS. A graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and The New School’s Writing for Children MFA program, Corey has been working in children’s publishing since 2009.

In 2013, Corey was chosen as one of Publisher Weekly’s Flying Starts. Her books have been Junior Library Guild Selections, Indie Next Selections, and BCCB Blue Ribbon Selections

Corey also teaches YA Novel Writing with Mediabistro and is adapting her debut novel, OCD LOVE STORY into a high school play, which will have its first run in Fall 2015.
Corey lives in Brooklyn with her dog, her boyfriend, and a wide selection of cheese.

Publisher’s Book Description:

Rachel Walker is devoted to God. She prays every day, attends Calvary Christian Church with her family, helps care for her five younger siblings, dresses modestly, and prepares herself to be a wife and mother who serves the Lord with joy. But Rachel is curious about the world her family has turned away from, and increasingly finds that neither the church nor her homeschool education has the answers she craves. Rachel has always found solace in her beliefs, but now she can’t shake the feeling that her devotion might destroy her soul.” (Published June 2, 2015 by Roaring Book Press)

For more on the #FSYALit (Faith and Spirituality in YA Literature), check out the discussion hub.

They Still Break Girls, Don’t They: A Reflection on THE SACRED LIES OF MINNOW BLY for #FSYALit

sacredliesI have in my mind an ongoing list of YA books that everyone should read if they care about girls. And since everyone should care about girls, that means that everyone should read them. The list includes books like Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt and Making Pretty by Corey Ann Haydu. And now that list includes The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes.

But first, a preface. To be honest, it is very hard to be a feminist and a Christian in a majority of the various churches in the world today. Yes, even in the year 2015. Some are easier than others. But I have sat in many a church where a pastor has stood at the pulpit and explained to me how the Gospel makes it very clear what role I am to play in this world and it is most often that lesser than a man. It involves things like my not being able to teach, my needing to submit, etc. And while working on my Youth Ministry degree from a conservative Christian college we were once even told by a professor how even if a man beats you to a blood pulp you are not permitted to divorce him but that you must take it. It’s hard being a part of a faith that wants to suggest that you have little to no value and you should live in daily terror, that this could be a loving god’s will for his child.

Which brings me to The Sacred Lives of Minnow Bly. On the surface, it may seem like the story of Minnow Bly is so far outside the norm, but the truth is that it’s not that much of a stretch from a wide variety of things that our girls are taught in this life about themselves: that their worth is only determined by how they are viewed by the men in their lives, by their beauty. And it’s not really so far of a stretch to think that this is, in fact, the way that many people still want to think of girls – of women; This idea that they are less then, subservient to, and that they should of course submit themselves to the wise men in their lives to the point that they don’t need a real education and they have no real choice in who they marry. Many churches led by men want their women to be uneducated, silent, meek and cowering in fear. See also Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu (reviewed tomorrow by Corey Ann Haydu)

But The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly isn’t just about Minnow. We meet a variety of girls who are in juvenile detention for a variety of crimes, some of whom I might argue shouldn’t be.

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly is about how we, as a society, break our girls. How sometimes, when girls fight back and try to defend themselves, they are punished. It’s about the lies we tell them, the pain it causes them, and the struggle to free themselves of those dangerous definitions and finding the courage to define yourself.

**Mild Spoilers Follow**

It’s also about our prison system. This title, along with The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma (brilliant) and to some extent Uninvited by Sophie Jordan (fascinating) is one of the few titles that feature girls in juvenile detention. And it highlights how the prison system can push the people inside its walls further into a life of violence and crime in an effort to survive. It also highlights how sometimes what people need are mental health services as opposed to prison services.

But underneath it all is also the discussion of faith. Minnow Bly has lived since she was 5 in an extreme religious cult completely cut off from society. Her life changes dramatically when the prophet announces that he has been told by his version of god that he must marry Minnow Bly, not yet even 18, in part to break her of her wicked ways. Minnow, you see, asks a lot of questions. And in a world where complete subservience is key questions are undoubtedly a sign of wickedness.

