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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Books

Conviction by Kelly Loy Gilbert

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

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

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

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

No Parking at the End Times by Bryan Bliss

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

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

 

Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

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

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

Brutal Youth by Anthony Breznican

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

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

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

Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed

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

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

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

For more of the #FSYALit Posts you can go here

 

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

As part of the Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit (#FSYALit) Discussion, author Kelly Loy Gilbert put together a fabulous roundtable discussion between several YA authors. We’re going to present this roundtable to you in two parts. In part I, our authors talk a little bit about the role that faith plays in their lives and in their YA titles. In part II, we’ll talk about some of the more controversial elements, what it’s like to be critical of your faith and then introduce you to their books.

Participants:

Kelly Loy Gilbert, author of CONVICTION

Aisha Saeed, author of WRITTEN IN THE STARS

Bryan Bliss, author of NO PARKING AT THE END TIMES

Stacey Lee, author of UNDER A PAINTED SKY

Anthony Breznican, author of BRUTAL YOUTH

What role does faith play in your book?

Anthony Breznican: Faith is the heart of Brutal Youth. This is a book takes place at a deeply troubled Catholic high school, with three newcomers trying to survive in a kind of law-of-the-jungle social order — hazing, manipulation, deceit rule the halls. These are tools the powerful wield to maintain their position, and our heroes — Davidek, Stein, and Lorelei — try to protect themselves without losing who they are. (They don’t always succeed.)

But really, I see the book as an exploration of all kinds of faith. One, there’s the traditional belief in a benevolent God who will protect you if you are virtuous. Two, there’s faith in our superiors — parents, teachers, priests. We trust them. We count on them to do what’s right. But how often do we find that faith misplaced?

Brutal Youth dives into that idea that we can’t live without putting our faith in others, in believing in something greater and better than ourselves. But if we put that faith in the wrong people, or we expect God to step in and save our asses — we can lose everything. It’s the story of a Catholic school, but I took inspiration from a Jewish proverb I learned in school: “If I don’t stand for myself, who will stand for me? But if I stand only for myself, what am I?”

In the end, these kids learn to trust their own sense of right and wrong. They believe in themselves, which I think is what God wants of all of us — a strict moral compass, guided toward compassion.

Aisha Saeed: Written in the Stars explores the life of a teenager, Naila, who is thrust into a forced marriage. Naila is Muslim and while this practice is condemned by her faith many do equate the practice of forced marriage with Islam. In the novel Naila never blames religion for her circumstances.  For Naila, her faith is a source of comfort that reassures her during difficult moments such as when she hears the call to prayer, adhan. She finds peace and comfort in her faith.

Still, even with the problem of forced marriage framed as a cultural one, religion runs like an undercurrent through the novel, unspoken but present. The fact remains, unspoken or not,  readers may see her predicament as stemming from religion. For this reason I addressed it in a bit more detail in my author’s note at the end.

Naila’s faith also plays a role in her staying in her marriage.  Once she is married, her cousin and even her husband, dissuade her from trying to leave her marriage by telling her it is written in the stars, it is kismet. This belief has both cultural and religious underpinnings, and while this breaks Naila’s heart, it is this line of arguing that her marriage was divinely destined that ultimately makes Naila think that she must stop from trying to fight her circumstances.

Stacey Lee: Religion plays a huge role in UNDER A PAINTED SKY. Samantha my main character is raised in New York with a Christian upbringing (her father was adopted by French missionaries).  Though he was a practicing Christian, her father lived in China long enough to be indoctrinated into their system of beliefs, including the idea that we are born to a fate.  He has passed this two prong system of beliefs down to his daughter. It’s not unlike what many Asian Americans face everyday – in reconciling the old and new, a hybrid system of beilefs often results.  When Sammy’s father dies, she decides she’s no longer speaking to God who had the power to save her father.   Contrast that with Chinese philosophy where the only one to blame would be luck and misfortune.   Her Chinese philosophy never really goes away unti the very end, where she says, quite unequivocally, I reject Fate, and puts herself in God’s hands again.

Kelly Loy Gilbert: In CONVICTION, 17-year-old Braden is forced to question everything he’s ever held true when his father, a conservative Christian talk show celebrity, is accused of murdering a police officer in a possible hate crime.  Braden’s faith is really central to who he is, and as the story progresses he faces a harrowing choice that will test his every belief.

Bryan Bliss: NO PARKING AT THE END TIMES is the story of Abigail and her attempts at keeping her family together after the end times have not come as promised. Right away, I knew this story wasn’t going to be like a lot of the other so-called “cult” books out there. I was interested in Abigail’s relationship not only to her faith, but also to her family. The two, in my opinion, are rarely separate. Especially when your family has sold everything and moved across the country in anticipation of the end times… I wanted to go deep on what it means to believe, to unpack as much of that process as I could while still telling a story about their family.

Did you base anything on your own experiences?  What is your spiritual background like? What drew you to writing about faith/spirituality/religion?

Stacey Lee: Most definitely I drew on my own experiences for the Christian upbringing.  My parents weren’t really in tune with their Chinese backgrounds – they are very Americanized themselves.  It was really my inlaws who showed me the ‘traditional Chinese way’ and by the way, there’s not just ‘one’ way but several philosophies that inform Chinese life: Confucionism, Buddhism, Taosim,, etc.  To be human is to struggle with ourseles and our religions, those belief systems that govern right and wrong. What better way to show that struggle by fraiming it within the context of a girl faced with tremendous loss, and trying to understand if her life matters anymore without her father by her side.

Aisha Saeed: Growing up some of my friends felt pressured to stay in unwanted marriages because they were told the marriage was preordained. I am Muslim and I believe in destiny but I don’t agree with using it as a cultural tool to convince people to stay in bad circumstances. As a Muslim I wanted to be the one to explore both the concept of destiny and forced marriages because in a world where Islamaphobia is drastically on the rise the distinction between culture and faith is an important one for me.

Kelly Loy Gilbert: I grew up with family ties to a Chinese church in San Francisco, but mostly in a heavily Pentecostal church where there was lots of emphasis on speaking in tongues, prophecy, and other spiritual gifts.  I think when you’re young it’s easy for whatever spiritual tradition you’re around to feel like the standard, and I remember what it felt like to be essentially born into an utter certainty that the world worked a certain way––what it was like to be unable to view the world through another lens.  I drew on that experience when writing Braden, who’s also a part of a tight-knit church community, and who for the first time is forced come to terms with the implications of what he’s always believed.

Bryan Bliss: I’m a seminary graduate and spent 10 years working as a pastor. However, when it comes to this sort of fanatical belief – the kind that makes claims about the rapture – I’m pretty ignorant. My own theological views are fairly (okay, wildly) progressive. So that meant a lot of snake handler and end time preacher youtube videos. Getting the words – the passion – correct was key, I thought. I didn’t want to paint this preacher and these parents as simple fanatics. I wanted to know why they believed and what was at stake for them in this belief. That meant not going into knee-jerk mode when it came to their theology, a habit I can easily pick up… especially on Facebook. That doesn’t mean there isn’t bad theology in the world, because there most certainly is. But at the end of the day, I realized that if I was going to tell this story I needed to do it as authentically as possible. And that meant dipping a toe into some ideas that are predatory. Finally – despite my background and education – I’m a highly doubtful and cynical person when it comes to faith. I don’t want to be, but that’s just how it works in my life. I’ve always had a lot of questions, and I think that ultimately helped me write this book from an authentic place.

Anthony Breznican: My actual school was associated with a priest who was literally ripping open collection envelopes and stealing the cash. He claimed he was a descendant of a wealthy family, but blamed all the budget shortfalls on the rotten kids at the high school his parish had to sustain. We were his scapegoats, but eventually he was exposed.

