Subscribe to SLJ
Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

#FSYALit: From Rejection to Reconciliation: Changing Notions of Faith and Spirituality in LGBTQ YA, a guest post by Rob Bittner

faith and Spirituality“What I would love to see more of in Queer YA with Christian sub-plots is the ability of characters to reimagine their spirituality—their faith—in ways which incorporate gender and sexual identities, instead of feeling the need to abandon all religious and spiritual components of their identities.” –Rob Bittner

 

Back in 2015 (was that really two years ago already?) I wrote a piece for TLT exploring the role of religion and religious communities on the lives of queer teens in YA literature. In these last two years (though more like the last two months) I’ve been coming across a significant number of the texts that I had been hoping for in my last post. I wanted nuance, and I’m starting to see it. I wanted complexity, and it’s happening. I can’t tell you how excited that makes me! But first, let me go back and bit and plot how I got here and why I think this progress is so important.

 

I have been keeping an eye on books featuring queer characters in religious contexts for the last decade. When I was in my undergrad, I started on a directed study on books with LGBTQ content. My supervisor asked me about the direction in which I was hoping to go, and at the time I wasn’t entirely sure. Looking back at my own past and my history as a gay man within the Christian church, I wondered how, if at all, such experiences were being discussed in books for young readers. Keep in mind that only ten years ago, it was still difficult to find much in the way of LGBTQ literature for YA audiences, so trying to find religious representation within that limited subgenre felt at first like an impossible task. It certainly took a lot of effort to find materials, but I came across a few examples, and some from larger publishers, too. I discussed a number of these in more detail in my previous post. Here are some main points to refresh your memory:

 

  • Early LGBTQ YA tends to frame Christianity (or any major religion really) as the enemy, often in the form of a religious leader preaching fire and brimstone for any and all non-normative genders and sexualities (Nothing Pink, Desire Lines);
  • Queer teens often sent away to camps for degayification (Caught in the Crossfire, Thinking Straight, The Miseducation of Cameron Post);
  • Earlier narratives often include long and didactic passages with characters debating scripture in an effort to show which side is right (Nothing Pink, The God Box, Gravity);
  • The novels were basically able to be split into two categories: novels of reconciliation (characters are able to reconcile queerness and spirituality, though not very often), and novels of abandonment (characters have to abandon either their faith or their sexuality in order to survive, and this is the more common trope.)

 

After reading so many of these books, I started to feel as though I was just reading the same narrative multiple times with different characters at the center. It became quite frustrating. In a way, I started to avoid books with religious content if I knew about it beforehand. Recently, however, I started reviewing for a mainstream review journal, and they started to send me books with LGBTQ characters in religious contexts. I almost rolled my eyes, but I’m glad I didn’t. After reading the first book, Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens, I realized that the narrative wasn’t following my assumptions; the story was actively working against the tropes I noted above! In the last two years I’ve read a number of novels that I’d like to briefly talk about in terms of the ways that they reject stereotypes and normative tropes for the complexity and nuance I have been advocating for.

 

autoAutoboyography by Christina Lauren (due out in September 2017)—the combined pen name of authors Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings—follows once-openly bisexual Tanner Scott as he moves with his family from California to Utah, where he is asked by his parents to go back into the closet for a bit to avoid causing trouble. Tanner’s mother is an ex-Mormon and she is concerned about how Tanner being bisexual will affect his standing within the conservative community. Tanner himself is ready to coast through his senior year so he can leave for college and be himself once again. His plans, though, get interrupted when, in a writing seminar, he finds himself distracted by the seriously hot Sebastian. In the wake of this sudden infatuation, Tanner and Sebastian develop a relationship and are both placed in a precarious situation because Sebastian’s family is very much Mormon and very much opposed to non-normative sexuality. Though some of the descriptions of Sebastian’s family could be considered overly biased, I feel that the conversations around religion and sexuality between the main characters is ultimately hopeful. And the narrative also avoids use of scriptural debates, anti-gay preaching from the pulpit, and the use of a gay conversion camp within the overarching plot. I think it’s ultimately a novel that will provide food for thought for those who want something along the lines of Latter Days but without the stilted characters and the choppy plot.

 

georgiaAnother novel that uses the back-in-the-closet story, is Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit by Jaye Robin Brown. In this novel, Joanna Gordon has been out and proud for years, until her father, a radio televangelist, moves her family from Atlanta to Rome, Georgia. Similar to Autoboyography, the new, more conservative setting leads Joanna’s father to ask her if she might be willing to go back in the closet, at least until his ministry has had a chance to grow and find a following; he doesn’t want her to rock the boat. As always happens, Jo meets a new girl at school and falls for her. She begins to wonder if she will be able to keep her promise to her father, or if the request itself was just plain wrong in the first place. The role of the televangelist father could have led to fire and brimstone preaching, but the narrative is refreshingly devoid of such a problematic trope. The novel is actually a lot more nuanced than the plot might initially suggest, and religion and sexuality are allowed to coexist without either being demonized or made out to be wrong. Along with this, Brown puts queer sex on the page, and she isn’t afraid to discuss sex and religion within a larger spiritual context, something which is entirely missing from so many books that contain both non-normative sexualities and faith and spirituality. Quite a refreshing read!