And it should be mentioned, The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly is also a book about sexual violence. It’s a book where young girls – sometimes incredibly young as in barely or not quite a teenager – are forced to marry men whether they like it or not. And of course it is fully expected that they will perform their “wifely duties” without question or complaint. But lest we think this too is a stretch, I am reminded of the times when I have been preached at from the pulpit that a woman should never deny her husband’s need for sex under any circumstances, not when she is sick, not when her children is sick, and certainly not when she feels scared, insecure or unloved. In many ways the language of the church can be a thin veil hiding the idea that a wife doesn’t get to have consent because she can never, ever refuse. Keep in mind that it wasn’t that long ago that it was considered that a married woman couldn’t be raped by her husband. But Minnow Bly isn’t about marital consent, it’s about forced marriage and considering women property.

There is another thread of sexual violence that happens in the storyline of another girl we meet while in the juvenile detention center. What happens to her and how people react to what happened to her was one of the most haunting things I have read in a really long time. And the truth is, it haunts in part because we know it’s true. We still blame victims of sexual violence, we still put women in prison when in an act of self-defense they harm or kill those that attack them, and we still lock little girls in their rooms to “keep them safe” instead of punishing those that attack them.

Reading The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly was a visceral and emotional experience for me. I texted long, thoughtful and emotional responses to Ally Watkins while I was reading it. I texted long, thoughtful and emotional responses to Christa Desir when I was reading it. I got angry. I cried. I wanted to really talk about it with everyone. I still do. This book, for me, was personal. As a woman. As the mother to two little girls. As a woman who is a Christian that wants to be fully valued equally alongside male Christians. As a person who just wants us to value and respect all of our fellow human beings equally – this book really hit me in the feels. More importantly, it made me think and reflect.

Literature works well when it is both a fictional story that we read on the page and a story that reflects the truth of the world we live in. The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly reflects many truths – truths about faith, about sexism, about brokenness, about hope.

Here’s an important truth about faith: at some point, we all have to decide what we believe for ourselves. Minnow Bly is forced to face this truth in truly horrific ways and as a person who has in no way been equipped and empowered to do that until the moment that she is. She is lost and alone and floundering, but in the end for the first time ever she gets to decide who she wants to be and what she wants to believe. It’s not an easy journey, but in the end this is the most important truth: everyone should get that opportunity to decide for themselves who they really are and what they really want to believe.

Obviously, I highly recommend this book. It’s not an easy read and it’s not a fun read, but it is a profoundly thoughtful and meaningful read. And if you care about girls, you should read it. And since everyone should care about girls, everyone should read it. And keep in mind it’s not just about girls, because the truths of Minnow Bly are universal truths.

Publisher’s Book Description:

“The Kevinian cult has taken everything from seventeen-year-old Minnow: twelve years of her life, her family, her ability to trust.

And when she rebelled, they took away her hands, too.

Now their Prophet has been murdered and their camp set aflame, and it’s clear that Minnow knows something—but she’s not talking. As she languishes in juvenile detention, she struggles to un-learn everything she has been taught to believe, adjusting to a life behind bars and recounting the events that led up to her incarceration. But when an FBI detective approaches her about making a deal, Minnow sees she can have the freedom she always dreamed of—if she’s willing to part with the terrible secrets of her past.

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly is a hard-hitting and hopeful story about the dangers of blind faith—and the power of having faith in oneself.” (Publisher’s Book Description, Published in June 2015 by Dial/Penguin)

Next week I will be sharing a Take 5 list of the books I think everyone who cares about girls should read.

For more on the #FSYALit (Faith and Spirituality in YA Literature), check out the discussion hub.

Pulling Back the Veil, a #FSYALit discussion of CONVICTION by Kelly Loy Gilbert, part II

Earlier today Ally Watkins discussed the concept of Hidden Things in her brilliant and slightly spoilery post on CONVICTION. I am going to discuss the book some more in a HUGELY INCREDIBLY SPOILERY POST SO IF YOU HAVEN’T READ IT YET GO READ IT AND THEN COME BACK.