My faith in authority evaporated at an early age. I had teachers who would smack or belittle students — not all, but some. The wonderful, thoughtful teachers only served as a disturbing contrast to the cruel ones. I learned that just because someone is in charge doesn’t make them good, and this was the core of Brutal Youth. Faith and trust is earned, not inherited. Friendship and loyalty are how you prove yourself worthy — not a badge or a collar.

What was challenging about writing about the religious and/or spiritual lives of your characters?  What hang-ups did you have?  How were those aspects of your book received?

Aisha Saeed: I did not want to further cement misconceptions and stereotypes with my novel but I also felt it was a crucial topic to address. As someone who loves her faith and culture, I felt it was important that the hard topic be addressed by someone who wrote from a place of love and not a place of seeking to villainize or stereotype. It can be a fine line to straddle, to address a hard issue but to also give it nuance and complexity, I hope I did it justice.

Anthony Breznican: I did not want to disparage the Catholic faith. I believe in a higher power, I pray, I trust that there is some sort of plan for me, and I’m grateful for all that I’ve been given in life. I have a lot of questions and about God and what may exist after this life, but I’m willing to accept that some things may simply be beyond my understanding. In writing Brutal Youth, I didn’t want to attack the idea of Catholic school exclusively, or to cast aspersions on the religion. Many people get comfort and love through the church, and although I was telling a savage story about corrupt authority, I feel Brutal Youth could take place anywhere there is unquestioned power, like a military school.

Bryan Bliss: Oh, Lordy. I get e-mails and messages that basically fall into two different camps. First: “You’re bashing the Bible. What’s your problem?!” Second: “You’re not critical enough of the parents! Bash the Bible!” I kind of love that, though. It means I did my job well. And for a long time, before I wrote this book, I would’ve been worried about such a response. What will the people in my church think? Oh no, I said shit five times on this page… That sort of thing. But I think most people who are interested in faith want books and films that accurately represent what it means to struggle theologically. And that means real questions, real struggles – real people who say shit and, um, other words. Of course, the Christian book industry is a testament to the fact that there is a market for easy stories where people never curse or ever have sticky thoughts. But I think it’s a misnomer to think that you can’t question religious beliefs, that it somehow doesn’t have a place in a life of faith. If anything, that’s a way literature is – and should be – in conversation with religion. It’s a place to test out questions, to maybe even find answers that can temporarily give us a little peace.

To be continued tomorrow . . .

Find all of the #FSYALit Posts here

#FSYALit: Doubt and the Teenage Religious Experience, thoughts on EDEN WEST (Pete Hautman), a #FSYALit post by Ally Watkins

Something Karen tweeted as we were discussing this project a while back really stuck with me. She said that discussing religion is difficult because everyone assumes they’re coming from correct place.

Man, is that ever true.

And it rings even truer in EDEN WEST, Pete Hautman’s latest about a 17-year-old boy named Jacob who has spent the majority of his life living within the walls of a fenced-in cult commune.

Jacob has had very little contact with the outside world since his parents joined the cult when he was a kid. He is sure that his belief system is correct, that Father Grace’s words are true, that the Archangel Zerachiel is going to descend from heaven and spare everyone in his church from the Apocalypse.

He believes. And he believes in a way that is really genuine. I think sometimes we as adults forget that teens can experience this depth of faith and emotion–not blind belief, but legitimate, deep conviction.

When Jacob meets Lynna, a girl who lives on the other side of the fence (very literally), he is at first horrified. He punishes himself to atone for his sin of talking to her–actual self-flagellation that is upsetting and difficult to read–and tries to forget her.  Then a new boy, Tobias, comes to the cult with his family. Tobias is belligerent, angry, and totally not buying Father Grace’s message.  Though he thinks that they are wolves that have come to lead him astray, he continues to develop relationships with Lynna and Tobias. Jacob is deeply affected by his interactions with both of these people, and he begins to doubt.

“Jacob, do you think everyone else is wrong? Everybody except a few dozen people in Montana?”

Doubt is a part of life in a faith experience, and it’s something that’s not talked about a lot. Hautman has constructed this fictional cult to highlight Jacob’s crisis of faith: In this setting, the crisis is really heightened for dramatic effect and it works very well. But I think it’s important to remember that doubt is a part of every faith experience, especially as a teenager.

Being a person of faith is hard.  Doubt is normal. Doubt is normal even if you’re not considering leaving your religion. Doubt does not mean that you’ve lost your faith (unless you want it to mean that!). I remember going through a devastating period of doubt when I was about 17. I struggled mostly in silence because I was terrified that my doubt meant I was a bad Christian or that I was losing my faith. I was scared that my faith leaders would be angry with me (they weren’t) and that this meant I wasn’t strong enough in my faith (it didn’t). It was agonizing. Teenagers are going through a lot, y’all. They’re worried about school and grades and college and faith and boys and girls and how to be people and friendships and hormones and everything. We as the adults in their lives really need to work to provide them with a safe space to ask questions about their faith and spirituality decisions. We need to let them know that these questions are ok, even healthy. Working out your own faith is a really personal process, and teens (and adults!) need to know that asking questions and exploring doubts isn’t cause to beat yourself up. Literally or figuratively.

**

Candlewick included this Q&A with Hautman inside of the ARC: http://candlewick.com/book_files/0763674184.art.1.pdf

It lines up in some ways with our purposes here at #FSYALit so I wanted to make sure to include it.

An excerpt:

Eden West dips into the themes of religion, spirituality, and beliefs, similar to some of the themes you explored in your National Book Award winner, Godless. What keeps you returning to these ideas?

I am interested in faith, and how it serves us, and how it can destroy us. I think faith and religion are hugely important elements of what it is to be human. They infuse our every thought, and they drive life-and-death decisions every single day. So why do so few young-adult books touch upon issues of faith and religion? Most YA novels never mention religion at all. What sort of church does Bella Swan go to? Does Katniss Everdeen believe in God? What about Bilbo Baggins, or Harry Potter? I’m not suggesting that YA books should all contain a religious component—in fact, most of my own books do not—but I do think there’s a lot of avoidance on the part of authors who don’t want to offend anyone or cost themselves sales. People can get very prickly about religion, so it’s a bit of a minefield. I guess I’m attracted to that.

For more on Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit, check out the #FSYALit Hub

Today’s post is written by Ally Watkins, co-coordinator of the #FSYALit Project. For more about Ally please check out the About TLT page.

Publisher’s Book Description:

A world within a world…

Twelve square miles of paradise, surrounded by an eight-foot-high chain-link fence: this is Nodd, the land of the Grace. It is all Jacob knows. Beyond the fence lies the World, a wicked, terrible place, doomed to destruction. Only the Grace will be spared.

But something is rotten in paradise. A wolf invades Nodd, slaughtering the Grace’s sheep. A new boy arrives from outside, and his scorn and disdain threaten to tarnish Jacob’s contentment. Then, while patrolling the borders of Nodd, Jacob meets Lynna, a girl who tempts him to sample forbidden Worldly pleasures.

Jacob’s faith, his devotion, and his grip on reality are tested as his feelings for Lynna blossom into something greater and the End Days grow ever closer.

Eden West is the story of two worlds, two hearts, the power of faith, and the resilience of the human spirit.

Published April 2015 by Candlewick Press

#FSYALit: Orthodox Representation in YA Lit

Over the past year, I have seen an increase of representation of Protestant Christians in YA lit that isn’t published by a Christian publisher. Maybe it’s just because I have been looking for it more for this discussion, but it does in fact seem like there has been a genuine increase in authors recognizing and mentioning that teens can have a spiritual life even in a book that isn’t published to promote said spiritual life. But in the discussion of diversity, we want to be looking for and discussing other religious viewpoints as well. So I went out and asked people I knew and respected to help me because when it comes to faiths different then my own, I want to know from practitioners of that faith whether or not the representation of their faith in YA is in fact a good one. Today Maureen Eichner is sharing her thoughts about the representation of the Orthodox Christian in YA lit.

