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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.

Freedom From Religion: A #FSYALit discussion of Burned and the Choice to Walk Away, a guest post by Sarah Alexander

fsyalitLast week as part of the #FSYALit Discussion, Sam Taylor shared her thoughts about Mormon representation in YA literature. Today, we have a differing interpretation of BURNED by Ellen Hopkins by guest poster Sarah Alexander.

Much of the discussion in this project has been about the need for YA books that show teens grappling with their faith and finding ways to reconcile that faith with the world around them. I wholeheartedly agree that this is a thing we need. We need to see teens that are Mormon and open minded, Catholic and gay, Muslim and feminist. But I think that it is also important to show that walking away from things that hurt you – whether they mean to do that or not – is also okay. That practicing freedom of religion sometimes means freedom from religion. Because to walk away from a religion you were raised in is excruciating and difficult, and sometimes it really is the right thing to do.

I was raised Mormon. And I’m not anymore.

The books that show this kind of journey tend to focus on pretty extreme situations. The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth, Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu, and The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes are three fantastic examples. We look at these books and distance ourselves from that level of religious extremity, which makes these girls’ decisions to leave their faiths easier for us to swallow. We tell ourselves that it’s not the same. Being against same-sex marriage is different than sending your kid away to de-gaying camp (Cam Post). Enforcing a certain dress code is different than forbidding your girls to wear swimsuits. (Devoted). Having strict rules is not the same as cutting off your daughter’s hands (Minnow). And we’re right; it’s not the same. But I can’t help wondering, as a former Mormon girl, about what’s bubbling underneath?

Cult/religious YA is one of my literary catnip genres. I can’t resist these books, even as they make me sad. I devour these stories because they’re true. They happened to people every day, particularly girls. And because underneath the extremity that separates my growing up from theirs are connections and similarities that take me right back to it all and remind me why turning my back on the way I was raised was the best thing I ever did.

As a teenage Mormon girl, my head was full of questions and doubts and a nagging sense of dread about the faith I was raised in. I remember desperately searching for reassurance that having these feelings was okay. The message I received from my church leaders and parents was that if I prayed, God would answer my questions and reassure me. Except that direction was given in complete expectation that the answers and reassurance God would bring me would lead me back to the teachings of the Mormon Church. So when the answers I found took me farther away instead, I really could have used a book like Burned by Ellen Hopkins. burned

Sam Taylor wrote a great deal about Burned in her post about Mormonism in YA, and it’s a wonderful perspective that I completely respect. But while Ms. Taylor did not feel it was an accurate representation of the Mormon Church, I absolutely did. An unflattering representation to be sure but unflattering does not necessarily mean inaccurate. It resurrected all my memories of the way growing up Mormon made me feel. I saw myself. I saw my own journey, and many of the factors that led me to leave.

Burned is the story of Pattyn, a seventeen-year-old Mormon girl. She’s the oldest of seven siblings, the daughter of an abusive alcoholic father, and smarter than most people give her credit for. When she’s caught fooling around with a non-Mormon boy she is sent off to live with her aunt, which turns out to be both the best and worst thing that could have happened to her.

While I absolutely will say that her situation is extreme, that the vast majority of Mormon fathers – including my own – neither drink nor abuse their wives and children, the power structure I saw reflected in Burned was all too familiar to me. Pattyn and I both lived in a world where men held all the power. Where twelve-year-old boys had higher standing in the church than grown women. Where the church leaders had the power to hurt, to enable, and to manipulate. Much of the time they did not abuse that power – at least not intentionally – but sometimes they did. And even if it came from a place of really truly believing they were doing the best thing for me by hauling me into the Bishop’s office to lecture me about my behavior as Pattyn’s Bishop did, that still didn’t change the message.

Really. What have you got

to say for yourself? You’ve always

been such a good girl.

Good girl. Sit. Stay. Fetch.

Bristles rose up along my

spine. ‘Define good.’”