I’m serious: A huge major spoiler will occur because this is not a book review but a book discussion.

***Seriously. Spoilers. Read at Your Own Risk***

convictionAs Ally mentioned, CONVICTION is a pretty brilliant book about hidden things. It is, more specifically, a book about how some people hide behind their faith, pretending to be righteous people to hide the wicked that they are doing in their daily lives.

Although one of the main characters of this book happens to be a Christian hiding behind his Christian faith, the truth is that people of any faith and even of no faith do it.

Sometimes they know about this wickedness. Sometimes they lack the self awareness to really understand that their actions are indeed wicked.

We see examples of this in the current news when we read about what happened in secret in the Duggar home. Or in a Dallas megachurch. Or in the Catholic church, which we read about (brilliantly) in The Gospel of Winter by Brendan Kiely.

Conviction is not about sexual abuse, but it does end up being about abuse, which I was not expecting. You see, Gilbert does something incredibly genius with her writing here in that in the beginning you the reader do not recognize that our main character, Braden, is a victim of physical and emotional abuse by his father because Braden the character does not recognize that he is a victim of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his father. Which is something that is often true for many victims of abuse, which is why CONVICTION is a brilliant and expertly crafted book.

CONVICTION is a book about being deceived, and about deceiving ourselves.

Sometimes self deception is about self preservation. Braden needs to believe in his family because he needs his family to survive. He needs to believe in his faith because he needs his faith and his church to survive, it is part of the core of his identity. It is the ritual and routine of his life as much as baseball is.

CONVICTION moved me in part because along with the slow reveal that Braden is a victim of abuse, I felt that Gilbert authentically captures some of the truths about parental abuse. It’s not black and white, it’s complicated. The abused want – in fact they often need – to redefine and excuse what is happening to them because this is the only family they will ever have. And because the moments in between abuse are full of love and support and caring.

Along with the abusive relationship depicted in BRUTAL YOUTH by Anthony Breznican, I thought CONVICTION was one of the best depictions of the emotional complexity that comes with being a child in an abusive home. In BRUTAL YOUTH, we see a character lovingly pull a blanket over the mother who has just abused her and then go and clean up the broken glass that was just thrown at her. It’s heartbreaking because it is real.

“Warning signs of emotional abuse in children

  • Excessively withdrawn, fearful, or anxious about doing something wrong.
  • Shows extremes in behavior (extremely compliant or extremely demanding; extremely passive or extremely aggressive).
  • Doesn’t seem to be attached to the parent or caregiver.
  • Acts either inappropriately adult (taking care of other children) or inappropriately infantile (rocking, thumb-sucking, throwing tantrums).

Warning signs of physical abuse in children

  • Frequent injuries or unexplained bruises, welts, or cuts.
  • Is always watchful and “on alert,” as if waiting for something bad to happen.
  • Injuries appear to have a pattern such as marks from a hand or belt.
  • Shies away from touch, flinches at sudden movements, or seems afraid to go home.
  • Wears inappropriate clothing to cover up injuries, such as long-sleeved shirts on hot days.” – from HelpGuide.org

For many kids in abusive homes, there are no easy answers and there is no easy way out. They do still love their parents and either lie to themselves or others to cover up the abuse at home. Part of it is to protect themselves emotionally, denial can be a great coping mechanism until it isn’t. But part of it is to protect themselves from becoming a part of the system because no matter how bad things may be at home, it can often be less scary then becoming a part of the child protective services system.

CONVICTION is about Braden, but it is also about many of the teens we work with in our libraries every day. Sometimes we will never know about what is hidden in their homes. Sometimes they tell us. But it’s always important for us to remember that are tweens and teens are often dealing with things that are unimaginable and extend them a bit of grace, recognizing that the library may be their safe space, that you may be the only adult who says a kind, caring word to them on that day.