When I was a kid, I loved Patricia Polacco’s books. For a lot of reasons: they’re funny, they’re sweet, they have beautiful art. But partly because the people in them were like me. They ate kulichi and decorated pysanky eggs; they had icons on the walls and in the corners of their rooms. And yet, they were also American, with thunderstorms and fried chicken. It wasn’t until quite recently, re-reading Chicken Sunday, that I realized just how rare and how powerful that representation was.

According to the Pew Forum, there are 260 million Orthodox Christians worldwide. Although most Orthodox churches recognize each other and there are common core beliefs, Orthodoxy is not centralized in the way that the Catholic church is and each country or region has its own autonomous church headed by a patriarch. Many Americans think of Greece or Russia when they think of Orthodoxy, but there are historical Orthodox churches in many countries throughout the Balkans, Middle East, and Africa.

Here in the US, most Orthodox believers are immigrants or descendants of immigrants who come from historically Orthodox countries. However, there is a growing number of people who are converts from other Christian denominations or other religions.

I am one of the latter. My parents began their journey to Orthodoxy when I was a baby and I grew up in the church. The parish that I attended when I was young and attend now is primarily American, but also has significant numbers of Ukrainians and Russians, as well as Eritreans and Chinese and Filipino converts. I’ve also attended Serbian and Russian parishes which have been predominantly culturally Orthodox and Americans have been in the minority.

And, let me just be quite blunt here: there is no one like me in any story I’ve ever read. There are very, very few books with Orthodox characters at all, especially in YA.* And in the few instances where Orthodoxy features, it tends to be portrayed as an exotic, mysterious religion, stuck in the past. Priests are often described as ravens or crows, or as being scary and creepy.

The thing is, throughout my life, my faith and experiences in the Orthodox Church have been not only important but life-saving. I doubt I would have gotten through my teen years without the strength and support it gave me. For me, both American and Orthodox, navigating my way between those two identities, I’ve often felt the pressure to explain all the weird things I believe and live, to make sense of who I am in the fact of well-meaning but sometimes exhausting questions. So when in YA I see at best a depiction of my faith written from the outside, that gets everything wrong, it really hurts. This was my experience reading Shadow & Bone and The Family Romanov, both of which are highly acclaimed and both of which I found painful.

Now, I will say that Trish Doller’s Where the Stars Still Shine shows a Greek Orthodox family, several members of which are religious and attend church. The main character is not one of them because of plot-related reasons, but I appreciated this tiny mention. And in Gregory Maguire’s Egg & Spoon, I felt that the characters, especially Elena, demonstrated a reasonably authentic relationship to the church and faith.

However, considering the range and breadth of YA, and the harm that inaccurate and stereotyped portrayals cause, I don’t find two books to be adequate. I want to see immigrant kids who have to grapple with their identity, and I want to see convert kids who feel like they both are and aren’t American. I want kids who have left their faith and kids who cling to it. I want historical fiction that shows the actual nuances and struggles of people in the past, and I want recognition that readers may hope to find their own beliefs accurately and respectfully rendered. I want all of our stories, because they’re already here.

* There are some small Orthodox publishers and self-published authors who have put out Orthodox YA books, or at least books about teens. I will admit that the few I tried when I was younger seemed preachy and didactic, and not at all reflective of the actual issues that my friends and I were facing. I have heard good things about a few recent releases but haven’t tried them yet.

Meet Our Guest Blogger

Maureen Eichner is a public librarian and book blogger who lives in Indiana with her cat.

Books Mentioned

Egg and Spoon by Gregory Maguire

A fantasy set in Tsarist Russia.

Elena Rudina lives in the impoverished Russian countryside. Her father has been dead for years. One of her brothers has been conscripted into the Tsar’s army, the other taken as a servant in the house of the local landowner. Her mother is dying, slowly, in their tiny cabin. And there is no food. But then a train arrives in the village, a train carrying untold wealth, a cornucopia of food, and a noble family destined to visit the Tsar in Saint Petersburg — a family that includes Ekaterina, a girl of Elena’s age. When the two girls’ lives collide, an adventure is set in motion, an escapade that includes mistaken identity, a monk locked in a tower, a prince traveling incognito, and — in a starring role only Gregory Maguire could have conjured — Baba Yaga, witch of Russian folklore, in her ambulatory house perched on chicken legs

Where the Stars Still Shine by Trish Doller

Stolen as a child from her large and loving family, and on the run with her mom for more than ten years, Callie has only the barest idea of what normal life might be like. She’s never had a home, never gone to school, and has gotten most of her meals from laundromat vending machines. Her dreams are haunted by memories she’d like to forget completely. But when Callie’s mom is finally arrested for kidnapping her, and Callie’s real dad whisks her back to what would have been her life, in a small town in Florida, Callie must find a way to leave the past behind. She must learn to be part of a family. And she must believe that love–even with someone who seems an improbable choice–is more than just a possibility.

Trish Doller writes incredibly real teens, and this searing story of love, betrayal, and how not to lose your mind will resonate with readers who want their stories gritty and utterly true.

 

#FSYALit: Author Tessa Gratton Explores Faith in YA Fantasy

Today as part of Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit: a Discussion, we are very honored to host author Tessa Gratton who joins us to share some of her own teen faith journey and to discuss faith and spirituality in YA fantasy literature.

One of the most definitive moments of my teenaged years was the moment I realized I didn’t know how to believe in God anymore.

I wanted to, but had lost that easy, innocent, simple faith I knew as a child. My family, friends, and teachers were all Catholic because I went to a small Catholic elementary school from kindergarten through seventh grade, in the middle of a very Catholic neighborhood and never truly thought about there being an entire world full of people who didn’t know what I knew: Jesus loves you.

But when I was thirteen we picked up everything and moved to Yokosuka, Japan, where my father was to be stationed for three years. Though we lived at first off-base, everything else – school, entertainment, church – was on-base. Suddenly ripped (or so melodramatic thirteen-year-old me felt) from my entire world to be surrounded by people not remotely like me in culture and faith, I started questioning everything about my assumptions, my beliefs, my understanding of how the world worked.

It was books I turned to with those questions. In part because they were all I had unless I wanted to ask my parents (I did not). The Catholic church on-base was a building shared with other faiths, and never felt like safe or sacred space to me. But mostly it was because books were the things I trusted: books were always there; they traveled with me.

I remember standing in the courtyard of the Department of Defense high school at the end of a particularly trying day, staring up at the pale moon barely visible against the bright blue afternoon, thinking I didn’t want to pray because what would praying accomplish?

And I remember wondering what the characters in my favorite novels would do if they were in my position.

Though it worked out for me – my favorite characters tended to be adventurous, brave, and smart – I had to parse their actions as if religion weren’t part of my crisis, because it wasn’t part of their crises. I read fantasy novels primarily, and although fantasy novels are full of grand religions and gods-on-earth, most of them weren’t about faith or struggles with faith. At least not the ones I was reading in the early nineties. (I’ve found a bunch since then.)

It’s a strange hole, especially in young adult lit. But then again, maybe not so strange, because we’re told again and again not to talk about religion and politics if we want to make friends and keep them. That’s too bad for me, because religion and politics are my favorite things to talk about, even if it makes me enemies at bars and dinner parties. It’s hard, though, because people feel so passionately and deeply about religion –  maybe even more so than politics.

Every novel I’ve written has had some element of faith or religiosity in it, from casual mentions of the characters attending church to building entire worlds around the interplay between religion and every day life. When I think of writing for teenagers, I think of writing for me-the-teenager, and I can’t imagine not including at least some awareness of the complicated role of religion. Not only because I rely heavily on world building, and religion is part of every world – even in its absence.