 

dress-codesPerhaps my favorite, though, is the aforementioned Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens. Stevens herself was previously a pastor, and therefore has an insider knowledge that I think really helps to elevate her narrative. When reviewing the novel for Booklist back in July, I gave it a starred review because I felt that it was an exemplary text in what was previously a very small and problematic body of work on gender/sexual difference in YA with components of faith and spirituality. In Dress Codes, Billie McCaffrey—an artist, troublemaker, and the daughter of a preacher—finds herself at the center of a rather difficult situation after she and her friends accidentally burn down a section of their church. To make things worse, the Harvest Festival is coming up and one of the main supporters has just passed away, leaving the Festival in jeopardy. Billie has to find a way to keep her friends out of trouble while also performing community service, trying to save the Harvest Festival, and trying to explore her own gender and sexuality. Stevens builds characters with incredible depth and confronts expectations and assumptions of gender and sexuality head-on, but with delicacy and nuance. The representation of religion is one of compassion and a desire to build bridges rather than walls, giving teen readers the impression that reconciliation between religion and gender/sexual difference is indeed possible.

 

This brief glimpse at changes since my first post on the subject is not meant to be a comprehensive examination of all of the books released since 2015 that match the criteria, but rather to give a sample of the literature available and to show how representations have changed to be more inclusive, less didactic, more compassionate, and less polarizing. Other books such as Jeffrey Self’s A Very, Very Bad Thing (out in October) is a really interesting novel, but the obvious bias against evangelical Christianity is evident in the depiction of a number of characters and makes it easier for readers to demonize Christianity within the context of the novel. There is always room to grow and improve, but the last two years have shown me that sometimes change can happen more quickly than we sometimes think in children’s and YA publishing. I would love to hear of other examples that people have come across and recommendations from those who are also interested in this topic.

 

Meet Rob Bittner

Photo credit: Sonya Sones

Photo credit: Sonya Sones

 

Rob Bittner is an instructor in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Okanagan College in Kelowna, BC. He studies long-term trends in representation in YA fiction with LGBTQ content. You can find him on Twitter (@r_bittner) or his review blog, Sense and Sensibility and Stories (unquestionably-palatable.blogspot.com).

Eid al-Fitr Exploration by Michelle Biwer

At my library we have recently started a quarterly cultural exploration series. These events are whole library affairs in which we partner with local organizations to educate and celebrate our diverse community.

Most recently I coordinated an exploration of Eid al-Fitr, a Muslim holiday following Ramadan. We partnered with a local mosque to create fun and educational activities and performances as part of this event. I brought together teens from the mosque and my TAB group (there was also some overlap) and together they planned what stations we would have at the event. It was important to us that every station was an opportunity to learn more about Eid as a cultural tradition. We did not focus on the religious aspects of the holiday.

decorations (800x600)

This was a two hour program that took place over two floors of the library. Members of the mosque came in to decorate and promote the program a few weeks before the event.

prayer rugs_decorations (600x800)Prayer rugs hung in the library’s atrium.

Opening Event

Author Visit: Our local independent bookstore brought the wonderful author Hena Khan to our event. She read from one her picture book Night of the Moon and spoke of the importance of representation in children’s literature and the exciting launch of the Simon & Schuster imprint Salaam Reads.

author event pic (800x600) Standing room only!

Stations:

Eid Around the World: Teen and adult volunteers from five different countries explained how Eid is celebrated in their country.

Craft Stations: Teen volunteers helped kids create both glass and paper lanterns and explained the significance of lanterns in traditional and modern Eid celebrations.

Calligraphy/Eid cards: A volunteer wrote the patron’s name in Arabic on a card which they got to decorate.

Henna: Teen volunteers designed henna body art for patrons.

henna (800x600)

Mosque info table: A leader from our local mosque tabled at our event and answered questions from interested patrons.

Closing Event:

Dance Performance: A local Dabka dance troupe performed.

We had over 200 people attend at least part of the event and are looking forward to a Diwali celebration in the fall!

A #FSYALit Take 5: A Faith That Bends and Stretches, but Does Not Break (Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit)

tltbutton2Inspired by my reading of The Names They Gave Us by Emery Lord, I wanted to put together a Take 5 list of titles that showed teens having their faith challenged but not totally abandoned. So I brainstormed the following list with my fellow TLTers. These books feature teens who ultimately choose to hold on to and maintain their faith, but go through the hard work of questioning, challenging, resenting and, often, changing their faith; Not the core of their beliefs, but the daily details. If you have additional recommendations for this list, please leave us a note in the comments with the title, author, and your recommendation.

Bestest. Ramadan. Ever. by Medeia Sharif

faith3

No pizza. No boyfriend. (No life.) Okay, so during Ramadan, we’re not allowed to eat from sunrise to sunset. For one whole month. My family does this every year, even though I’ve been to a mosque exactly twice in my life. And it’s true, I could stand to lose a few pounds. (Sadly, my mom’s hotness skipped a generation.) But is starvation really an acceptable method? I think not. Even worse, my oppressive parents forbid me to date. This is just cruel and wrong. Especially since Peter, a cute and crushable artist, might be my soul mate. Figures my bestest friend Lisa likes him, too. To top it off, there’s a new Muslim girl in school who struts around in super-short skirts, commanding every boy’s attention–including Peter’s. How can I get him to notice me? And will I ever figure out how to be Muslim and American?