Reading books is, I feel, a window into other lives. Part of our goal is to read stories about people like us and find hope and healing and have our stories affirmed. Part of our goal is to read stories about people different than us to learn more about our fellow human beings, to grow in wisdom and compassion, and to understand the challenges that those around us may be facing. Whatever your reason may be for reading CONVICTION by Kelly Loy Gilbert, I think she really captures a wide variety of heartbreaking truths about the human spirit and condition, whether you are a person of faith or not, and it is well worth reading. I know it has really stuck with me.

About CONVICTION:

“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.” (Publisher’s Book Description. Published May, 2015 by Disney-Hyperion)

Hidden Things: A #FSYALit discussion of the book CONVICTION by Kelly Loy Gilbert, a guest post by Ally Watkins

About Conviction:
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. (Publisher’s Book Description, Published May 2015 by Disney-Hyperion)

Hinduism in YA Lit: A #FSYALit Guest Post by Shveta Thakrar

As part of the Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit (#FSYALit) Discussion, we are honored today to feature guest blogger and YA author Shveta Thakrar to discuss Hinduism in YA Literature.

hindiusm1One thing that frustrates me is seeing the word religious come to be equated with “Christian.” Not only is this inaccurate, but it also erases those of us who practice any other faith or even just come from a background associated with one. Even if you don’t often see them on TV or in movies and books, Hindu teens exist all over the world, and their stories deserve to be told, too. (Since I live and write in North America, I’m going to focus this post on that market.)

Literature helps shape how we view those around us, so it’s vital that writers not only think about why they are writing their characters (going beyond straight, white, able-bodied, cis, Christian people) but how they do it. Like with any other faith, not everyone who is nominally Hindu practices, not everyone even believes, and for the gods’ sakes, we’re certainly not all repressed! But many of us do believe and practice in different ways, and I’d really love to see all these journeys depicted respectfully and thoughtfully in young adult novels.

Worldwide, the Hindu population is projected to rise by 34 per cent over the period, from a little over 1 billion to nearly 1.4 billion, roughly keeping pace with overall population growth, the report noted. – Source: The Hindu.com

I’ve noticed a general lack of familiarity with Hindu dharma/Hinduism or misunderstanding of what it is in North American media. Spoiler: it’s a very old and rich, complex collection of beliefs, scripture, and practices that vary from region to region in South Asia and was really only brought under one umbrella during the British occupation. And no, despite what Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom claimed, we do not eat eyeballs. In fact, many of us, but not all, are vegetarian—inspired long, long ago by Buddhism. No stereotypes or dismissive attitudes, please.

I’ve been told I’m exotic, whatever that means, I’ve had my bindi mocked, and I’ve even been told I would burn in hell for not being Christian. Please don’t do those things, and writers, please, please, please don’t put them in your novels. Instead, do your research! Hindu dharma is far more than (often misunderstood) karma, chakras (pronounced “chuk-ruh”), and (again misunderstood) tantra.

When I was a teen, I would have given anything for characters who looked like me with names like mine, who grew up in the West but with Hindu rituals and beliefs shaping our lives in overt and subtle ways—so I would have known I was okay and important, too. So I’d like to see well-researched novels star Hindu characters in a story that isn’t about them struggling with being brown or Hindu. That happens sometimes in real life, sure, but there’s so much more to us, and for some reason, with a couple exceptions, that’s the only story we ever get. Why? We should get to have magical adventures or go on epic road trips or win art contests or dye our hair bright pink and teal (yes, you can like saris and punk rock, or not; people are complex) or have huge crushes on boys/girls/people outside the gender binary just like any other character.

I’d especially like to see novels that use Hindu mythology and folklore—with Hindu characters. I cannot stress this enough. This means no white saviors coming in to save the day, and no one showing us the light about how being Western/Christian/fill in the blank is the right way to be. Just exciting, well-researched, well-crafted, thoughtful, fun books!

And one thing we can all do—writers, booksellers, librarians, reviewers, readers—to help right the incredible imbalance of white characters to everyone else in YA is to support writers from the background they share with the characters they’re writing about. In other words, let us tell our own stories first, and use the megaphone of your platform to boost them. Erasure happens on many fronts, but at the end of the day, because Hindus are an underrepresented group in North America, no one else is going to be able to tell our stories as well as we can (Coe Booth nailed it in this podcast with Sara Zarr.) Our voices matter.