In the Blood Journals, the magic is overtly a metaphor for faith, working hand in hand with religion, or opposing it, depending on the character. The United States of Asgard is a series I wrote specifically because I wanted to talk about religion in American culture. I created an alternet USA that was founded by Vikings and their gods, so I could play with stories about how God/religion influences every single aspect of American life, whether a person identifies as religious or not. The series deals directly with faith in every single book, using different narrators to examine different issues I see in my own very political, very religion world.

The first book, The Lost Sun, is about teens who suddenly are forced to grapple with crises faith because in the United States of Asgard there’s been no need for faith: the gods are literally there, are proof you can see and touch. I wanted to write a book for 14 year old me, who didn’t see teens in the fantasy books she was reading struggle at all with faith.

            After a drawn-out breath, she asks, “Do you love the gods, Soren?”

            “Love them?”

            “You don’t wear Odin’s symbols, or a hammer charm for Thor. You don’t light candles in the chapel.”

            “What does that have to do with love?”

            A quick smile appears and vanishes on her mouth. But her upset is so clear in the rigid posture of her hands. “Faith, then. Do you believe in them? My mom used to tell me all I needed was faith. ‘Believe in them, little cat.’ It was the last thing she said to me, you know.” Astrid’s eyes are big, as though if she holds them wide open enough she will only see me, not her memories. “But I thought having faith in our gods was like having faith that the grass will be green or that gravity will hold me to the ground. There isn’t anything to have faith in. They simply are. They’re real. Their power is real, even if they choose not to use it sometimes.” Her voice lowers and I’m not certain she’s talking to me anymore. “And then one morning, the sun doesn’t rise. Baldur the Beautiful does not do what he’s done for a thousand years! I feel it like a hollow wound right here.” Astrid jabs her fingers against her diaphragm.

The story is about these teenagers exploring what they do need faith for, on a road trip across a Norse-inspired USA. It is about their literal, personal relationship with a god who interacts with them. There’s adventure and kissing and creepy little trolls, but at the center, it’s about personal faith, and faith in oneself.

And I can do all that at once because I write fantasy.

Fantasy as a genre allows me to play with any aspect of religion I want, and use concrete examples or massive, obvious metaphors. I can write that this god of hunger is a teenaged girl because teen girls in our culture are reviled for their desires, or that this dying god proves your faith is about you, not the object of it. There is so much room in fantasy – YA fantasy especially – for stories that explore all aspects of religion and faith, the good, bad, and ugly.

Here are some of my favorite YA Fantasies that have overt religious/faith explorations:

  • The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson
  • The Girl of Fire and Thorns series by Rae Carson
  • His Fair Assassin series by Robin LaFevers
  • The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff

Meet Our Guest Blogger:

Born in Okinawa, Japan, while her Dad was on duty with the US Navy, Tessa Gratton moved around throughout her childhood and traveled even more. She’s lived in Japan, California, Kansas, and England, and visited 4 continents.

After graduating from the University of Kansas in 2003 with a degree in Gender Studies, she went on to graduate school for a Master’s in the same. Halfway through, she ditched the program in favor of the blood, violence, and drama of  Anglo-Saxon and Germanic epic poetry and to focus on her writing. Tessa doesn’t have a graduate degree, but she did translate her own version of Beowulf!

Welcome to the United States of Asgard! Please watch for troll sign!

The United States of Asgard is a nation of poets and warriors, of rock bands and evangelical preachers, of gods and their children. The media tracks troll sightings and reality TV is about dragon slaying and teen prophets. The president rules the country alongside a council of Valkyrie, and the military has a special battalion dedicated to eradicating the threat of Greater Mountain Trolls.

THE BLOOD JOURNALS series

The Blood Journals is a young adult gothic romance duology about teens in Missouri and Kansas who discover their families have long practiced American magic that requires blood.

Random House Children’s Books

Visit Tessa Gratton at http://tessagratton.com

Follow Tessa on Twitter

#FSYALit: Hooking Up with Jesus, a discussion of Jackson Pearce’s PURITY by guest blogger Jen Leitch

Today as part of our ongoing discussion of Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit, guest blogger Jen Leitch is discussing PURITY by Jackson Pearce. You can learn more about the discussion and see the previous posts at the #FSYALit Discussion Hub.

“The only thing I leave the session with is a sense of certainty that Eve made a fair trade by eating that fruit.  She traded paradise for knowledge.  She wanted to know the truth about evil, about God, about sex, just like I do.  Way to go, Eve. … Maybe Eve did feel worthless for betraying God—maybe I’ll feel worthless if I have sex.  But at least that way, God would be coming through the way everyone predicted.  At least that way, I would know that the church’s version of God isn’t just a picture-book fantasy.” – from “Purity” by Jackson Pearce

Knowledge, Experience, and Truth:  the Holy Trinity at the heart of figuring out who we are, where we belong, how we make and live with our choices, and how we reconcile ourselves with the people around us.  There isn’t anything more fundamentally human than trying to understand yourself and your place in the world.

I’m not going to pretend that there isn’t plenty in this book to provoke strong reactions from some readers and their parents.  It’s a novel, after all, based on the “American Pie Experience”:  a teenager attempting to have sex for the first time before a predetermined deadline.   Where this novel breaks new ground, however, is in two key areas:  the character on this mission, Shelby, is female; and she articulates her decision-making and emotional processes in conjunction with pleas for spiritual and familial connection.   This juxtaposition of the traditionally sacred (spirituality/faith) and the stereotypically profane (sex), combined with Jackson Pearce’s feminist inversion of the traditionally male quest to “get laid” distills into something that feels simple, honest, and real.  “Purity” becomes an allegory about the eternal conundrum of wanting to find God and doubting His existence.

Shelby struggles with her Christian faith throughout the novel.  In the wake of her mother’s death, she finds herself yearning for the God she’s been taught about to make His presence obvious in her life.  Yet, alongside that very yearning, she has authentically articulated doubts, and cannot seem to synthesize the nursery Jesus with the God who, in her mind, refused to save her mother. Instead, she clings on to the three promises she made to her dying mother:  “Love and listen to your father.  Love as much as possible.  Live without restraint.”  Shelby’s attempts to adhere to the promises actually create barriers between herself and her father instead of uniting them.  Despite her efforts, the promises are kept only on a superficial level:  more a checklist than a philosophy.  When her father wants them to participate in the community’s annual Purity Ball, Shelby finds herself torn between two of the promises:  listen to your father versus live without restraint.  The relationship between Shelby and her father can be read symbolically as an equivalent to her spiritual relationship with God.  As she begins to break down the walls in her relationship with her father-who-art-on-Earth, so too does she reach an armistice with The Father Who Art In Heaven.

In a religious context, purity distills itself into ‘being and doing that which is pleasing to God.’  In the case of a Purity Ball, that generally means making a formal vow to your father that you will live a life free from alcohol, drugs, and sex until the appropriate church-and-society-sanctioned time.  Shelby’s decision to dispose of her virginity before the Purity Ball—in order to accomplish a feat of loophole-logic most lawyers would admire–essentially (and somewhat ironically) sets her on a path to hooking-up with Jesus.  Without spoiling the story, let me just say that all of the boys Shelby enlists in her “Lose Virginity Now” plan signal elements of the triune God.  Ex-boyfriend Daniel is distant; popular Ben is an approachable  Jesus look-alike; and new-guy Jeffrey’s name means “peace of a stranger”, linking him both in name, and in what he provides, to the Holy Spirit.  Alongside these interactions, Shelby also negotiates an evolving relationship with her best friend Jonas.  I don’t believe his name is a coincidence:  it has 5 letters, starts with J, vowel, consonant, vowel, and ends in S.  To further illustrate the analogy:  Jonas brings her a yellow rose–a symbol of friendship, of light in the darkness, of hope—to take to her mother’s gravesite, and she thinks , “ I could do it alone—I’ve done it alone.  But why would I want to?”  Many of Shelby’s thoughts and statements throughout the novel can be interpreted spiritually as well as literally.  Furthermore, while reflecting upon her mother’s favourite book, ‘The Little Princess’, Shelby reveals, “There was nothing magical about the book ending, if you ask me.  One of my favourite parts of the movie was the scene when Sara realizes her father was there all along, right across the street.”  Not only does this observation foreshadow a newfound relationship with her father/Father, it encapsulates the metamorphosis that occurs in her friendship with Jonas/Jesus as well.