Burned is unflinching in its portrayal of the expected gender roles in Mormon families. And yes, it is heightened, more extreme than most Mormon teens experience, but Hopkins has taken the subtle underlying messages that haunted me my whole life and let them breath out in the open where they are harder to ignore. No, not all Mormon wives are baby-making machines, but families with upwards of four and five children were very, very common in my home ward. No, girls aren’t actively discouraged from driving or reading or going to college, but twice a week in Young Women we were taught to cook and sew and Keep a Happy Home, while the boys were taught finances, business and survival skills. I was told time and time and time again through words and actions and direct instruction that a woman’s first and most important job was to marry and bear children.

“All in the hopes

that when they died

and reached up from the grave,

their husbands would grab

hold, tug hard, and allow

them to enter heaven.”

Without a temple marriage, I was taught, I could not go to the highest level of heaven. I needed a husband to tell me the “secret/ codes to open the door.” But my brother didn’t need a wife to do anything or get anywhere. So what else was I to conclude but what Pattyn says: “Women are inferior. / And God likes it that way.”

Mormons are famous, though not alone, in their obsession with chastity, particularly among girls. A church leader, who was also a cop, once came to my Young Women’s class to teach us a bit about self-defense. I’ll never forget him telling a room full of teenage girls, “Other people will tell you that the most important thing in a sexual assault is to survive. They’re wrong. I’m here to tell you that it is not better to be raped than die, it is better to die than be raped.” So when Pattyn’s Seminary teacher says “A true Mormon / would rather bury a child / than see her lose her chastity.” It didn’t feel at all off the mark.

It’s also the little things in Burned that struck home. Pattyn’s reluctance to drink coffee even after breaking so many other rules. The emphasis on journal keeping, but the instruction to write down only the good and happy things. Having a year’s worth of food in storage for when the Second Coming happens. It’s that closed in feeling Pattyn has until she goes away to Aunt’s J’s house, and that feeling of freedom she has once she gets there.

And Aunt J. How I wish I had had an Aunt J when I was Pattyn’s age. She never tries to talk Pattyn out of her faith, but she’s there to listen and to help her sort through things. She gives Pattyn subtle and practical sex advice (ie: wear protection). She teaches Pattyn to drive, literally giving her freedom she never had before. But more than that, she gives Pattyn room to breath, to figure out what she thinks for herself – something I never experienced in a religion that inhabits every microbe of your existence.

It’s not my intention to paint Mormons or Mormonism as innately horrible. Most Mormons (and Catholics and Jews and Muslims et all) are good people trying to do good in the world the best way they know how. Pattyn’s world, like our world, is full of some very bad people. They’re not bad because they are Mormon, they’re bad and they are Mormon. I understand the instinct to want to distance oneself from these characters who represent the worst of us, but just as it is important to show characters who are religious and good, it also is important to show characters who are religious and bad.

What I want more of, are stories where teens are allowed to struggle with religion and decide it’s not for them without there being a threat of death or dismemberment or active brainwashing. I want authentic stories that incorporate religion, but where teens can see that sometimes taking a very different path from the one you’ve walked your whole life is fine. Maybe they convert to a different religion. Maybe they eventually come back.

Or maybe, just maybe, they find they don’t need religion to be a complete version of themselves. And that’s okay too.

Meet Our Guest Poster

sarahalexanderSarah Alexander began her library career in middle school as a lunchtime volunteer, largely so she could override the limits and check twelve books out to herself at once. Her graduate thesis “Where the Queer Things Are: Library Services to LGBTQ Youth” was recognized for distinction, and serving queer teens continues to be her specialty and passion. Now a Teen Librarian in Chicago, Sarah spends her days discovering new tech, discussing new books, and losing spectacularly at video games with her teens. She writes about (mostly) YA stuff at her blog https://lezbrarian.wordpress.com/. You can also follow her on Twitter @Lez_brarian

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