I’ve compiled a list of the few titles I’ve found in the North American market that deal with Hindu dharma in some way. It’s not a long list, and I definitely hope that changes in the near future. (It’s a mix of contemporary, romance, historical fiction, and fantasy, with the role of Hinduism in the text ranging from large to incidental, just like with any faith or religi

Chasing Shadows by Swati Avasthi

5 to 1 by Holly Bodger. I haven’t yet read this, but the author told me that while religion has been banned in the book, Hindu influences linger in various ways, including in the characters’ names. (May 12, 2015 from Knopf Books for Young Readers)

ashmistrybooks

Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda (the first in a middle-grade trilogy)*

Ash Mistry and the City of Death by Sarwat Chadda (book two)

Ash Mistry and the World of Darkness by Sarwat Chadda (book three)

The Bride of Dusk and Glass by Roshani Chokshi (out in 2016)

Lovetorn by Kavita Daswani

Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier

“Believe it or not, Dimple–and I would believe it–I am just a regular person who has decided to be who I am in life. That’s all. That’s how you make your life magical–you take yourself into your own hands and rub a little. You activate your identity. And that’s the only way to make, as they say, the world a better place; after all, what good are you to anyone without yourself?”
Tanuja Desai Hidier, Born Confused

Bombay Blues by Tanuja Desai Hidier (the sequel)

Enter Title Here by Rahul Kanakia (out fall of 2015)

Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary by Keshni Kashyap and illustrated by Mari Araki

hinduism2

The Third Eye by Mahtab Narsimhan (the first in a trilogy)

The Silver Anklet by Mahtab Narsimhan (book two)

The Deadly Conch by Mahtab Narsimhan (book three)

Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins

My So-Called Bollywood Life by Nisha Sharma (out in 2017)

Toads and Diamonds by Heather Tomlinson (a retelling of the Charles Perrault fairy tale)

Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman

A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman

hindiusm3

Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

* Yes, this trilogy is middle grade, but I’ve yet to see anything like it in the North American YA market—books that use Hindu myth and folklore in contemporary/urban fantasy.

Meet Our Guest Blogger:

Shveta Thakrar is a writer of South Asian–flavored fantasy, social justice activist, and part-time nagini. She draws on her heritage, her experience growing up with two cultures, and her love of myth to spin stories about spider silk and shadows, magic and marauders, and courageous girls illuminated by dancing rainbow flames. When not hard at work on her second novel, a young adult fantasy about stars, Shveta makes things out of glitter and paper and felt, devours books, daydreams, draws, bakes sweet treats, travels, and occasionally even practices her harp. Check out her website and follow her on Twitter.

Kaleidoscope-Postcard-1-706x1024“Krishna Blue” by Shveta Thakrar appears in the young adult speculative fiction anthology Kaleidoscope, which made the NPR Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of 2014 and 2014 Locus Recommended Reading lists

(You can also find her at the Star-Dusted Sirens website. You should check it out.)

You can find all the Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit (#FSYALit) posts here.

Sunday Reflections: Writing Religion When It’s Not Your Faith, a guest post by Melissa Walker (#FSYALit)

As a Youth Ministry major at a conservative Christian college in the Midwest, I soon became acquainted with a yearly Halloween tradition known as Hell House or Hell Stop, depending on what they chose to call it. It was a new concept to me and I went and visited one once and to me, personally, it was traumatizing the way they combined the traditional horrors of a haunted house with the intense guilt of Christian sin. I came out of my first experience incredibly shaken, which is of course the point. So I was very excited when author Melissa Walker contacted Ally and I about writing a guest post regarding her YA novel, Small Town Sinners. This discussion about faith and spirituality in YA lit has done many things, including helping me discover books I might have missed the first time around and giving us all an opportunity to explore faith experiences, whether they be real and personal or those of fictional characters in the pages of a book, that help us better understand our teens. In addition, as part of the ongoing discussion about needing more diversity in books, one of the main questions I keep hearing being asked is how do you write about something or someone that is so different from your real world knowledge and experience – in this case a faith that is different than your own. The answer I keep hearing over and over again is that one, you must do  your due diligence and research, but the other part of that answer is that you must be willing to listen to those who are actually living that life, or as in the case of Small Town Sinners, that faith. Today we are honored to have author Melissa Walker sharing her experience with us in writing about a faith that was different than her own in her book, Small Town Sinners.