Jackson Pearce’s great strength as an author is the way she infuses humor and a faltering humanity into all of the significant characters in the book.  They are understandable people facing real-world choices and spiritual conundrums while exchanging realistically snappy remarks.  The reader won’t always agree with the characters or their choices, but the novel respects each character and encourages the reader to empathize.  Although the characters sometimes come across as flippant, there is an unaffected candor to their dialogue that rings true.

Pearce doesn’t knock the reader over the head with any particular ideological hammer.  At the end of the novel, it could be argued that Shelby has not reconciled herself with God just as easily as it could be argued that she has.  (Obviously, I tend towards believing that she is, at the very least, on her way to doing so.  I’d be interested to read an atheistic-leaning interpretation of Shelby’s thought process.)  Notwithstanding the agnostic ambiguity, the novel’s purity lies in Shelby’s pursuit of an honest and legitimate expression of her life.  For me, this is exactly what Christianity is meant to impart:  that making decisions and becoming self-aware doesn’t mean getting thrown out of the garden.  Instead, it means reconciling the physical with the spiritual, transforming judgement into empathy, owning responsibility, and seeking to empower (pure) love.

Meet Our Guest Blogger

Jen Leitch works in two JK-Grade 8 elementary school libraries in Ontario, Canada. She is a certified teacher with an undergraduate minor in Religious Studies who wrote her Master’s thesis on the ways in which curriculum can and should support opportunities for discussions of faith throughout all school systems. According to her students, she “has awesome book knowledge”, “is very organized by the Dewey Decimal System”, and “is a great reader and a nice person.” (Thanks, you  guys!)  You can find her on Twitter @Jen_Lei  , where she’s as likely to be talking about books and libraries as she is about tv, movies, and gaming.

#FSYALIT Girls Like Me Don’t: Thoughts on Things I Can’t Forget by Miranda Kenneally, a guest post by Katelyn Browne

I moved a lot growing up. “A different school every other grade” kind of a lot. It’s usually the first thing I tell people when I’m trying to explain why I am the way I am, or why I can’t just tell you where I’m from.

That’s one thing that makes me very different from Kate Kelly, the narrator of Miranda Kenneally’s Things I Can’t Forget. Kate has lived in Tennessee her whole life, in a close-knit Christian community. (Because this is the third book in a loosely connected series, Kenneally is able to make the community feel smotheringly small—everywhere we turn, there’s a character or a plot point from a past or future Hundred Oaks book.) She doesn’t know anyone who’s not Christian. Kate herself is deeply, devoutly, intensely Christian.

And that’s where we’re the same, Kate and I. (Kate and Kate—we share a name, too.) Because right after I’ve explained that I’m not from anywhere, my next go-to explanation is “Oh, and I was intensely religious as a teen.”

“Learning is never a bad thing. And neither is changing your mind about things…It’s always good to reevaluate. To think and consider all sides.”
Miranda Kenneally, Things I Can’t Forget

Intense is the only right word for it. During middle school and high school, I was always at church: Sunday school, Sunday services, church band practice, Bible study, youth group, leadership training. I went to all the extra holy days, fasted for 40 Hour Famine, served a silent shift in the dark for an Easter prayer vigil. I ran my own peer Bible study for a year and made all my friends come and listen to canned presentations about abortion and smoking and homosexuality. I went on retreats, swimming trips, and mall scavenger hunts.  And I went to church camp.

My church camp didn’t look like the one where Kate spends her summers. Cumberland Creek is a true summer camp, where children come and stay in cabins and our teen heroes serve as their counselors. My youth group did the conference-style camps, where we would spend a week on a college campus somewhere, getting saved and playing Ultimate Frisbee. In alternate years, we went on mission trips instead. But the wild mishmash of emotional, hormonal teen summers and the distinctive structures of camp that dominate this book feel so familiar to me.

When I offered to write a post for #FSYALit, I mentioned off-hand that this was the only YA book I’ve ever read that really felt like the religion I’d lived. At the time, I thought it was mostly because of the camp aspect, because of those summer evenings feeling close-but-not-close-enough to Jesus while sitting close-but-not-too-close to your friends. (I was always intellectually engaged with religion, but camp was where I prayed the sobbing, convulsing, born-again prayers that mark evangelical youth.)

“Free will comes with sacrifice. And sometimes with heartache.”
Miranda Kenneally, Things I Can’t Forget

Upon reread, I realized that this book had stuck to my bones because of the pervasive sense of shame. There’s a special breed of shame, mixed with guilt, rolled up with judgment and righteousness that haunted me as a teenager—and that haunts me still—that I’d never seen anyone talk about in quite the right way.

Those feelings are stamped all over this book. In Kate’s world, religious truth and cultural standards are very closely intertwined. The first sentence of the book is “Girls like me do not buy pregnancy tests,” and it quickly becomes clear that Kate knows a lot of things that girls like her—like us—don’t do. She’s dismayed when she learns of Christian peers who belong to fraternities and sororities; who are gay; who go to parties; who have sex. Later on, she encapsulates what the teen experience looked like for those of us who were fully in the thrall of self-righteousness mixed with total fear: “I missed out on a lot because I was scared other kids would be drinking or doing drugs or having sex, and I didn’t want to be around that. And because no boys ever invited me.”

Before the book begins, Kate has helped her best friend, Emily, get an abortion. Now, in hindsight, she’s sure that she’s sinned in an almost unforgivable way, and a significant amount of the text is devoted to constantly wondering about her standing with God.

Kate’s shame deepens as she develops romantic—and sexual—feelings for her co-counselor and old friend Matt. She has the usual modesty culture guilt about feeling any kind of want and desire. (Julie Stivers read a draft of this post for me and wondered where the moral line was, in dating relationships, when I was a teen. I went to a church that was okay with dating other like-minded Protestants as long as you were just kissing—but even then, it felt like you could cross a line as soon as you started to like it too much.) Kate’s uncertainty about enjoying her make-out sessions with Matt is summed up in a such a succinct, pointed, perfect way: “I felt so good inside it felt wrong.”

The shadow of Emily’s abortion complicates these shameful feelings. Kate certainly judges Emily for getting an abortion, and she hates herself for helping her. But even more than that, Kate judges Emily because she had sex with her boyfriend, Jacob, in flagrant defiance of everything they knew to be morally correct. Kate takes assurance from the knowledge that she wasn’t at all complicit in that sin, and that she would never fall the way Emily has. Her belief in her own moral superiority (and her disdain and pity for Emily) nearly destroys their friendship in a way that demonstrates the utter failure of “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

“I have a billion what-ifs and no way forward.”
Miranda Kenneally, Things I Can’t Forget

As an adult, as a secular person, as a reader, I want to sit Kate down and say, look. You did the best thing; you loved your friend; you helped her when she was afraid. Your God should love that. You don’t need to be forgiven, and you need to stop punishing Emily.

But I know that it’s not that easy. And if you work with evangelical teens, or other teens whose worlds are defined by rules, by right and wrong and very few shades of grey, I hope you know that, too. Like Kate, I said and thought and did immensely hurtful things to my friends and acquaintances in the name of the truth. Sometimes, I got a chance to make amends; other times, I didn’t.