Karen’s Note: This title was recommended for this list by TLTer Heather Booth. Heather says, “I appreciated seeing how a teen navigated integrating her religious practice and expectations in her everyday high school life. She struggled with what fasting and Ramadan meant to her and came to her own conclusions about how she would practice her faith.”

How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

faith2

Jill MacSweeney just wishes everything could go back to normal. But ever since her dad died, she’s been isolating herself from her boyfriend, her best friends—everyone who wants to support her. And when her mom decides to adopt a baby, it feels like she’s somehow trying to replace a lost family member with a new one.

Mandy Kalinowski understands what it’s like to grow up unwanted—to be raised by a mother who never intended to have a child. So when Mandy becomes pregnant, one thing she’s sure of is that she wants a better life for her baby. It’s harder to be sure of herself. Will she ever find someone to care for her, too?

As their worlds change around them, Jill and Mandy must learn to both let go and hold on, and that nothing is as easy—or as difficult—as it seems.

Karen’s Note: TLTer Amanda MacGregor immediately went to Sara Zarr for this list, which is a good call. Sara Zarr is a YA contemporary treasure who often touches on and integrates faith into her novels, much the same way that teens integrate faith into their lives.

Like No Other by Una LaMarche

faith1

Fate brought them together. Will life tear them apart? 

Devorah is a consummate good girl who has never challenged the ways of her strict Hasidic upbringing.

Jaxon is a fun-loving, book-smart nerd who has never been comfortable around girls (unless you count his four younger sisters).

They’ve spent their entire lives in Brooklyn, on opposite sides of the same street. Their paths never crossed . . . until one day, they did.

When a hurricane strikes the Northeast, the pair becomes stranded in an elevator together, where fate leaves them no choice but to make an otherwise risky connection.

Though their relation is strictly forbidden, Devorah and Jax arrange secret meetings and risk everything to be together. But how far can they go? Just how much are they willing to give up?

Karen’s Note: I am not Hasidic, nor am I very familiar with this religion, so I can’t attest to how accurate or faithful this depiction is. What I did like about this book, however, was how our MC embraced parts of feminism, which was a direct challenge to her faith, and how she found a way to walk away with some elements of both the religious and feminist parts of her, which were important to her, still in place. It can be hard to integrate feminism with a lot of traditional faith belief systems and this titled spoke to that challenge.

Devoted by Jen Mathieu

faith4

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.

Karen’s Note: This book is personal to me. I come from a very conservative background and live and work in very conservative religious communities. However, when faced with the very real challenges of social justice around me, I have slowly moved to a more progressive faith and it is not an easy journey to take. Devoted really captures the judgment, the loss, the alienation, and the abandonment that can come with moving from a conservative to a progressive faith. And just as with Like No Other above, Mathieu highlights the challenges of integrating a more feminist worldview with a more traditional faith system, in this case the Quiverful movement.

The Names They Gave Us by Emery Lord

faith5

Lucy Hansson was ready for a perfect summer with her boyfriend, working at her childhood Bible camp on the lake. But when her mom’s cancer reappears, Lucy falters—in faith, in love, and in her ability to cope. When her boyfriend “pauses” their relationship and her summer job switches to a different camp—one for troubled kids—Lucy isn’t sure how much more she can handle. Attempting to accept a new normal, Lucy slowly regains footing among her vibrant, diverse coworkers, Sundays with her mom, and a crush on a fellow counselor. But when long-hidden family secrets emerge, can Lucy set aside her problems and discover what grace really means?

Karen’s Note: Earlier this week I said, “Lucy’s rage at God and the questioning of everything she ever believed in is the most real expression of faith I have ever read in a YA novel.”

Sunday Reflections: Faith Shaming and Mental Illness, Reflecting on Faith and Mental Illness for the #MHYALit Project

Please note, I am writing this post today from a Protestant point of view, because that is my faith and the faith I am most familiar with, but I believe it is true of all faiths. So while the words may not be correct, the idea is universal. You can read all the posts as part of the Mental Health in YA Lit Discussion here.

sundayreflections1My first real experience with mental illness – fully understanding that someone I knew and loved was struggling with mental illness – happened in my late 20s. My best friend, a devout Christian, struggled with depression. She had fallen into a deep, depressive state that was affecting her work, her life, and her image of herself. You could call her on the phone to ask her how she was and tell her that you loved her and she would tell you how alone in this world she was. I didn’t understand it at the time, but with my own personal recent struggles with depression I do.

Her burden was amplified by the fact that she felt – and was being told – that if she would just “trust God” and “give it all to God”, she would have no reason to worry, or fear, or despair. So for her, her deep descent into depression must have somehow meant that she was not a good Christian. She was shamed by those around her who suggested that her mental illness must somehow be an indicator that she was not in a right relationship with God.

She eventually broke off our and seemingly all relationships. She disappeared into a darkness that was vast and real. To this day I have not heard from her.

But in those months before she left, I heard her struggle often with her faith and what it meant that she had this depression struggle. She blamed herself for not having a strong enough faith, believing that if she just believed hard enough or strong enough, that she would not be depressed. She blamed herself and that blame made everything so much worse for her.