I first heard about the concept of Hell House from a friend’s mom. She started talking about how her church had staged a “haunted house of sin” for Halloween, and my jaw dropped as I heard the details—a dramatic play with scenes about gay marriage, abortion, suicide, pornography… and then a meeting with the Devil and a rescue by Jesus, who asked attendees if they’d like to be saved.

This I had to see.

I grew up attending a Methodist church in the liberal southern town of Chapel Hill, NC. I’m familiar with Christian church life—being shushed during the main service before I got to escape to my Sunday School classroom, following along with the words in the hymnal, watching sunlight stream through stained glass windows, enjoying picnics with fried chicken and corn on the cob and greens with bacon fat (yum), and loving that feeling of being known (and parented) by all the adults in the congregation on Sundays.

But Hell House? It sounded extreme to me and was certainly not my experience—I was fascinated. I pitched an article about a Hell House to ELLEgirl magazine, where I was Features Editor, and one Friday before Halloween, I flew into a small West Texas town. The pastor who was staging the Hell House was expecting me, and he had asked a local restaurant to stay open because I was coming in late and would need supper. That was just the first of many warm gestures that met me in this town.

I won’t lie: Over the weekend I saw some crazy stuff. The gay marriage scene of this particular Hell House ended with one partner dying of AIDS in a hospital bed while the devil shouted about wicked deeds. The abortion stage included a beating heartbeat soundtrack and a central table where a girl sat screaming and bleeding, plus the ghost of her aborted child visiting her at age five (played by a five-year-old congregant) and asking “Why did you kill me, Mommy?” The devil, played by the children’s pastor, was truly terrifying with his extra-long nails and the way he whispered in my ear: “I know how you’ve sinned.”

It was plenty for my article. But there was a lot that I didn’t get to include in the ELLEgirl story. Like how the teenagers I met were smart and funny and warm, how the parents I talked to were genuine and kind and wanted the best for their kids. And how the people in this small town were very much like the people in the small town where I grew up. I kept thinking about those people, and I found myself struggling with how shocking I found their version of Christianity. The journalistic piece was one part of the story, but I wanted to ponder their truth from another angle.

When I started writing Young Adult fiction, I wrote about the fashion world in the Violet on the Runway series, because it was what I knew as a magazine editor in NYC. But eventually, I looked back to that weekend in West Texas, and I wrote a book called Small Town Sinners.

At first, I thought the story would be about a girl rebelling against her church’s strict, controversial teachings. My initial outline was very black and white. But then I started writing, and my main character, Lacey Anne, was much more nuanced than that. After all, she wasn’t me. She’d grown up with Hell House in her church, and to her, it was a fantastic play, a way to bring more people to God, and a chance to be in the spotlight. She didn’t consider the politics of it, or the controversy. She just wanted the main role—Abortion Girl.

I know religion is a hard thing for lots of readers—I had two authors decline to blurb the book, both saying it was because the religious aspects made them upset, and I understand that. Hell Houses are intense and dramatic, but there’s more to the book than that. I wanted the story built around the Hell House production to have quiet, introspective moments. Because when that much commotion is going on externally, there are deep emotions happening internally, too.

I wasn’t trying to write a book with “issues” in it, but I did want to present a story that felt true to what these characters—high school students in a small, conservative town—might be facing. It turns out that what it took for me to write about a religion that wasn’t my own was a strong sense of trust in my characters. I had to know Lacey Anne and her friends and family on a deep level; and once I started writing, I saw things through their eyes and their points of view took control of the narrative. I love books that deal with hard subjects because reading about how characters handle their own tricky situations can ideally create empathy, understanding, and a real consideration of “What would I do if that were me?”