Kate ends the book with an intact, but changed, relationship with God and with her own ideas about faith. A concerned friend says, “I feel like you’re getting to know yourself better, and that’s a good thing.”

Because I spent so much of my adolescence squashing parts of myself that were sinful or worldly or otherwise not of God, that’s something I’m still working on. I’ve gotten to know myself better every time I’ve read Things I Can’t Forget, and I hope some evangelical teens will find themselves in it, too.

I know that this book would have made me deeply uncomfortable as a teen—I learned about God (and chaste romance between married people) from church-library books from Christian publishers. When I met characters who had had abortions, or who were gay, or who gave in to their carnal desires, they were always in secular books and they were never evangelical.

Kenneally’s book is a bit of each; it very much exists in the tradition of secular YA fiction, and it comes from a secular publisher. It’s also a book that takes teenage faith very seriously and recognizes that Kate’s faith in God, even when shaky, is central to her life.

Depending on your community, it could make for a difficult handsell. But I think it’s such an important book for evangelical teens who also like romance stories, as well as for teens who live in places where evangelical morality seems distant and cartoonish. As in many Christian romances, Kate’s relationship with a boy is compared and contrasted with her relationship with God—but here, both relationships and the questions they evoke are treated as valid. Near the end of the book, Kate is still trying to decide what to do about Matt. She wonders, “Is it healthy to have a love like that anyway? A love where you throw aside all caution and dive right in?”

It’s an important question, particularly if you’re coming into adulthood and trying on relationships. And I don’t think it’s a question that only pertains to boyfriends.

Meet Our Guest Blogger

Katelyn Browne (or @brownekr, to the Twitter world) works as a school librarian in Washington, DC. These days, she hangs out with Quakers, but she still knows all the words to an awful lot of Christian rock songs.

Publisher’s Book Description:

Kate has always been the good girl. Too good, according to some people at school—although they have no idea the guilty secret she carries. But this summer, everything is different…

This summer she’s a counselor at Cumberland Creek summer camp, and she wants to put the past behind her. This summer Matt is back as a counselor too. He’s the first guy she ever kissed, and he’s gone from a geeky songwriter who loved The Hardy Boys to a buff lifeguard who loves to flirt – with her.

Kate used to think the world was black and white, right and wrong. Turns out, life isn’t that easy.

Published by Sourcefire Books in 2013

For more discussions of Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit, check out our Hub

#FSYALit: We Can’t Be Afraid of Honest Questions, a guest post by Bryan Bliss about his debut novel No Parking at the End Times

As part of our ongoing discussion of Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit, #FSYALit, we are honored to host author Bryan Bliss as he discusses writing about faith in a YA novel.

When I came up with the idea for my novel, No Parking at the End Times, I was worried. Partially, that fear came from a longstanding promise to myself that I would never write about religion. I was too close to the subject, with my seminary degree and progressive, if not loud, theological opinions. I didn’t want to be seen as a pitchman, barking about my beliefs. And besides: my Christian friends had their books, those message-heavy stories where the salvation comes fast and quick, usually just in time for the third act’s resolution. I wasn’t – I’m not – interested in writing canned stories where teenagers pray and it magically solves all of their problems because:

a) This never happens.
b) It makes for stupid stories.

And besides, the church spends enough time attempting to sanitize the world for teenagers. Youth groups across the United States are particularly interested in churning out nice kids who never make mistakes and are eternally safe. For a second let’s forget that any of us may have actually read the Bible – a book filled with people making stupid, risky decisions that, more often than not, are rewarded. Forget that Jesus was seen as dangerous because – shocker! – he was going against tradition. Forget that no kid – no matter how coddled, how indoctrinated, how homeschooled – will ever live a life without risk. And just in case it needs to be stated: teenagers aren’t stupid. They know when an adult isn’t giving it to them straight. They know when somebody is kowtowing to nice and safe.

Obviously I have feelings about this.

But if I’m being completely honest, perception wasn’t my problem. Instead, it was something much more terrifying.

If I was going to do this, I couldn’t get it wrong.

The worst thing a story about religion can do is turn honest questions into simple plot pieces. Whether inadvertent of not, the dodge immediately minimizes the big questions of faith. Too many so-called religious novels assume teenagers don’t have these questions, or if they do all they need is a good dose of Jesus. By doing so, by assuming that a simple pat answer can fix these questions, it instead teaches them one definitive lesson: your concerns and fears are not valid.

I hope you see where this is going.

Good young adult literature comes at a story with unflinching honesty. How else can you honor the questions that teenagers live? To think that questions of faith don’t require such treatment is myopic. Maybe more than any other topic, a book dealing with religion needs to highlight the cracks in the foundation. It needs to show both hucksters and saints, while never stooping to the knee jerk assumption that teenagers only want stories that mock religion. This, unfortunately, has been the go-to narrative in YA, perpetuating the assumption that religious teens – or even those marginally interested – cannot stand to have their faith prodded. Instead, young adult literature needs to challenge the base assumptions of faith so that teenagers can acquire the tools needed to unravel the thick and waterlogged knots of theology.

For many, that is a risk. It suggests that questions are more important than answers. That truth is a relative thing dependent upon context and lived experience. It is a risk because it takes the power of telling and interpreting the story out of the hands of cautious adults and says to teenagers, “Here, this is yours. Do with it what you will.”

This is why many of us write young adult literature. It allows us to be both entertainer and articulator, showing the world not only as it is, but also as we hope it could be. However, to do this we cannot leave the creation of stories that deal with faith solely in the hands of religious publishers. That means risking stories that might not be commercially successful. It means risking comments from the hyper-religious and the vigilant atheist. It means writing stories that prod and poke and question. Because how can young adult writers abide anything else?

– Bryan Bliss

About the Author:

Bryan Bliss lives with his family near Portland, Oregon, where he works with teenagers and writes fiction. No Parking at the End Times is his first novel.

You can visit him online at www.bryanbliss.com and on Facebook and Twitter.

Some additional thoughts from those who helped bring No Parking at the End Times into this world:

Faith—and wrestling with faith—is an integral part of so many teenagers’ lives. Some because they are reaffirming their beliefs, and some because they are finding new ones. And what is more deeply personal than this decision? Yet, it’s not a topic we often see in YA literature, perhaps because it is so personal. It’s one of the reasons that Bryan’s No Parking at the End Times was so affecting to me, as an editor. Bryan’s protagonist has one of the trickiest conflicts an individual can face—having her faith shaken. Here was a voice that I recognized from life, but hadn’t seen enough of on the page. A voice that I think many teens will recognize within themselves, as well.—Martha Mihalick, Senior Editor, Greenwillow Books

 I’ve always been interested in issues of faith, particularly as it relates to the American teenager. Adolescence is all about figuring out who you are and what you believe, and in real life, questions about faith and religion are a large part of that process. That we shy away from the subject in YA literature does a disservice to our readers. I’ve been proud to champion authors who confront religion, faith and questioning in their work, as well as authors who are informed by their faith and write characters whose beliefs are just one part of a bigger picture. What Bryan does so deftly in No Parking at the End Times is explore all kinds of issues of faith lost—in religion, family, friends, institutions—and how one girl begins to find it again on her own terms. Though her situation is quite extreme, the personal journey that Abigail goes on in the novel is one that I think most teens, and adults for that matter, will relate to easily.—Michael Bourret, Vice President & Literary Agent, Dystel & Goderich Literary Management

About No Parking at the End Times by Bryan Bliss:

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

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

Published February 24th by Greenwillow Books. ISBN: 9780062275417

#FSYALit Discussion: Vivian Apple at the End of the World by Katie Coyle

As part of our Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit Discussion, Ally Watkins and I decided we would both read several books and have joint discussions about them. Our first selection was Vivian Apple at the End of the World by Katie Coyle.