****

“God has not given you a spirit of fear . . . ”

God will not give you more than you can handle.

Pray without ceasing. Give it over to God.

The peace that passes all understanding . . .

When you live in a faith community, it can be hard to reconcile the doctrines of faith with the reality of mental illness. We are often told that we should choose joy, count our blessings, have a deeper faith, and grow closer to our god to be at peace. In the Christian faith, it is preached that God is in control of your life and if you trust God and have a righteous faith, then you should be at peace. Faith is supposed to give you the peace that passes all understanding.

In contrast, mental illness does not leave one with a sense of peace. Depression. Anxiety. Panic attacks. Social anxiety. Obsessive compulsive disorder. Schizophrenia. These are the opposite of peace. These various illnesses can leave one feeling lost, alone, frightened, and emotionally disorganized.

At times, completing daily tasks can become incredibly difficult. Sometimes, getting out of bed can be the greatest accomplishment. There is physical and emotional pain that goes along with mental illness.

They effect mood, thought processes, and ones sense of self.

There are many misconceptions about mental illness that exist in our world.

The onus for our mental illness is often put on those who are suffering: because we are not doing x, y or z correctly, it is believed, we have this mental illness. And if we just do x, y or z, our mental illness will go away. The x, y, and z can be anything. Eating incorrectly. Having wrong attitudes. Not trying hard enough. Not believing deeply enough.

But this is a based on a fallacy.

Mental illness is not a faith issue. It is not a belief issue.

It is an illness. One that rests in the mind and body and affects the mind and body.

****

Some of my most depressive episodes have been the times of my greatest and most profound faith.

During the loss of my pregnancy, for example, I was in a deep, depressive state. I recall one day laying on my bedroom floor and wailing in grief. I did not know how I would live and survive this, or if I even wanted to. And as I laid on that floor, angry at my God and the world, I had a comforting vision of God kneeling beside me and catching my tears into his cupped hands so that they did not reach the floor. In this moment I felt somehow that the message was, “you are not alone and I grieve with you and for you.” I have never felt more close to my God than in that moment.

This moment comforted me, and reminded me of my faith, but it did not somehow magically cure me of my grief and depression. It carried me through, but it did not cure.

****

Can faith cure someone of mental illness? As a person of faith, I have to believe that the answer is sometimes yes. But I also see all around me that for reasons that I can’t begin to understand and I don’t have the time to contemplate, the answer is so very often no. The reality is, 1 in 4 people will struggle with mental illness. Most often, mental illness presents in the teenage years. Some experience it for a lifetime, others for just a period of their life.

It would be arrogant of me to presume to know the cause or cure of each person’s mental illness. It’s dangerous and shaming for me to suggest it is because they have the wrong faith or are practicing their proclaimed faith in wrong or insufficient ways. And if you have ever struggled with mental illness, you know that shame is one of the worst things we can inflict upon those with mental illness. It is the least helpful response. People struggling with mental illness don’t need outside shame, they are wrestling with their own shame, just one of the many intense feelings they are trying to navigate at a time where they feel lost and alone.

The causes of mental illness can vary. For some, it is brain chemistry. For others, it is a symptom of another underlying health issue or illness. For some, it is situational. Sometimes it lasts a lifetime, sometimes it last for a period of time. And the answers can vary depending on the cause. In instances with situational depression or anxiety, finding and fixing the situation can help resolve the issue. In other instances, therapy and medication are needed.

Prayer doesn’t hurt. If you believe in prayer, it never hurts. Neither does meditating or going to church or reading your holy book or surrounding yourself with a supportive faith community. If you have a faith system, it makes sense to draw on that faith system in difficult times to sustain you. But the caveat is that the faith system must support you. This means it must be free of judgment and shame and full of love, acceptance and support. They have to be willing to support you at your worst, when your life is messy and difficult, as well as when you are at your best and easy to love.

Shame, judgment, condemnation . . . those are not helpful responses. They compound the problems. They alienate. If a person feels shamed by their faith community, they may pull away from the very community they value and need in times of crisis. Or permanently. If you repeatedly hear that you are doing some wrong or don’t have a strong enough faith, you can reach the point of despair and rejection where you stop showing up. If we tell people enough that they are doing it wrong, they stop trying.

If you or someone you love suffers from mental illness, it is not because you or they are not strong enough in faith. It is not because you are being punished for some sin or the sins of your fathers. It’s because you lost the life lottery and are the 1 in 4 that suffers from mental illness. It’s a sucky lottery to “win”, but it’s not your fault.

If you are a person of faith and you know someone who is struggling with mental illness, let me suggest some phrases that you may want to avoid in supporting them.

1. Count Your Blessings

In times of struggle, we often tell our friends to just “count your blessings.” The rationale is, I believe, that by focusing on the positive, you will see your life in a different perspective. The flip side is, this phrasing can be dismissive and invalidating. It’s also presumptive. Depression, for example, is not about a lack of perspective or focusing on the negative. Yes, depressed people may come across as being negative, that’s the disease, but it is not caused by negative thinking and it is not cured by positive thinking. Sometimes we need to just sit with someone in the space that they are in and allow them to feel what they are feeling.