Meet Our Guest Blogger:

Melissa Walker is a writer who has worked as ELLEgirl Features Editor and Seventeen Prom Editor. All in the name of journalism, she has spent 24 hours with male models and attended an elite finishing school for girls in New Zealand, among other hardships. She has written for many publications including Redbook, Glamour, New York, Teen Vogue, Family Circle and more (see samples of her magazine work). She is the co-founder of I Heart Daily with fellow ex-ELLEgirl Anne Ichikawa. It’s a daily newsletter about likable stuff.

Melissa lives in Brooklyn and has a BA in English from Vassar College. She would tell you her SAT scores too, but, you know, the math part was hard. She loves meeting teenagers, and is game to speak at your library or school about writing, books, fashion, magazines or pop culture (but, you know, in a smart way). Get in touch to discuss.

Melissa’s site: melissacwalker.com

About SMALL TOWN SINNERS:

The story of Lacey Anne Byers, a small town girl who is excited to star in Hell House, her church’s annual haunted house of sin, until a childhood friend reappears and makes her question her faith. (Bloomsbury, 2011)

I Was a Sixteen Year-Old Jesus Freak (Just Not In the Way You Think) by Terra Elan McVoy for #FSYALit

Today we are honored to host author Terra Elan McVoy as she discusses her personal teen faith journey and her book, PURE. You can read all the Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit Discussion (#FSYALit) posts here.

Being a devoted Christian in my hometown of Tallahassee, FL, didn’t exactly make me a minority, but in 11th grade I sure felt like one.

It wasn’t because going to church or youth group was uncool, per se. In truth, I had a plethora of classmates and friends who attended both things with as much dedication and fervor as I did. Nearly every week you’d see someone wearing a Fellowship of Christian Athletes jersey in the halls (or, better His Pain Your Gain), and it wasn’t uncommon for a daily devotion, or a mission trip, to fall into normal hallway conversation. Being Christian—and being proud of it—certainly wasn’t anything abnormal.

And yet, I still felt like an outsider. To everybody else I hung around with, being Christian looked so easy. They were all smart, attractive, popular. Sure they went to church and Bible study; they were prayerful; they loved their families and their friends; they might not drink or have sex (and sometimes they did anyway), but their lives were still bright and shiny. They fit right in with everyone else.

For me though, following Jesus was a lot more complicated. I had amazing adult leadership in my church, and they all inspired me to really live His teachings, not simply wear a Christ-emblazoned Tshirt. I wanted my whole life to epitomize the teachings that filled me with so much joy and awe. So to avoid materialism, I shopped at thrift stores instead of the mall. To help my neighbors, I took babysitting jobs for church families instead of going to football games. Those times when I did go to parties (I wasn’t a total leper), if there was drinking, my commitment to my parents demanded I (very unpopularly) call them to pick me up. In order to speak out for the oppressed, I joined my activist mother at anti death penalty vigils, anti-nuclear protests, and marches fighting for the rights of AIDS victims. I did all these things with seriousness and dedication (and hoped to motivate others to do so too), but when my picture appeared in the paper at the front of a pro-choice rally, I knew it wasn’t getting me a date for Prom.

In fact, to almost everyone in school —even my publicly Christian buddies— I was hippie, strange, weird, difficult to categorize. I had arguments with FCA members about the stock market (which to me was the same thing as usury).  My edgier friends started avoiding me, unsure whether I’d condemn their new party lifestyle. During lunch one day, a girlfriend (who like me preferred wearing vintage dresses and clunky shoes) accused me of making up my own religion when I reminded her that Jesus was a rebel who hung out with outcasts, and that if we really wanted to live in His image, we’d have to open our hearts to those we didn’t agree with, including gays. We didn’t keep talking after that.

Eventually, I learned to have conversations about other things.