Ally’s Thoughts:

So, our plan in theory was good. Except Ally DNFed Vivian Apple. She found the concept intriguing, but the pacing was too slow for her and she just couldn’t keep reading.

Karen’s Thoughts:

This was a slow start for me as well, but I ended up really loving this book because I found the new world fascinating and could draw a lot of legitimate parallels to some of the very real world discussions we have about religion today and in history. I dogeared a ton of pages where I thought Coyle said really profound things about religion, belief, love, family, etc. I read the last chapter aloud to a friend I was sitting next to and we talked at length about this book. In addition, it had a lot of the “end of the world” elements that I like in a good end of the world scenario: there is the journey across country that allows you to see how others are responding to world events, there is the character growth as they learn to discern what is happening and how to appropriately respond to this new world scenario and adapt for survival, and there are the variety of characters you meet along the way which are in many ways made more interesting by giving this particular story some religious overtones.

What happens in Vivian Apple is fascinating: over time a new religion, the Church of America, has risen to power and proclaims that the rapture will happen on a certain date, leaving everyone else behind. And then the rapture does indeed appear to happen, leaving those behind to wrestle with this new world and their own personal losses. Those who had doubt and did not question said doubt now begin to question it. Slowly, chaos erupts as food resources become scarce and power vacuums are filled with believers that have a definite agenda. In all of this are fascinating examinations of faith and doubt, power, gender roles, the influence of the church over not only personal every day life but things like education and government, and consumerism. There are of course some interesting twists and turns along the way which both make the story an entertaining read but further illuminate some of today’s real world issues with a bit of side eye.

Vivian Apple also highlights some of the sins of the church, though in this case it is a made up church which is standing in for any number of churches that truly exist in our world today. People aren’t just cast out for their unbelief or sinful ways, they are set on fire, murdered in the street, punished for being unbelievers or worse. After being baptized believers are removed from public school because their teachings don’t agree with church teachings, and there is some great discussion in here about faith, reason and science.

But Vivian Apple is not necessarily anti-faith, as represented by a beloved teacher named Wambaugh. She provides a balance and voice in the midst of this chaos that reminds us that one faith isn’t necessarily more legitimate than another, but that you also can’t conflate all believers into one category. They’re not all violent or hateful, some of them choose a different faith path. She has a profound discussion with Vivian, who is surprised to learn that Wambaugh has any faith at all, about how she finds comfort and guidance in her belief system. Everything she says in this discussion is relevant and profound and moving to me. “It’s not up to me to tell you what you should believe in. That’s the thing you’ve got to figure out for yourself,” she says, which is of course one of the main parts not only of Vivian’s journey, but of all people every where, especially teenagers.

Look at all those pages I turned down because I wanted to revisit and discuss them!!

As I mentioned, there were a lot of interesting discussions in this book and I literally began turning down the pages to mark the places that I wanted to revisit (see the picture to the left). And I read parts of it out loud to a friend and we then had those fascinating discussions.

Some of My Favorite Quotes:

“The way we live our lives is not sustainable. I don’t just mean recycling and turning off the faucet while brushing your teeth. I mean the way we treat each other. The way we pick and choose whose lives are important – who we actually treat as human. There is nobody on this earth whose life is not of value. And that includes those of us who have been left behind. Maybe they did go to some Christian heaven. But what I’m saying is, we’re good people too. We’re worthwhile people. I’d vouch for every last one of you.”

“Don’t be the kind of person who sees groups instead of people.”

Simply profound. That is all.

At one point there is a discussion about whether or not Vivian’s parents were raptured:

“Let’s say they chose to hide in the desert instead. That still means they left me. My parents left me and chose a church instead. Can you explain that, please? Because I don’t understand.”

Although the scenarios are different, this idea resembles what we see happening in No Parking at the End Times by Bryan Bliss where the family sells all their possessions and literally becomes homeless waiting for the rapture to happen. In both scenarios the parents abandon parental responsibility, or in the case of Vivian it is one of the scenarios posited that her parents chose to abandon her.

“It was then that I realized: the scope of my parents’ vision for me had narrowed dramatically. Where once they must’ve stood over my crib and wondered what sort of woman I’d grow up to be, now they saw only a thin line between glory and damnation. And at the rate I was going, I was doomed. They loved me still. I could see all the fear and hope in their eyes as they waited for my response; I could see that they still stood just on the precipice of heartbreak. But they no longer believed in me.”

This crushed me as I read it, that moment when she realizes her parents stopped believing in her because she wasn’t choosing their faith. This made me think of all the teens I have worked with over the years who knew in one way or another that their parents no longer believed in them, that they didn’t get that unconditional love that they needed so very much from their parents.

On gender roles, one of the characters says,

“They got it, you know? That it is hard to figure out how to be the right kind of wife, the right kind of mother.”

As a wife and mother this really resonated with me in a way I suspect it won’t with most teenagers. But there is a lot of pressure on women to be the right kind of wife and mother, arguably more time is spent discussing motherhood then fatherhood as bloggers and news writers engage in what have frequently been referred to as the “mommy wars”.

Even recently when a news report came out about a man who was now raising his newborn baby with Down Syndrome alone because his wife had left I couldn’t help but think about how the expectations for women and wives and mothers is so much greater it seems than what we expect of our fathers. No less than 3 of my friends with special needs children were abandoned last year by husbands who left with new lovers while these mothers were left scheduling doctors appointments and navigating IEPs and medication but no one lauded them in the press because of this is what they did, they are mothers. We hold such very different standards for mothers than we do for fathers, which isn’t fair to either one quite frankly and hurts us all, mothers, fathers, and our children.

” . . . if I’ve learned anything at all in the last eight years of my life? It’s that people just like to tell themselves stories about where they came from. They can’t help themselves. They don’t trust the world around them – it’s too good for them, or not good enough – so they tell themselves stories about it. . . .You’re parents didn’t like their creation myth, that’s all.”

I just thought this was a really profound insight into the stories we tell about ourselves.

Publisher’s Book Description:

Seventeen-year-old Vivian Apple never believed in the evangelical Church of America, unlike her recently devout parents. But when Vivian returns home the night after the supposed “Rapture,” all that’s left of her parents are two holes in the roof. Suddenly, she doesn’t know who or what to believe. With her best friend Harp and a mysterious ally, Peter, Vivian embarks on a desperate cross-country roadtrip through a paranoid and panic-stricken America to find answers. Because at the end of the world, Vivan Apple isn’t looking for a savior. She’s looking for the truth.

FSYALit: Catholicism in YA, a guest post by Katie Behrens

Today as part of our Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit Project, guest Katie Behrens is discussing Catholicism in YA literature.

When I was confirmed in the Catholic Church at the age of 16, I really meant it. I knew there was a lot about the faith that I didn’t know and maybe some stuff I didn’t understand, but I knew the Church was important to me. I was your typical, book-loving public school kid, but I also felt a great longing for life to be bigger than it seemed. The Catholic Church, filled with beauty and mystery and 2,000 years of theology, was where I found myself.

Unless you know Catholics who take their faith seriously, you could easily assume that it’s a dying religion of a bygone era. That’s the stereotype I get from the media, at least. Fictional Catholic characters usually “go through the motions” of religious practice out of obligation, rather than personal conviction. My experience is the opposite. In college, I met hundreds of people my age who were full of life and joy because of their Catholic faith. They might be a minority, but believe me, Catholic teens definitely exist.