2. Choose Joy/Choose Peace

Nobody chooses depression or anxiety or any other mental illness. And much like counting your blessings, these types of statements also invalidate where a person is at in their journey with mental illness. While it is true that trying to focus on the positive can help, being constantly told to ignore what you are thinking and feeling as if you don’t have a right to those thoughts and feelings is not, in fact, supportive. Sometimes we just want someone to listen without judgment and to acknowledge that what is happening to our mind and body is, in fact, awful and that we are loved irregardless.

3. Get Right with God

It’s presumptuous to assume that a person struggling with a mental illness is not somehow already right with God. It is an error to assume that what is happening to them is because they aren’t praying enough or aren’t believing strong enough. Mental illness is not an expression of faith, or lack of faith, it is an illness.

4. Trust in God

Although not all faiths treat medical science the same, for the most part when we have an illness we go to the doctor. If you are having a heart attack, you will most likely call 911 and get emergency care. If you have diabetes, you will most likely put yourself under the care of a doctor to help manage your symptoms and take care of your life. If you have cancer, you will most likely go through a variety of treatments to help rid your body of cancer. You may pray and ask those around you to pray, but you will probably still see a doctor as well. Some people seem to be healed of their ailments, but many are not. If you would never tell your loved one with cancer to just pray for healing and not see a doctor, then you shouldn’t tell those with mental illness to pray for healing and suggest that their lack of healing is somehow their fault.

5. Don’t Let the Devil Tempt You

Throughout human history, mental illness has often been depicted as the possession of a body by demonic spirits. With the advancement of science, we now know that mental illness is about chemistry. Body chemistry. Brain chemistry. Hormones. There are a lot of scientific reasons underlying mental illness. But there is still that stigma in the faith community that suggests that mental illness is somehow a believer’s fault. Maybe you aren’t praying hard enough? Maybe you have sin in your life? Maybe you are being possessed or tempted by a demon? I can’t speak to the idea of demons and angels and possession, there are so many differing theologies on these topics. But I can speak to the truth of mental illness: it is a biological/physiological illness. There are scientific causes and we have a variety of tools at our disposal to help people manage the symptoms. And we are learning more every day.

Mental illness is not the same thing as negative thinking or pessimism. It’s not a choice. It’s not failing to believe deeply enough or try hard enough. It’s not incorrect belief. It’s not a lack of faith. It’s not turning away from God, whoever your God may be.

And it’s not your fault.

There is no shame in mental illness.

As members of faith communities we must stop shaming those among us who struggle with mental illness. And we must especially stop using our faith to shame them. Do unto others . . .

#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

#FSYALit: There You’ll Find Me, a guest post by Dahlia Adler

Today for #FSYALit author Dahlia Adler discusses There You’ll Find Me by author Jenny B. Jones.
thereyouwillfindme
Confession: I had no idea that There You’ll Find Me by Jenny B. Jones was Christian Fiction. When it was initially recommended to me, I was just looking for more Hollywood-centric YA titles, and indeed, the love interest in this one is a teen actor. However, the Hollywood aspect is pretty background to this particular title. But in truth, for most of it, so is the Christianity.

It’s there, to be sure. Finley Sinclair, hotel heiress, is on a trip to study abroad in Ireland in large part to rediscover her faith after her brother is killed in a terrorist act. Her brother had done this very same trip years earlier, and the journal of his that Finley is following on her travels reveals that Ireland is where he felt closest to God. So to reclaim her closeness to both Will and Jesus, and to be able to finish the musical opus she intends to perform at an upcoming interview with a posh Manhattan music conservatory, Finley retraces his steps, right down to looking for a mysterious cross he’d sketched.

Another confession: had I known this was Christian fiction, it’s unlikely I would have picked it up. I live religion, and not Christianity; I’m an Orthodox Jew, which manifests itself in a billion ways every day and about whom approximately one mainstream YA has been written, ever. In much the same way I’m sure people of color are tired of reading about white people all the time, I feel pretty set on reading, hearing, and watching about people’s relationships with Jesus.

But now here’s the point: I liked this book, not despite what it was but because of it. Yes, the God of There You’ll Find Me is the Christian God. Yes, the in-person guiding spirit of Finley’s journey is a kindly and patient nun. Yes, there is no arguing that this is Christian fiction, not Jewish, not Muslim, not Hindu, not Buddhist. And yet, that fact is almost easy to ignore in this book. It feels, first and foremost, like a book about faith and a higher power, period. It does not feel centered in uniquely Christian ideas such as Jesus dying for our sins, but rather in connection, in patience, in love, in finding the ability to overcome, which are universally religious ideas. Which are, in fact, universal ideas, period. I dare say this book could be about having any sort of anchor, something that ties you to passion and confidence and knowledge and security. And that’s why I think it works so well. It doesn’t feel Christian or even religious in an exclusionary fashion. It manages to be relatable despite the unique circumstances, despite the characters being people in the public eye, despite it being set somewhere I’ve never been. What so many YAs can’t achieve in the most everyday settings with the most everyday characters, There You Find Me does.

What’s also tremendously notable about it is that it’s a faith book and a romance and a Hollywood love story, but it’s also a story about Finley’s personal growth and difficulties, and about family. It’s about things that aren’t constantly looping back into God and religion, but are just being. Finley’s a person independent of her relationship with God, and her relationship is independent as well. She has her own things at stake, her own ways she wants to grow, and her own ways she’s faltering, and never does the book fall into the trap of suggesting that if only she believed harder and let God take control of everything, all would be perfect. Bad things happen to goodd people, including Will, including Finley. And good things happen to them too. And that’s life, both in There You’ll Find Me, and in reality.

Meet Our Guest Blogger

Dahlia Adler is an Associate Editor of Mathematics by day, writes YA and NA by night, and blogs for B&N Teens at every spare moment in between. She is the author of the Daylight Falls duology, Just Visiting, and the Radleigh University series. She lives in New York City with her husband and their overstuffed bookshelves. You can talk to Dahlia on Twitter.

Book Review: Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E. K. Johnston

The first thing you need to know about this book is that I cried multiple times while reading it. And yes, that is a positive endorsement. It was real, it was compelling, and it was profound. I believe that everyone should read this book.

Book Summary:

Hermione Winters is captain of her cheerleading team, and in tiny Palermo Heights, this doesn’t mean what you think it means. At PHHS, the cheerleaders don’t cheer for the sports teams; they are the sports team—the pride and joy of a tiny town. The team’s summer training camp is Hermione’s last and marks the beginning of the end of…she’s not sure what. She does know this season could make her a legend. But during a camp party, someone slips something in her drink. And it all goes black.

In every class, there’s a star cheerleader and pariah pregnant girl. They’re never supposed to be the same person. Hermione struggles to regain the control she’s always had and faces a wrenching decision about how to move on. The assault wasn’t the beginning of Hermione Winter’s story and she’s not going to let it be the end. She won’t be anyone’s cautionary tale.

I feel so strongly about this book, we’re going to have a Book Club Reading and Twitter Discussion. Here’s the info:

exitbookdiscussion

So here are some of the things I like about EXIT, PURSUED BY A BEAR. Though I would avoid this section until after you read the book if you want to avoid spoilers.

1. Cheerleading as a Real Sport & Non Stereotyped Cheerleaders

Hermoine and Polly are best friends and co-captain of their cheerleading squad. And they take cheerleading very seriously; they recognize it for the sport that it is and are in it to win it. These are not cheerleader stereotypes, they are intelligent, committed athletes who work hard and value teamwork and competition.

2. #SVYALit Discussion (Sexual Violence in YA Lit)

Our story opens up at cheerleading camp the summer before senior year. It’s the last year and they want to make it count. But then a horrific crime happens: Hermione is drugged and raped by a fellow camper. Everything that follows highlights the intense emotional and legal journey that Hermione takes as she wrestles with the fact that a crime has been committed against her, even though she has no real memory of that crime because of the drug that she was given.

3. Female Friendship Done Right

Exit, Pursued by a Bear (from here on out referred to as EPB), is an intense emotional journey. There are rumors and there are whispers in the hallway, but Hermione is also fiercely supported by some key characters in the book, including her best friend Polly and her parents. Polly makes it very clear every step of the way that not only will she stand by Hermione through every step of this emotional journey with her best friend, but that she will not allow anyone to suggest that Hermione is in any way responsible for what happened to her. There is one scene where Hermione and Polly are being interviewed by the school paper and Polly says every thing we are thinking about rape culture and the way we talk to and about rape victims. Reading it was a sort of catharsis for me.

The friendship between Hermione and Polly is strong and fierce. It is hands down one of the best parts of the book and one of my new favorite friendships in YA lit.

4. Complexly Realized Parents

There are lots of other great characters in this book as well. Hermione’s parents are strong, committed (and still together!) parents who work hard to navigate their own emotions while taking care of their daughter. These are the type of parents you don’t see very often in YA literature. They are complex and compelling; through them you get little glimpses of how Hermione’s experiences affect not only her, but the people that love her. These are perhaps my favorite parents in YA lit ever.

5. #FSYALit (Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit)

There is another small character that really stood out to me, that of a pastor. At the beginning of our book Hermione goes to him and asks him to please stop asking the church to pray for her because she wants to stop being the focus of attention so that she can deal with her issues more privately. They have a incredibly profound discussion and I loved the way this spiritual leader was characterized and how respectful he was of Hermione and the choices she was being forced to make.

RED ALERT *****This Section Has HUGE Spoilers******

As a result of her rape, Hermione ends up being pregnant. Johnston does some remarkable things here that almost never get discussed in YA lit and certainly not so explicitly and without stigma: not only does Hermione choose to have an abortion, but she is supported by the people in her life in this decision and the entire process is depicted in the text. In the end, Hermione feels no guilt, only relief that she has a renewed sort of ownership over her body that this boy who raped her took away from her.

HERE ENDS THE BIG SPOILERS

Johnston takes great pains to meticulously show us all the medical, legal and emotional ramifications of Hermione’s rape. From the police officer who is working on her case to the therapist who is helping her process the emotions of it, it seems as if Johnston has taken great care to make sure readers are able to walk this difficult emotional journey with Hermione with realistic and unflinching honesty. This is not an easy read, but it is a good read and, I feel, a very important one. Hermione gets some closure that most victims of rape don’t get in real life, which is very satisfying as a reader. In a time when we as a culture are really discussing rape, rape culture and female empowerment, THIS is an important and timely read for us all.

#FSYALit: Authors Need Grace Too, a guest post by Jackie Lea Sommers

fsyalitPart of the reason that Ally and I wanted to host and dive into the Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit Discussion was because we wanted to hear a variety of voices talking about a variety of faith experiences in their YA literature and how it related to the real life experiences of teens. When I first began working as a YA paraprofessional while attending college and majoring in youth ministry, I struggled a lot with reconciling my belief system with some of the books that I was putting into the hands of teen readers. Over time, as a I talked with and really engaged with my teen patrons, I came to understand that they were thinking about and often living lives much different then my own and the best way that I could serve them – to minister to them if you will – was to respect the different paths everyone’s life took and to provide them with the largest and most diverse collection that I could. This means not only having a variety of books on a variety of religions, and on teens who choose no religion at all, but it also means recognizing that there is more than one way to be a Christian. It also means recognizing that many Christians, especially teens who are in the midst of very real self discovery, struggle in very real ways with what that means. YA literature allows our teens to struggle intellectually with questions that we all ask but in a safe environment. One of the topics that can be hard for many adult readers, especially religious parents, is that of sex. There is no shortage of essays about sex in YA literature. But at the end of the day, many teens do in fact have sex. Yes, even those of a conservative faith and upbringing that implore them not to. Today we are proud to host author Jackie Lea Sommers who writes about being an author from a Christian faith background and having sex in her books. The book being discussed today is Truest, which was released in September of 2015 by Katherine Tegen Books.

truestAbout TRUEST by Jackie Lea Sommers

Silas Hart has seriously shaken up Westlin Beck’s small-town life. Brand new to town, Silas is different than the guys in Green Lake. He’s curious, poetic, philosophical, maddening– and really, really cute. But Silas has a sister– and she has a secret. And West has a boyfriend. And life in Green Lake is about to change forever.

Truest is a stunning, addictive debut. Romantic, fun, tender, and satisfying, it asks as many questions as it answers.

Authors Need Grace Too . . .

It was a Friday night not long after my first novel TRUEST had been released when my dear friend said to me, “Why all the cursing and the sex scene though? I don’t think I’d ever let my girls read that!”

I suppose it’s a fair question. I, the author, am verbal about and unashamed of my Christian faith—plus, the characters in TRUEST are also learning to navigate those same waters. My friend rightfully wanted to know why I would include questionable material in a novel written by a person of faith and about teens exploring faith.

My answer is simple: because that’s what real life is like. Real life is this beautiful, devastating mix of holy and profane, of miracles and joy and sadness and desire and grace, of choices and outcomes. Real life is gritty and raw. And I love that about real life. So, of course, I wanted my book to reflect that.

Will it be offensive to some Christians? Yes. It that okay too? Yes. Does it sometimes hurt? Well, yes.

That Friday was hard, I admit—it was the first time a friend had really called into question my choices regarding my novel. But the following day, I ran into another friend, who said to me, “I loved your book. I can’t wait for my daughter to read it—or for the discussion that we’ll have afterward.” It was exactly what I needed to hear that weekend.

I wrote TRUEST with God as my co-author, and he had all the best ideas. I love the way that TRUEST turned out—an authentic look at teenage faith with characters I’d be proud to have as friends. They don’t always make all the “safe” choices that their parents might make for them, but that’s part of their growth too.

What is an exploration of faith if not a lesson in grace? In my life, they are one and the same.

About Jackie Lea Sommersjackieleasommers

Jackie Lea Sommers lives and loves and writes in Minnesota, the home Duck Duck Gray Duck and passive-aggressiveness. She’s the 2013 winner of the Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult Writing. TRUEST is her first novel. She writes about faith, creativity, and OCD at www.jackieleasommers.com.

#FSYALit: Faith, Kindness and the YA Community, by Ally Watkins

It’fsyalits been a hard weekend and there’s been a lot of things said and you can read about all of it elsewhere, but I just wanted to take the opportunity to say what’s important to me.

I’ve been a person of faith my entire life. I’m an adult and I choose to continue on this path. It is important to me. It is part of me. It affects and changes how I look at things. It’s hard, but it’s mine. My faith and religious belief, like the faith and religious belief of any other person, is a valid choice. And no one is allowed to tell us that it’s the wrong one. For any reason.

That’s why I’ve spent the past year of my life on this project. Statistics vary wildly, but a majority of young people identify with a religion or faith group of some kind. The entire point of this project is to show understanding of that and to try and support teens that have those beliefs. We have tried to listen to and highlight many different voices from many different faiths and the intersections of faith and sexuality, radical belief systems, race, and gender. We want to provide resources and discussion so that educators and librarians will have materials to put in the hands of kids that want to see characters that look like them and also in the hands of kids who want insight into experiences different from theirs.

I’m very, very proud of FSYA. It’s been fulfilling and exciting to see it come together. I’ve done some of the most personal writing of my life during the course of this project. But I also came into it knowing that I’m a white woman and I identify as Christian, and my privilege is vast. That’s why we want your voices.

There are 7 weeks left in 2015, and we are still open to guest posts, booklists, and suggestions. If you are a person of faith, or a former person of faith, or a person for whom the lack of faith is an active choice in your life, please consider writing something for us. Something that will show a kid with beliefs similar to yours that they aren’t weird and that there are resources for them. You don’t have to be an experienced writer. We want your views on your faith. We only ask that your post centers around or mentions some sort of YA (or MG!!) work or works in order to add to the list of resources we’ve been compiling.

If you’ve been thinking about contributing, or we’ve talked about it and haven’t nailed down a post time, please contact us. The link to our hub is here, including contact info. We want your voice. Because your faith is a part of you and is therefore important.

 

Jewish LGBTQ Books for a Synagogue Collection, a guest post by Jill Ratzan

fsyalitFor our second post today we are honored to host Jill Ratzan discussing Jewish LGBTQ books for the #FSYALit Discussion.

The Hebrew word mishkan can mean “tent,” “safe space,” or “inclusion.” At my Reconstructionist Jewish synagogue (Congregation Kol Emet in Yardley, PA), the Mishkan committee is charged with building a safe, welcoming space for LGBTQ members and their allies. Recently, the Mishkan committee, together with our rabbi, asked me to assemble a list of YA books with Jewish and LGBTQ content. I was delighted to oblige!

Because this particular ‘tent’ turned out to be pretty large—and because, like many nonprofits, we have a limited budget—I also put together a list of criteria, which evolved alongside the booklist. I considered limiting the list to books whose main characters were queer and/or Jewish, but decided that the term “main character” was too vague. I also wanted to make sure that various genres (historical fiction, science fiction, contemporary realistic fiction) and approaches (humor, adventure, dystopia) were represented. And I wanted to balance books where being gay was easy and accepted (like Wide Awake) with books where characters struggled with expressing their identities within potentially-unwelcoming communities (like Gravity).

I also thought about what level of explicit sex, references to drinking and drugs, and other similar content was or wasn’t appropriate for our collection. Should we, as a religious institution serving a liberal but varied audience, be more cautious toward these issues than a public library might be? In the end, I decided that a wide spectrum of voices on these topics—from the “fade to black” approach of Openly Straight to the few explicit lines in Gravity—would serve our community best.

Here are my criteria, and the titles I chose.

Criteria:

I looked for books with Jewish and LGBTQ content that:

  • were published for teens (ages 12-18) within the past ten years (2005-2015)
  • are of high literary quality
  • include intersectional approaches to Jewish identity (characters are Jewish and gay and ____: African American, athletes, scientists, etc)
  • feature characters who reflect on their or others’ Jewish identity, and/or make decisions based on Jewish values

(This last criterion was inspired by Sarah Aronson’s Jewish Book Council review of The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow.)

Books:

postpic1Wide Awake by David Levithan (Knopf, 2006)

The election of the first gay Jewish president is in jeopardy, and Duncan (who isn’t sure about God but believes in lighting candles for Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath) and his boyfriend Jimmy want to help. They’re joined by a tween who’s coming out . . . as Jewish. Like David Levithan’s other novels, Wide Awake embraces the liminal space where realism and fantasy meet.

postpic2Starglass by Phoebe North (Simon & Schuster, 2013)

In a Jewish dystopia in outer space, everyone is told where they will work, how they will live . . . and who they will love.

postpic3Gravity by Leanne Lieberman (Orca, 2008)

Ellie loves the intensity and connection she finds in prayer. She also loves science. And girls. Set amid an Orthodox Jewish family in 1987.

postpic4Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg (Scholastic, 2013)

Rafe, tired of being defined exclusively by his sexuality, wants to start boarding school with a clean slate . . . but things get complicated. A final reveal (Rafe is Jewish) creates new questions just when old ones are answered. Openly Straight has received significant critical acclaim and is arguably a definitional work of contemporary YA literature.

postpic5Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (HarperCollins, 2015)

Simon and his anonymous email-boyfriend Blue talk about everything, including Blue’s half-Jewish heritage (“Jews . . . are supposed to be gay friendly, but it’s hard to really know how that applies to your own parents”) and—after much drama on and off the stage of the fall play—finally realize who each other really are. Simon… was recently longlisted for the 2015 National Book Award.

We’ll be adding these books to our library collection and publicizing their availability through our newsletter, on social media, and via library displays and programs. We’ll also be intershelving them with young adult fiction, thereby normalizing them and making them easy—but not embarrassing—to find.

YA librarians know that part of building a mishkan (a safe space) is providing a place where everyone’s stories can be told, shared, and honored. I’m pleased that my synagogue library can be this kind of space for Jewish LGBTQ teens and those who love them.

Meet Our Guest Blogger:

Jill Ratzan relishes opportunities to combine her passion for YA lit and librarianship with her Reconstructionist Jewish practice. She curates digital resources for her synagogue library, blogs for BookPage magazine, and contributes to School Library Journal, Fig Tree Books, and other review sources. She enjoys dressing up as her favorite book characters (sometimes more than one at a time).

Visit her on the web at http://jratzan.weebly.com, follow her on Twitter at @JillJYA, or check out her new blog If Found, Please Return at http//iffoundpleasereturnblog.blogspot.com.