Once I graduated high school and moved away from the wonderfully supportive community of my church, my faith became an even more private thing. It wasn’t that I was ashamed; my social circles simply didn’t include people who had the same kind of spiritual life I did, and I knew better than to try and engage anyone by then. Once, in graduate school, I did try telling lover about my belief in God and I how I felt it, particularly, when looking at art. He responded by carefully explaining to me how my faith was simply a social construct that was, at my age, ridiculous to cling to.

So I continued to keep things to myself.

Until in 2004, when I was living working in publishing in New York. As part of the office culture, every month or so, a stack of media clips would circulate in the office, showcasing any publicity our titles had gotten. One morning while perusing this pile, a statistic jumped out at me. It may well have been the very Barna Group quote that has inspired this blog: “nearly 6 out of every 10 teens are engaged in some type of group spiritual activity in a typical week.”

Wherever it came from, that quote gave me a lot of pause. America was still deeply reeling from 9/11. Our vocally Christian president had plunged our country into the early stages of war. Fox News and Karl Rove were everywhere, and it felt like every day another supporter of the hard religious right was getting either a lot of power, a lot of publicity, or both. I thought Christians were getting a really bad rep.

Looking at that brief newspaper bit, I considered the teenager out there—one of those sixty percent—who might be feeling the exact same way I did: someone who fiercely believed in God, and Jesus, just not in the same way as those hardliners on the news. I wondered what her or his story might look like, and started messing around in my free time with a story idea.

Soon after that I saw “Saved,” which gave me some courage, and then a friend who knew about my secret project shared an article with me about purity rings. These two things, plus a lot of revising and a lot of doubt, went into the cauldron of creativity from which emerged my first novel, Pure.. It’s the story of Tabitha McCabe, purity ring wearer and Jesus devotee, whose own beliefs get thrown for a loop when one of her closest friends breaks her own promise, and another ostracizes her because of it. Tabitha struggles, like I did, with the often contradictory nuances of the Bible, the challenges of true forgiveness, and what it is Jesus actually calls us to do, even if it means we lose friends because of it.

I wrote Pure to give a voice to those who are really battling with what it means to be a person of the Christian faith, on top of the regular difficulties of being a high school student. It’s bad enough after all, navigating parents and friends, pop culture and romance. Adding challenging elements like caring for the needy, or forgiving your enemy can only make things harder.

I didn’t have a clear road map when I was a teenager for any of this, and Pure doesn’t offer much of one either. Tabitha finds, as I did, that walking the walk of your beliefs is much, much harder than just paying them lip service, and it’s far easier to feel lost than other people might make it look. By the end of the book, however, Tabitha’s learned a lot about friendship, and faith. She a stronger understanding of her own beliefs, even after they’ve been challenged and shaken. Maybe especially so. Practicing her spirituality is a complicated, messy, difficult journey for Tabitha, but it’s one I hope readers will see she ultimately benefits from.

It’s definitely one, I’m certain, my 11th grade self did too.

Meet Our Guest Blogger, Terra Elan McVoy

When I am not reading or writing, I like to do a lot of crafty things (especially with paper and photography) and cook or bake, preferably for friends. On top of being an author, I am also currently a bookseller at Little Shop of Stories.

Terra Elan McVoy is the author of 6 YA books and several MG books, which you can find out more about at her website.

About PURE:

Promise. Betrayal. Confession. Revenge. Tabitha and her four best friends all wear purity rings, symbols of the virginity-until-marriage pledge they made years ago. Now Tab is fifteen, and her ring has come to mean so much more. It’s a symbol of who she is and what she believes—a reminder of her promises to herself, and her bond to her friends. But when Tab meets a boy whose kisses make her knees go weak, everything suddenly seems a lot more complicated. Tab’s best friend, Morgan, is far from supportive, and for the first time, Tabitha is forced to keep secrets from the one person with whom she’s always shared everything. When one of those secrets breaks to the surface, Tab finds herself at the center of an unthinkable betrayal that splits her friends apart. As Tab’s entire world comes crashing down around her, she’s forced to re-examine her friendships, her faith, and what exactly it means to be pure.

“I love this book. Like, love it love it. My heart expanded when I read it—yours will too!” —Lauren Myracle, bestselling author of ttyl and ttfn