For a religion that unites an estimated 1.2 billion people worldwide, Catholicism can be very misunderstood. Catholics ARE Christians. We do read the Bible, but we also look to tradition and the great writings of the past for guidance. However, many baptized-and-confirmed Catholics don’t know what the Church really teaches or why. In the U.S. at least, the past several generations have received poor instruction about the Church’s teachings and mission. We all acknowledge it – if you attended CCD between 1970 and 2000, you probably didn’t get the full picture.  Even worse is the painful and horrible reality of the priest abuse scandals brought to light in the past 20 years. It caused great hurt within the Church, and cast doubt on the clergy.

All of these factors contribute to a pretty pitiful representation in YA lit. Priests and religious (monks and nuns) are all too often used as a stand-in for ultimate and crushing authority in the lives of teens. Catholicism is seen only in its “rules” and not as a diverse and complex body of believers. It’s especially obvious in stories set in a Catholic school, like The Chocolate War. The primary Church representative, Brother Leon, manipulates the schoolboys against each other for his own gain. A power-hungry, corrupt priest is a stereotype, no question. Is there corruption in the priesthood? Unfortunately yes – they’re humans just like us. But that seems to be the only role they play in stories (I’m looking at you, Dan Brown), and it’s become a tired trope.

Catholicism for teen protagonists isn’t so much a stereotype as it is a flat, empty character trait. Maybe they say their family is Catholic, and then a sentence or two dismisses its importance to the story. Is that the fault of the author? Not necessarily. The world is filled with devout Catholics and cultural Catholics and “cafeteria” Catholics (so-called because they pick and choose what they believe). A character who says she’s Catholic can fall anywhere on that spectrum. We all want characters that present faith in a positive light, no matter what we believe, but the reality is that lived faith is messy.

I want to focus on three books that positively resonated with my experience as a Catholic. The first is Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel Boxers & Saints. The corresponding stories of Little Bao and Vibiana are centered on the Boxer Revolution in China at the turn of the 20th century. Faith is shown to be real, something for which people choose to die. In Saints, Vibiana sort of falls into Christianity and eventually embraces it in the face of death. St. Joan of Arc appears to her and inspires her, even when it would be easier to renounce it all. We also see characters who bully in the name of Christ, a priest who makes difficult decisions in serving his congregation, and the stark reality of martyrdom. Yang, a Chinese American Catholic, beautifully weaves these stories of faith and identity together with humor and grace.

My second recommendation is The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork. There’s so much wonderful and deeply honest discussion of faith between different characters, but I think there’s a particularly Catholic flavor to it. Daniel Quentin (D.Q.) is dying when he meets Pancho Sanchez, but he’s resolved to suck the marrow out of what remains of his life. The priest in charge of the orphanage, Father Concha, is a non-sentimental man who greatly cares for the children (not a stereotype!). Pancho was raised Catholic, and when pushed on the topic, he says, “Faith’s what makes you pray. It’s why people say the Rosary and light candles to Jesus and Mary and all those saints. It’s what you go to church for. It’s why you’re good when you want to be bad. It’s what you think is gonna happen to you after you die.” He doesn’t have to say much more about what he thinks of religion, because his actions through the rest of the novel make it clear what Pancho believes. There’s a great exchange between D.Q. and Pancho later in the story that goes like this:

Pancho: “You gotta believe.”

D.Q.: “I believe. Help my unbelief.”

Pancho: “What’s that?”

D.Q.: “Nothing. Something I remembered.”

That “something” is from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 9, where a father asks Jesus to heal his epileptic son. It’s an emotional moment where humanity meets divinity. The fact that Stork can sneak scripture into character conversation definitely earns my respect.

My third pick is a recent read for me: The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab. For most of Caro’s life, her older sister Hannah has been gone at a convent, but Hannah returns one day and won’t explain why. Caro has to get used to Hannah in her life again, all the while balancing friends, school, boys, and whatever she does or doesn’t believe about religion. Jarzab does an amazing job showing the complexities of faith, especially what happens when it’s used to shut the world out. The priest with whom Caro forms a friendship speaks eloquently and accurately about Catholicism – and he loves science (that’s right! We do!). Caro herself wrestles with the big questions and comes to a place of peace amidst her confusion. It’s not a perfect novel – sometimes scenes are forced, and I highly doubt that Hannah’s religious order would have allowed her to stay as long as she did when she was obviously unhappy. It’s still one of the best representations of real Catholic faith I’ve seen in realistic YA fiction.

Other great Catholic characters and themes can be found in more classic works. For the teen that likes reading older stuff, you only have to point them to Flannery O’Connor, G.K. Chesterton (especially The Ball and the Cross and The Man Who Was Thursday), C.S. Lewis’ work for grown-ups (The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, and his Space Trilogy), Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien, a devout Catholic, famously said that “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.”

Did you notice the racial diversity in the three selections?  It was unplanned on my part, but it speaks to the inherent diversity within the Catholic Church. All across the globe, people are united by the same beliefs and love for God (the word ‘catholic’ means ‘universal’). As we call for greater ethnic diversity in YA lit, we should also expect more stories of authentic faith.

Meet Our Guest Blogger

Katie Behrens is a 2013 graduate from UW-Madison’s School of Library and Information Studies. She’s currently obsessed with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Thrilling Adventure Hour podcast, and her first reread of The Lord of the Rings. Katie is a project manager for The Library as Incubator Project and occasionally blogs at thirstydaughter.wordpress.com.

About the Books Discussed:

Boxers and Saints by Gene Yuen Lang

One of the greatest comics storytellers alive brings all his formidable talents to bear in this astonishing new work.

In two volumes, Boxers & Saints tells two parallel stories. The first is of Little Bao, a Chinese peasant boy whose village is abused and plundered by Westerners claiming the role of missionaries. Little Bao, inspired by visions of the Chinese gods, joins a violent uprising against the Western interlopers. Against all odds, their grass-roots rebellion is successful.

But in the second volume, Yang lays out the opposite side of the conflict. A girl whose village has no place for her is taken in by Christian missionaries and finds, for the first time, a home with them. As the Boxer Rebellion gains momentum, Vibiana must decide whether to abandon her Christian friends or to commit herself fully to Christianity.

Boxers & Saints is one of the most ambitious graphic novels First Second has ever published. It offers a penetrating insight into not only one of the most controversial episodes of modern Chinese history, but into the very core of our human nature. Gene Luen Yang is rightly called a master of the comics form, and this book will cement that reputation.

The Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork

Two young men — one dying of cancer, one planning a murder — explore the true meanings of death and life in the tense and passionate new novel from the author of MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD.

When Pancho arrives at St. Anthony’s Home, he knows his time there will be short: If his plans succeed, he’ll soon be arrested for the murder of his sister’s killer. But then he’s assigned to help D.Q., whose brain cancer has slowed neither his spirit nor his mouth. D.Q. tells Pancho all about his “Death Warrior’s Manifesto,” which will help him to live out his last days fully–ideally, he says, with the love of the beautiful Marisol. As Pancho tracks down his sister’s murderer, he finds himself falling under the influence of D.Q. and Marisol, who is everything D.Q. said she would be.

The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab

Caro Mitchell considers herself an only child—and she likes it that way. After all, her much older sister, Hannah, left home eight years ago, and Caro barely remembers her. So when Caro’s parents drop the bombshell news that Hannah is returning to live with them, Caro feels as if an interloper is crashing her family. To her, Hannah’s a total stranger, someone who haunts their home with her meek and withdrawn presence, and who refuses to talk about her life and why she went away. Caro can’t understand why her parents cut her sister so much slack, and why they’re not pushing for answers.

Unable to understand Hannah, Caro resorts to telling lies about her mysterious reappearance. But when those lies alienate Caro’s new boyfriend and put her on the outs with her friends and her parents, she seeks solace from an unexpected source. And when she unearths a clue about Hannah’s past—one that could save Hannah from the dark secret that possesses her. Caro begins to see her sister in a whole new light.

  Additional #FSYALit Posts: