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The Distance Between Lost and Found, part 2: Sex, Power, Politics and The Church

It’s interesting how two people can read the same book and have two different experiences with it. When Ally Watkins and I began talking about The Distance Between Lost and Found it became evident that different parts, different themes, stood out to each of us. So whereas Ally talked a lot about the the faith aspects of DBLF, I’m going to talk about something very different, though definitely related to the idea of power in the church.

In order to have this conversation, I’m going to have to spill some big reveals. SO DO NOT READ THIS POST UNTIL AFTER YOU HAVE READ THE BOOK.

READ THE BOOK, COME BACK, AND LET’S TALK.

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When we first meet Hallie, she is at church camp and it is clear that she is being frozen out and bullied, and the freeze out is primarily being led by a boy named Luke Willis. Luke Willis happens to be the preacher’s son, which gives him a de facto position of power in the church youth group. He chooses to use this position of power not for good, but for personal gain. Like many people in positions of power, yes even people in positions of power in the church, he has power and that power is easily abused.

The basics of the story is that an event has happened between Hallie and Luke and when this event becomes known, Luke’s version of the story is automatically believed over Hallie’s. This is in part because of Luke’s position of power, but I would also argue that it is also in part because Luke is the male in this story and Hallie is the female; culturally we still tend to believe the males over the females, see any recent news headlines or read the comments of any column about feminist issues for ample evidence of this.

It’s also interesting to note that when this book was first recommended to me I asked if it was about sexual violence and I was told no, it was about bullying. But I would argue that there is indeed an element of sexual coercion involved as the events that happen between Luke and Hallie are not rape, per se, but neither are the fully consensual acts. Luke uses a variety of tactics to try and engage Hallie in a physical relationship with him, including some very real emotional coercion. What the event might have turned into we will never know because it is interrupted. But this event is a really strong example of emotional coercion and makes for a good discussion about enthusiastic consent. I would love to see church youth groups read and discuss this book together, I think it would make for a powerful discussion.

I found it interesting that this was presented to me as not a story about sexual violence, when it has many of the hallmarks including emotional manipulation (anger, threats), ignoring her no (he begins taking her bra off even though she has pulled away and expressed that she is not comfortable) and then, later, slut shaming. Because of the way Luke spins the story of what happened that night, Hallie becomes a victim of slut shaming in her youth group and in her home. Though culturally we are still very uncomfortable with female sexuality, this is magnified in the church to the nth degree, particularly when we discuss sex, sexuality, and sexual desires outside of marriage. Like most victims of slut shaming, Hallie goes through a journey of many emotions, including shame, doubt, self-blame, isolation and alienation, and a very understandable questioning of her faith.

In some ways this story reminds me of one of the storylines in Brutal Youth by Anthony Breznican. In the opening scene of BY a young man, hoping to cause a diversion away from a major event happening, runs up and grabs a teacher and kisses her. When the teacher tries to report that she has been the victim of sexual assault to the police they ridicule her, stating that it was merely a kiss and more important things are happening. In a culture that is still fuzzy on what constitutes “legitimate rape”, we do an even worse job of discussing other forms of sexual assault and coercion, which I maintain both of these stories provide examples of. When victims of rape come forward they still have an incredible problem getting the police to investigate the crimes against them, and we do an even worse job of talking about and protecting those who experience situations like those we see here in The Distance Between Lost and Found and Brutal Youth.

The other interesting thing we see happening is the power dynamics of the sexual abuse. Sexual coercion and sexual abuse are not only about sex, they are about power. And this is something Luke has. It’s something he knows will keep him safe. It’s something he knows he can use as a weapon not only to woo girls only to quickly discard them, but something he knows he can use to cover up his transgressions. These are the same power dynamics you see in the sport culture (see Canary by Rachele Alpine for example) and in books like the upcoming All the Rage by Courtney Summers and Every Last Promise by Kristin Hallbrook (both of which I highly recommend).

Sexual abuse in the church happens. It happens among teens in youth groups. It happens in the pulpits as youth pastors and Sunday school teachers and Priests use their power to abuse the people who trust them to not only guide their spiritual growth, but to keep them safe and guide them away from sin. One of the best books regarding this topic is The Gospel of Winter by Brendan Kiely, a book about the Catholic priest abuse scandal. But there are also elements of this in Faking Normal by Courtney C. Stevens.

The power that these perpetrators has comes not only from their position, but from our unwillingness to believe that these very people that we put our spiritual growth in the hands of are capable of this type of abuse. Surely that person is not capable of these things they have been accused of we think to ourselves, which is part of the reason why almost 30 women can come forward with claims of abuse against men like Bill Cosby and there are still people who think there is no possible way we should maybe, kind of believe that he is in fact capable of that which he has been accused of. And yet the truth is that it is people in positions of power who have not only the most opportunity to abuse, but have the most courage to abuse because they know that their position of power provides them protections that those without that power would have. With great power may come great responsibility, but it can also be said that with great power comes a greater temptation and ability to abuse that power. In the church and in popular culture we make people into idols and we hold onto those idols fiercely, even when they are destroying others around us.

Luke of course is not a pastor or a preacher or a teacher or a priest. He is a teenage boy. But he is, in fact, in a position of power. Even in high school and in church youth groups that proclaim love and acceptance for all there are hierarchies of power. Whatever our intentions may be inside the walls of our churches, we are still a group of fallible human beings gathered together. This is one of the things I loved most about The Distance Between Lost and Found, it highlighted so eloquently that struggle between our human nature and our desire born out of faith to be better. Holmes doesn’t shy away from the idea that even in a church youth group real world dynamics are at play and horrible things happen. These teens grapple with the very same things that non-churched teens grapple with in a high school setting, they just happen to be doing it while on a church camping trip. But these questions are universal: Who am I? What do I believe? What’s my place in this universe? Or in this group? Or in this moment?

Two of my college friends were raped in the church by their Sunday school teachers. Different friends, different churches, different experiences. But in both of these cases, just like in the public school, a person that was entrusted with their care and growth violated that trust in horrific ways. They abused their power. They altered the landscape of their lives, they changed the trajectory of their paths. Things happen in the church and in church youth groups. Sometimes they are indisputable, as my friend’s stories are. Sometimes there is more nuance, as I would argue The Distance Between Lost and Found presents us with. But it is a real reminder that even in our church youth groups, we need to be talking with our teens about what real consent is and what it isn’t. Sexual education makes adults uncomfortable. We don’t want teens to be having sex so we think if we don’t talk about sex with them then they won’t have sex. But the truth is, some teens have sex. All teens think about sex. Even teens who practice any of the various religions out there. The best thing we can do for our teens, even the teens in our churches, is to talk to them about healthy sex and consent. We are losing far too many of our young people to sexual violence, and sometimes that sexual violence is occurring in our churches.

For more on Faith and Spiritulaity in YA Lit, check out our discussion hub here.

For more on Sexual Violence and Teens in YA Lit, check out the #SVYALit Project index here.

The Distance Between Lost and Found, part 1: Wilderness Survival and Youth Group Culture (by Ally Watkins)

As part of the Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit: A Discussion project, librarian Ally Watkins and I decided we would read some of the same books and write tandem posts about them. With that goal in mind, we both recently read The Distance Between Lost and Found by Kathryn Holmes. Here are Ally’s thoughts and a little bit later today I will share mine.

In The Distance Between Lost and Found by Kathryn Holmes, Hallelujah Calhoun is tired. Tired of being silent, of the knowing glances, of not having any friends. But she can’t do anything about it. So she just pulls on her boots and goes on her youth trip, preparing for the same old same old. But the bullying is bad, even for what she’s used to. When she and new girl Rachel and former friend Jonah get separated from the group and lost in the mountains, the situation goes from bad to worse, and all of her secrets and words come out.

I was a youth group kid. Everyone was–I’m from the bible belt. My town of 7,000 people had 50 churches. I enjoyed going to church (I still do). My mom was on church staff when I was a kid, so I spent a lot of time at my childhood church. It was comforting and familiar for me.

But youth group? That’s an entirely different animal. I was SO involved in my youth group: I was in choir. I was on the drama team. I did Youth Ministry Council. I went to the special leadership conference and every time a bus pulled out of our youth house parking lot for a trip, I was on it. And in some ways, all of that was excellent for me. But it also made me privy to a lot of politics and inner workings that I didn’t fully understand until years later.

I’d like to go on record as saying that I never felt unsafe in my youth group. I went on dozens of mission trips and retreats and conferences, and no one that I know of was ever abused, physically or sexually, or even emotionally. I was never witness to relentless, life-ruining bullying. What I am saying is that I understand how these problems can develop. The environment fostered in youth groups can be alarmingly conducive to it.

But three weeks ago, Rich met with her parents. He told them he’d spoken with Luke’s dad and they both though Hallelujah had been absent from the youth group long enough. She needed to be brought back into the fold. Being with her youth group peers, under Rich’s supervision, would be good for her. It would help her move past the incident.

There can be a loss of agency in the type of fellowship that’s encouraged in a youth group. I say this as a person of faith who is still involved in a church. But I’m an adult now. I get to decide what’s community and what’s isolation and what’s smothering me.Teens go to school for 7-8 hours a day, they have to ask if they can even use the restroom, and then they go to church and all their choices are made for them again in the name of what “would be good” for them. This is why Hallie, especially in the beginning of the book, is exhausted. She has been run down. She’s tired and she’s silent. She’s forgotten that she has a voice, because her decisions have been made for her. The decisions to step away from the youth group, to come back, to go hiking. She doesn’t have agency over these choices and that just adds to her feelings of helplessness.

   …Hallelujah feels a familiar sense of shame settling over her. This is her fault.

Hallie comes back to shame a LOT in this story. She has internalized her experiences and it has manifested in complete lack of confidence in herself. She’s been eaten away by her shame.

Guilt and shame are recurring themes in many religions. What’s the most sad about that is that most of them, Christianity included, have forgiveness and freedom as focal points. Evangelical Christianity teaches that all sins can be forgiven and that believers don’t have to wallow in guilt and shame. And yet. There is plenty of shaming that goes on in churches and youth houses all the time. Family shame. Shame about economic status. Shame about sexual choices. Shame about clothing. Modesty culture could be an entirely different SERIES of posts, but suffice it to say that it is alive and well in the American Evangelical tradition and it sometimes goes hand in hand with its sly and more conniving stepsister, slut-shaming.

The thing about guilt and shame is that they are very adult emotions. I feel like I can safely say that many of us deal with guilt and shame about a wide variety of things on a daily basis. But here’s the thing: we’re grownups.  When we imbue children with the feeling that they should be inherently embarrassed of themselves or their behavior, purposefully or not, it messes with their brains. It forms pathways that tell them to be ashamed of themselves, they they’re intrinsically bad, and they they can’t be saved. This is actually the antithesis of the message of love and redemption that we say is our core belief in the church! This is one of the reasons why so many teenagers leave the church high school. Teenagers can smell hypocrisy. This isn’t news to anyone who knows them or works with them. But this kind of doublespeak makes them rage at the same time that it screws them up.

She wonders, suddenly, if her parents would have listened. Would listen now. She’s never once told them how bad things have gotten. In fact, she’s gone out of her way to keep them from finding out. […] Maybe they honestly can’t see what’s right in front of them–the current of misery just beneath the surface. Maybe they figured that since she hadn’t said she wasn’t okay, she was okay.

And here’s where it has to be said: the adults aren’t always the problem. Kids can and will be cruel, given the opportunity. There’s a special power structure that forms when any group of kids are thrown together. It’s there in school, and it’s definitely there in youth group. In a place where it’s almost (almost!) as if holiness can be quantified, there’s a constant undercurrent of competition in the air. Ministers and volunteers have favorites, just like all adults that work with kids/teens have favorites (we’re human). And Hallelujah Calhoun fell victim to this dynamic. She feels that her word would mean nothing compared Luke’s–a favorite of the adults–so she says nothing. And then she goes out of her way to keep her silence.  There are always things going on in groups of kids that adults don’t see. We don’t want to admit that, but we know it’s true.

Being a teenager in church is weird. You’re learning things and taking things in. You’re deciding what you believe. The way that you’ve learned things before is from your parents. But suddenly, you’re a teenager, and you don’t talk to your parents!  For example, my parents are great. They are entirely reasonable human beings. But when I was 16, the conversations we had were very limited. BECAUSE I WAS 16. I know now that if I had talked to them about some of the things that guest speakers or conference speakers or chaperones at youth camp had said to us about faith and our church culture, one or both of my parents would have stared at me in disbelief and then sat me down to discuss the issues. But I didn’t talk to them. Because when I was 16, I thought I could handle everything.  Like Hallie thinks she’s handling everything.

The end of Hallelujah’s story is exciting and I know she’ll be ok. The end of mine is this: I grew up. I learned that not all churches are the same and not all youth groups are the same and that my experience  was not the same as the experiences of some of my friends in the same youth group.

Please hear me that I am absolutely not saying that youth groups are evil. So much time and love was poured into my life by adults when I was a teen and I treasure that. I just want to say that all of us that work with kids–librarians, authors, teachers, youth ministers, church staff, chaperones, volunteers–we have a responsibility to kids. We have to constantly do better, to love better, to provide better. We have to listen and be aware of what’s going on. We have to make sure kids like Hallelujah Calhoun are shown grace and love instead of being allowed to suffer silently. And that’s why books like The Distance Between Lost and Found are so important–they shine a light on places that aren’t pretty.

Publisher’s Book Description:

Ever since the night of the incident with Luke Willis, the preacher’s son, sophomore Hallelujah Calhoun has been silent. When the rumors swirled around school, she was silent. When her parents grounded her, she was silent. When her friends abandoned her … silent.

Now, six months later, on a youth group retreat in the Smoky Mountains, Hallie still can’t find a voice to answer the taunting. Shame and embarrassment haunt her, while Luke keeps coming up with new ways to humiliate her. Not even meeting Rachel, an outgoing newcomer who isn’t aware of her past, can pull Hallie out of her shell. Being on the defensive for so long has left her raw, and she doesn’t know who to trust.

On a group hike, the incessant bullying pushes Hallie to her limit. When Hallie, Rachel, and Hallie’s former friend Jonah get separated from the rest of the group, the situation quickly turns dire. Stranded in the wilderness, the three have no choice but to band together.

With past betrayals and harrowing obstacles in their way, Hallie fears they’ll never reach safety. Could speaking up about the night that changed everything close the distance between being lost and found? Or has she traveled too far to come back?

The Distance Between Lost and Found by Kathryn Holmes. Published February 17, 2015 by HarperTeen. ISBN: 9780062317261

Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit: GLBTQ YA and Issues of Faith, a guest post by Robert Bittner

Writing about spirituality is a really complex thing and includes myriad ways of looking at the world and at institutions that purport to nurture the spiritual lives of youth, since we’re getting specific. My own history within institutionalized Protestant Christianity left me feeling marginalized, especially due to my identity as a young gay man (though not out at the time, at least not to my youth group friends.) Institutionalized religion is—rather unfortunately, as far as I’m concerned—guilty of creating an environment of conflict and self-hatred within the LGBTQ community, and in my early teens, there was little support for queer Christians available. Now there are fantastic organizations available for teens to find a space of freedom and acceptance within Christian communities (Gay Christian Network is one very prominent example.) But I digress. This is supposed to be about books, after all!

When it comes to LGBTQ literature for youth (referred to as Queer YA from here on), there has been a history similar to that discussed briefly above in relation to queer individuals in the church. In early Queer YA, Christianity was treated as the enemy, often in the form of stereotypical preachers screaming about fire and brimstone, or in the form of conservative congregations refusing to allow queer individuals to attend Sunday morning services. More recently, queerness within Christianity has been dealt with through various takes on the degayification camp. These are camps in which young people are supposed to learn how to be straight again (The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Thinking Straight, Caught in the Crossfire.) The other consistent plot point throughout almost all YA with queer Christian themes is the engagement of a protagonist in debate with an anti-gay (often religious) character, during which biblical scriptures are tossed back and forth in an effort to prove that homosexuality is or is not okay in the eyes of God, Jehovah, or whatever omnipotent being is under scrutiny within the novel.

In an effort to understand more popular views on queer Christianity through YA publishing, I used the topic of Queer YA with Christian themes as the focal point for my MA thesis in Children’s Literature. I studied three books (though I wish I had been able to include more recent books, like Cameron Post and Caught in the Crossfire) in order to get a better understanding of trends within these books: Thinking Straight, The God Box, and Nothing Pink. These three novels featured gay male characters (at the time, I had to keep things simple, for brevity, but I wish I could have included more female protagonists), and had some element of Christianity that affected the protagonist’s identity as a queer individual. In the end, I was able to find two main types: Novels of abandonment and novels of reconciliation.

Novels of reconciliation are those in which the protagonist was able to find a way to make their queerness fit within the framework of Christianity, which novels of abandonment often rely on a rhetoric in which Christianity is a polar opposite to queer identity and the two can never be a part of one single identity construct. Both of these are interesting perspectives, of course, but the most damaging, I feel, is the one that does not allow, in any way, for queerness and Christianity to coexist, and the reason I feel this is harmful is because it makes Christianity the enemy, which, while often shown as such in the media, is not always the case, and also because queerness is then seen as superior simply because of its status as not Christian.

I believe the exclusion, or the either/or nature of the novel of abandonment creates an unhelpful dichotomy between those who are queer and those who are Christian (or, in some ways, spiritual in any sense of the word). Unfortunately, there are few novels with the subtlety to create an identity that is both queer and Christian. The conclusion I came to through my research was the need for novels in which teens are allowed to develop their own individual (queer) theologies.

Queer characters in YA literature exemplify the struggle of youth against social institutions, in this case, they transgress the boundaries of the conservative, American Protestant church.  Roberta Trites perhaps says it best in Disturbing the Universe: “The chief characteristic that distinguishes adolescent literature from children’s literature is the issue of how social power is deployed during the course of the narrative” (2). In Queer YA literature, the social powers are sometimes those of a political or religious nature that are deployed in such a way as to deny the character his or her ability to develop a sexual identity with which to be comfortable. Often, “a major developmental crisis can occur when gay and lesbian adolescents attempt to establish an identity in a society that devalues their sexual orientation” (Vare and Norton 190).

Family, socio-political ideology, Christian institutions and dogma, and current events all play very influential roles in the lives of queer teens as they attempt to create personal identities in a rapidly changing world. The difficulty for most queer youth is the expectation of conforming to the heteronormative assumptions displayed so prominently in much of daily life, in family relationship dynamics, in Christian dogma, and in ideologies of advertising and pop culture such as film, television, and music. Many teens become frustrated because of the ways in which they differ from the hegemonic expectations surrounding them. Nothing Pink, The God Box, and Thinking Straight show this clearly within their narratives and in the process each protagonist undergoes to accept a queer (Christian) identity through the erasure of heteronormative and religious boundaries.

All of the main characters display their transgression and reclamation of Christianity through an interrogation of scripture—what Patrick Cheng (2011) refers to as talking about, and talking to God—and with specific dogma set forth by churches and Christian ministries within the texts.  Each character confronts the “clobber passages” that right-wing conservatives (often under the guise of Christian proselytizing) use to claim homosexuality as morally reprehensible. What I would love to see more of in Queer YA with Christian sub-plots, is the ability of characters to reimagine their spirituality—their faith—in ways which incorporate gender and sexual identities, instead of feeling the need to abandon all religious and spiritual components of their identities as opposed to abandoning all faith and spirituality.

I hope this very brief look at issues related to spirituality and religion in Queer YA helps to broaden and enhance future readings of similar YA literature. I think there’s a lot of room for improvement even as there are more novels available now than were available in my youth.

Meet our Guest blogger:

Rob Bittner is a PhD candidate in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University, and he has a history of working with children’s and YA literature in various contexts, including his MA degree and various award committees through the American Library Association. I love queer lit and I especially love when it engages with topics that are “out of the ordinary.”

For more on Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit check out our series index/hub

Publisher’s Book Descriptions of Books Discussed

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth

When Cameron Post’s parents die suddenly in a car crash, her shocking first thought is relief. Relief they’ll never know that, hours earlier, she had been kissing a girl.

But that relief doesn’t last, and Cam is soon forced to move in with her conservative aunt Ruth and her well-intentioned but hopelessly old-fashioned grandmother. She knows that from this point on, her life will forever be different. Survival in Miles City, Montana, means blending in and leaving well enough alone (as her grandmother might say), and Cam becomes an expert at both.

Then Coley Taylor moves to town. Beautiful, pickup-driving Coley is a perfect cowgirl with the perfect boyfriend to match. She and Cam forge an unexpected and intense friendship–one that seems to leave room for something more to emerge. But just as that starts to seem like a real possibility, ultrareligious Aunt Ruth takes drastic action to “fix” her niece, bringing Cam face-to-face with the cost of denying her true self–even if she’s not exactly sure who that is.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a stunning and unforgettable literary debut about discovering who you are and finding the courage to live life according to your own rules.

Thinking Straight by Robin Reardon

When he is shipped off to Straight to God, an institution devoted to ”deprogramming” troubled teenagers, Taylor Adams learns valuable lessons in love, courage, rebellion, and betrayal in a place where piety is a mask for cruelty and the greatest crimes go.

Caught in the Crossfire by Alan Gibbons

Set in a northern town where right-wingers are determined to stir up hatred and racial prejudice, six teenagers’ lives are woven together by a series of shocking and tragic events. A British Muslim brother and sister, two Irish brothers who take different sides, and two lads out looking for trouble: all of them get caught in the crossfire. Inspired by the Oldham riots and the events of September 11th, this is a chilling account of current events in Britain, but written with humor and understanding.

The God Box by Alex Sanchez

How could I choose betwen my sexuality and my spirituality, two of the most important parts that made me whole?

High school senior Paul has dated Angie since middle school, and they’re good together. They have a lot of the same interests, like singing in their church choir and being active in Bible club. But when Manuel transfers to their school, Paul has to rethink his life. Manuel is the first openly gay teen anyone in their small town has ever met, and yet he says he’s also a committed Christian. Talking to Manuel makes Paul reconsider thoughts he has kept hidden, and listening to Manuel’s interpretation of Biblical passages on homosexuality causes Paul to reevaluate everything he believed. Manuel’s outspokenness triggers dramatic consequences at school, culminating in a terrifying situation that leads Paul to take a stand.

Lambda Literary Award-winning author Alex Sanchez tackles a subject ripped from the headlines in this exciting and thought-provoking exploration of what it means to be both religious and gay.

#FSYALit Discussion Index/Hub

It began as a casual conversation over Twitter, but YA Librarian Ally Watkins and I decided that we really wanted to explore and discuss issues of faith and the spiritual lives of teens in YA literature, thus the #FSYALit Project was born. And as part of our initial research we found some interesting background information:

“When discussing the spiritual lives of teens the Barna Group notes that, “Teenagers are consistently among the most religiously active Americans, with nearly 6 out of every 10 teens engaged in some type of group spiritual activity in a typical week.” But having a spiritual life does not automatically translate to evangelical Christian. For example, 1% of the U.S. population is Muslim, another 1% is Buddhist and around 2% are Jewish. 16% are unsure or identify as Atheist. (Source: Pew Research Statistics on Religious and Public Life Project ; Child Trends Research Brief on Spirituality and Religiosity Among Youth)”

We want to talk about the spiritual lives of teens in YA lit in a meaningful way and compile a good list of resources for those who love, work with, or serve teens, but we can’t do it alone. You can join the discussion. Whether it be sharing your thoughts on a book or compiling a list, we hope that you’ll join us in this discussion.

Project Goals:

  • To facilitate a discussion about the ways various faiths are (or are not) represented in YA literature.
  • To examine specific titles and create lists of titles that those wanting to look for titles with diverse representations of faith can add to their collections (or buy for the teens in their lives)
  • To include a wide variety of voices on the topic of the spiritual lives of teens in YA literature

Posts:

Resources:

Including additional book lists, discussions and more – a resource list in progress.

Agnosticism and Atheism

Buddhism

Catholic Fiction

Hinduism in YA Lit
Judaism in YA Lit
Mormon Representation in YA Lit
Muslim Representation in YA Lit
Protestant Fiction
We need your help building our resource guide! Have a book list or blog post you want to see included? Please email us a link at kjensenmls at yahoo dot com.

Sunday Reflections: A Road Trip, A Book Festival and a Teachable Moment

We  have entered a new and glorious era in my home – The Tween is now reading YA. And the best part is now I get to take her with me to all the book festivals I go to and she enjoys it. I love getting to share these moments with her. I love how the two things I love, my kids and librarianship, come together in these glorious moments. So yesterday we went to YAKFEST 2015 in Keller, Texas.

This road trip began and ended as all good road trips to: with loud music, stupid dancing, great stories, and laughter in the car. We brought along the Bestie, who is now on her 3rd book festival and seems to love it as well. I believe I am raising a book lover and my heart swells with pride as our memory book is filled with these moments.

There were lots of highlights to this book festival, but our two favorites were hand down Tim Tingle and Matt de la Pena. Tim Tingle got up and did some good old fashioned storytelling. Because they are 12, the girls kind of snickered when they heard his name. But in the end they learned a very valuable lesson because they were blown away by his storytelling which was full of humor and pathos and awe and wonder. He told a story about his own roa dtrip with a friend who sadly had passed away at the end of last year. In this road trip they were saved by a fox in the road. He spoke about honoring that fox that had saved their lives on that road trip, about a No Weep Tree where he honored his buried pets, of a flood that almost took his home (and collection of John Steinbeck first editions), and of being visited by his father’s ghost. It was moving and beautiful.

Meeting author Lindsay Cummings at YAKFest 2015

Then Matt de la Pena got up to speak and as a mother and advocate for kids in low income homes, I was moved by Matt’s personal story of how he almost didn’t graduate high school. Of how for him college didn’t seem an option because he knew his family couldn’t pay for it. Of how he got a scholarship and was amazed by the doors that were open to him, suddenly his future was in his hands, choices were open to him that he didn’t know he had. And of course in the midst of it all he talked about falling in love, writing bad poetry, and learning to love reading.

So after this day of authors and panels and standing in lines to get books signed, we got back in our car for the road trip home. The radio was turned back on and we flipped the dial to find the best songs for rocking out and singing along. During one scan we landed on a Christian station to a song the girls knew. They began to sing-a- long but then The Tween stopped and asked me, “Do they have Jewish songs on Jewish radio station?” And the Bestie asked, “Or Hindu or Buddhist?”

Meeting author Victoria Scott at YAKFest 2015

Suddenly my life was imitating my blog as we started to talk about religions that were different than our own.  And the conversation turned to the Holocaust, mostly because this past weeks the girls started a unit on the Holocaust in their social studies classes. And it reminded me of some of the behind the scenes conversations we have been having with some of the various authors who are working on guest posts about Judaism in YA lit. One of their concerns is how Judaism seems to be almost limited to Holocaust fiction in much the same way that the African American experience in YA lit often gets boxed into historical fiction on slavery or the Civil Rights movement as if there aren’t other stories to be told.

I’ve been learning so much in planning and organizing the discussion on the Spiritual Lives of Teens in YA Literature and in this moment I had knowledge and perspective that I didn’t have before that I could share with these girls whose hearts were open. So we turned off the radio and talked about what they were learning in school and I reminded them that yes probably some of their friends practiced a faith different than their own, and that some of them had no faith at all. The Tween is actually very used to the concept of Atheism because one of my very best friends in life is an Atheist and we have talked about what that means and how to respect that belief when talking to our friend.

Last year, because I hadn’t yet had all the discussions that I have been having about the spiritual lives of teens, I would not have had answers to some of their questions. I wouldn’t have tapped into the hearts of these generous people who have agreed to share their lives and heart and faith with me and I would not have been able to share that with these girls. My own personal teachable moment spilled over into a teachable moment for these girls questioning a world with diverse faiths, which is exactly why Ally and I decided to have this discussion. I just didn’t know that a song on the radio would spark it, but that’s how teachable moments work. That’s why we need diverse literature, because every moment can be a teachable moment, that’s the power of story to help us peek into lives different than our own and build community.

YA Librarians Ally Watkins and Karen Jensen talk the spiritual lives of teens in YA lit, part 1

Karen Jensen:

A long time ago (sometime in December) in a galaxy far, far away (erm, not so much), two librarians met on Twitter asking a simple question: Why isn’t there more discussion about the spiritual lives of teens in YA literature? You see, Ally Watkins (more about her in a moment) and I couldn’t help but notice that although a great many of our teens (recent stats indicate 6 out of 10 teens are engaged in some type of weekly spiritual activity) go to some type of religious service or event, this is not the case in YA literature. There are, of course, exceptions. For example, in FAKING NORMAL by Courtney C. Stevens the teens discuss their faith and even go to church. In the upcoming EVERY LAST PROMISE by Kristin Halbrook the teens discuss their faith, with one teen even mentioning that another person goes to church but isn’t sure what they believe, which is a pretty accurate representation especially for this age group. In BURNING NATION by Trent Reedy, groups of people stop and pray in the midst of some difficult situations. These books are not about faith, but they integrate the faith of their main characters into the text in the same ways that many teens integrate their faith or faith quest into their daily living.

But by and large, there isn’t a lot of discussion of faith, especially if you move outside the realm of the evangelical Protestant faith. How, for example, we wondered is the Muslim faith represented in YA literature? What about Buddhism? Hinduism? Mormonism? Judaism? But these questions are bigger than Ally and I, in part because we don’t feel able to discuss faith representations outside of our own in any meaningful way. But have no fear, we have been in contact with some cool people who are joining the conversation. We’ll be hearing from them soon and throughout the year.

In this big push for diversity in YA lit, a good and necessary push, we would love to see a push for a better representation of the spiritual lives of teens in YA lit. I understand the hesitation, faith, religion and spirituality is deeply personal and varied. The topic of faith can be controversial, the basic premise of some faiths are the belief that they are right which makes everyone else wrong, which is a hard place to start from when trying to promote love and acceptance. But I remember being a youth ministry major at my conservative Christian college and thinking how much we would all benefit from understanding some of the basic tenets of faiths different than our own. And I wondered, for example, as I read last year’s LIKE NO OTHER by Una LaMarche if it was an accurate representation of that faith that I could/should add to my collection or if it was somehow flawed in it’s understanding of the Judaic faith which would be problematic. I don’t want materials in my collection that misrepresent or stereotype people of any faith anymore than I want materials that misrepresent or stereotype people of color or people on the spectrum or people with some type of disability. I want books with rich, fully developed characters and spiritual lives that expands my world view, but I don’t always know what to look for when making those evaluations any more than I know if the representation of epilepsy in 100 SIDWAYS MILES by Andrew Smith is accurate or harmful. That’s why we need to have conversations. Dialogue is good.

One of the things I really liked about LIKE NO OTHER was the way the main female character, Devorah, struggled with her religion and her family’s seeming view on women (they did not support college education for women) and how she tried to hold on to the basic tenants of her faith while also trying to assert her worth as a woman and her desire to get an education. As a feminist and a Christian, which depending on your denomination doesn’t always go together well, I completely understood this wrestling of dueling belief sets. I have sat through sermons where I have been told that I am worth so much less than a man and felt the heartache of rejection as I realized that some of the foundational beliefs of my faith were openly hostile towards me. But as I grew I learned that there were other churches that more openly embraced the idea that all people were created equal by a loving God who wanted the best for His children. I learned that the church you grow up in, the church of your parents, doesn’t necessarily have to be your church. Just as Devorah learns that there are nuances to her faith, I learned that there are nuances to mine. Don’t get me wrong, I still wondered about the accuracy of the faith as presented in LIKE NO OTHER, and it’s possible that someone is going to discuss that with us as part of this series because apparently it is not, but I completely identified with the faith struggle that Devorah goes through even though we are talking about different faiths. That is the beauty of story, it shows how we can be alike even when we may seem so different, it opens doors of understanding and weaves us together in our journeys.

Teens have spiritual lives. They ask big questions. They seek out answers and are trying to find out who they are and what they believe. Some teens go to church or synagogue or temple with their families and are strong adherents of that faith, some are questioning their faith, some will abandon it all together. Your faith, or choosing no faith, can inform who you are and what decisions you make. It seems like we are doing a disservice to teen readers by neglecting this part of their lives all together in the literature we write for them (or collect for them). This series will, we hope, help us discuss these issues more so that we can make sure that when we are buying books to put on our shelves, we’re also making sure that we have some good, authentic religious diversity on those shelves as well.

Ally Watkins:

Hi.

I’m a person of faith. It’s an integral part of me.

When I was a teenager, I was a person of faith. I was just learning how to be. And I was passionate about it. It was a way for me to explore who I was and who I was becoming, and it was and continues to be a way for me to grapple with the world around me.

One of Karen’s recent posts said that a study shows that 6 out of 10 teenagers claim some sort of faith or spirituality. When you’re a teenager, you’re figuring out who you are. You’re figuring out your identity, your sexuality, your preferences, your personality, and you’re figuring out what your religious life is going to look like or not look like.

That’s why I think it’s so important to look at what at faith and spirituality look like in the books that teens are reading. Are they seeing themselves reflected? Is it positive? Negative? Is it there at all?

I serve teens in the Deep South. Religion is a big part of life here. There are many kids that use my library who are in church or temple or synagogue or mosque three or four times a week.  And a lot of times, they’re not seeing that lifestyle reflected in what they’re reading. Like any other group of teens, religious teens deserve to be represented. The good, the bad, and the ugly. We’re hoping this series helps to shine a light on what that looks like across a wide swath of YA. We want this to be a discussion. We want you to tell us what you think, and what your teens think. We want to know why this is important to you. So let us know what you’re thinking, and if there are books you think we should read and talk about, be sure to tell us that, too.

Watch this space for reviews and discussion. We hope you’re as excited as we are.

Meet Ally Watkins, MLIS

I’m a youth services librarian in the metro Jackson, Mississippi area. I supervise a staff of 2 and the three of us provide services to kids from birth-18 at a midsized suburban library. On a typical day, I might be doing toddler storytimes, ordering materials for middle graders, or facilitating teen book club! I’ve worked in libraries for 5 and a half year. My reading habits are voracious, but I can stop anytime I want, really. (Guarantee: any time you’re reading this, I’ll have at least 2 books on my person.)  My favorite author is Melina Marchetta, and if she called me and asked me to be her friend, I would quit my job and move to Australia tomorrow. You can follow Ally on Twitter.
Previous posts on Faith and Spirituality and Teens:
Cause You Gotta Have Faith, part 2 (includes a book list)
And no, I really couldn’t think of a better title for this post. Sometimes titles are hard. 🙂

The Spiritual Lives of Teens in YA Lit, a discussion

As often happens, I got into the best conversation on Twitter with fellow librarian Ally Watkins. This one began while we were both reading No Parking at the End Times by Bryan Bliss, which is the story of a family that sells all of their possessions in anticipation of the return of Jesus. So we started discussing the lack of spiritual representation in YA literature. Not the big end time novels, but even those subtle references to the fact that many teens go to church regularly (whether or not it is of their own accord is another discussion). But the truth is, there are a portion of teens who do regularly attend some type of church or faith service. And almost all teens will wrestle with the big faith questions as some time in their life, particularly in the teen years which is a big period for identity exploration and questioning.

 

So Ally and I decided we were going to do a series about faith in YA literature. We wanted to read with the idea that we wanted to explore how often and where faith is explored in YA literature. We also want to read some specific titles (which we outline below) and see how that discussion is handled. We hope that you will join us as we read and talk about faith and spirituality in YA literature. We don’t have a set schedule, we’re just going to be talking about it throughout the year. If you have some title recommendations, please leave a comment for us. We want to make sure we talk about the diversity of spiritual lives out there. And if you would like to join the conversation by sharing a guest post or book review, please email me at kjensenmls at yahoo dot com. I can share with you that author Bryan Bliss (No Parking at the End Times) will be doing a guest post in late January/early February as part of this series.

 

Meet Ally Watkins, MLIS
I’m a youth services librarian in the metro Jackson, Mississippi area. I supervise a staff of 2 and the three of us provide services to kids from birth-18 at a midsized suburban library. On a typical day, I might be doing toddler storytimes, ordering materials for middle graders, or facilitating teen book club! I’ve worked in libraries for 5 and a half year. My reading habits are voracious, but I can stop anytime I want, really. (Guarantee: any time you’re reading this, I’ll have at least 2 books on my person.)  My favorite author is Melina Marchetta, and if she called me and asked me to be her friend, I would quit my job and move to Australia tomorrow. You can follow Ally on Twitter.
Some of the books we will be reading and talking about include:

 

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.

 

Vivian Apple at the End of the World by Katie Coyle
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.(January 6th 2015 by HMH Books for Young Readers)
Dark Metropolis by Jacyln Dolamore
Cabaretmeets 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. (2014)

 

The Devil You Know by Trish Doller
Eighteen-year-old Arcadia wants adventure. Living in a tiny Florida town with her dad and four-year-old brother, Cadie spends most of her time working, going to school, and taking care of her family. So when she meets two handsome cousins at a campfire party, she finally has a chance for fun. They invite her and friend to join them on a road trip, and it’s just the risk she’s been craving-the opportunity to escape. But what starts out as a fun, sexy journey quickly becomes dangerous when she discovers that one of them is not at all who he claims to be. One of them has deadly intentions.A road trip fling turns terrifying in this contemporary story that will keep readers on the edge of their seats. (June 2nd 2015 by Bloomsbury USA Childrens)
Every Last Promise by Kristin Halbrook
Perfect for fans of Laurie Halse Anderson and Gayle Forman, Every Last Promiseis a provocative and emotional novel about a girl who must decide between keeping quiet and speaking up after witnessing a classmate’s sexual assault.Kayla saw something at the party that she wasn’t supposed to. But she hasn’t told anyone. No one knows the real story about what happened that night—about why Kayla was driving the car that ran into a ditch after the party, about what she saw in the hours leading up to the accident, and about the promise she made to her friend Bean before she left for the summer.Now Kayla’s coming home for her senior year. If Kayla keeps quiet, she might be able to get her old life back. If she tells the truth, she risks losing everything—and everyone—she ever cared about. (April 21st 2015 by HarperTeen )

 

The Distance Between Lost and Found by Kathryn Holmes

Ever since the night of the incident with Luke Willis, the preacher’s son, sophomore Hallelujah Calhoun has been silent. When the rumors swirled around school, she was silent. When her parents grounded her, she was silent. When her friends abandoned her … silent.Now, six months later, on a youth group retreat in the Smoky Mountains, Hallie still can’t find a voice to answer the taunting. Shame and embarrassment haunt her, while Luke keeps coming up with new ways to humiliate her. Not even meeting Rachel, an outgoing newcomer who isn’t aware of her past, can pull Hallie out of her shell. Being on the defensive for so long has left her raw, and she doesn’t know who to trust.On a group hike, the incessant bullying pushes Hallie to her limit. When Hallie, Rachel, and Hallie’s former friend Jonah get separated from the rest of the group, the situation quickly turns dire. Stranded in the wilderness, the three have no choice but to band together.With past betrayals and harrowing obstacles in their way, Hallie fears they’ll never reach safety. Could speaking up about the night that changed everything close the distance between being lost and found? Or has she traveled too far to come back? (February 17th 2015 by HarperTeen )

 

Rumble by Ellen Hopkins

Can an atheist be saved? The New York Times bestselling author of Crank and Tricks explores the highly charged landscapes of faith and forgiveness with brilliant sensitivity and emotional resonance.“There is no God, no benevolent ruler of the earth, no omnipotent grand poobah of countless universes. Because if there was…my little brother would still be fishing or playing basketball instead of fertilizing cemetery vegetation.”

Matthew Turner doesn’t have faith in anything.

Not in family—his is a shambles after his younger brother was bullied into suicide. Not in so-called friends who turn their backs when things get tough. Not in some all-powerful creator who lets too much bad stuff happen. And certainly not in some “It Gets Better” psychobabble.

No matter what his girlfriend Hayden says about faith and forgiveness, there’s no way Matt’s letting go of blame. He’s decided to “live large and go out with a huge bang,” and whatever happens happens. But when a horrific event plunges Matt into a dark, silent place, he hears a rumble…a rumble that wakes him up, calling everything he’s ever disbelieved into question. (2014)

Like No Other by Una LaMarche

Fate brought them together. Will life tear them apart? Devorah is a consummate good girl who has never challenged the ways of her strict Hasidic upbringing.Jaxon is a fun-loving, book-smart nerd who has never been comfortable around girls (unless you count his four younger sisters).They’ve spent their entire lives in Brooklyn, on opposite sides of the same street. Their paths never crossed . . . until one day, they did.When a hurricane strikes the Northeast, the pair becomes stranded in an elevator together, where fate leaves them no choice but to make an otherwise risky connection.Though their relation is strictly forbidden, Devorah and Jax arrange secret meetings and risk everything to be together. But how far can they go? Just how much are they willing to give up?In the timeless tradition of West Side Story and Crossing Delancey, this thoroughly modern take on romance will inspire laughter, tears, and the belief that love can happen when and where you least expect it. (2014)

 

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes

When seventeen-year-old Minnow stumbles out of the woods one winter morning, she is haunted and handless and covered in someone else’s blood. She has just escaped the strict religious commune run by a cruel man named the Prophet. In exchange for freedom, she leaves behind her family, her home, and Jude–an outsider boy who changed everything.

But the real world isn’t the sanctuary Minnow imagined. Soon, she gets arrested and placed in juvenile detention. Now, Minnow is being questioned by an FBI psychiatrist about the night she escaped, the same night the Prophet was burned to death in his own home—a murder Minnow may be responsible for.

A modern retelling of the Grimm fairy tale, “The Handless Maiden,” in which the Devil orders a girl’s hands cut off, The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly is the story of a girl growing out of the wreckage of corrupted faith. (June 9th 2015 by Dial/Penguin)

 

Faking Normal by Courtney C. Stevens
An edgy, realistic, and utterly captivating novel from an exciting new voice in teen fiction.
Alexi Littrell hasn’t told anyone what happened to her over the summer. Ashamed and embarrassed, she hides in her closet and compulsively scratches the back of her neck, trying to make the outside hurt more than the inside does.When Bodee Lennox, the quiet and awkward boy next door, comes to live with the Littrells, Alexi discovers an unlikely friend in “the Kool-Aid Kid,” who has secrets of his own. As they lean on each other for support, Alexi gives him the strength to deal with his past, and Bodee helps her find the courage to finally face the truth.A searing, poignant book, Faking Normal is the extraordinary debut novel from an exciting new author-Courtney C. Stevens. (2014)
Previous posts on Faith and Spirituality and Teens:

All book descriptions are from the publisher

It’s a Mystery, how to find mysteries with an inspriational message

When young mystery lovers plow through Ladd Family Adventure Series and the Boxcar Children, it becomes harder to find appealing books in the genre without a dark mix of violence, sex and the occult.

Some Christian authors, however, are striving to fill that void through mysteries that delicately weave biblical principles into the plot. Among them is Virginia Ann Work, author of the Jodi Fisher Mysteries, and Robert Elmer, author of The Adventures Down Under series.
Work’s book, The Mystery of the Missing Message, is the tale of Jodi Fischer and her friend Lexie Marshal, who find a missing wallet and baby’s sock while riding their horses. They also discover a mysterious cabin they would have thought was deserted — if not for the sound of a footstep inside.
Jodi’s mom and dad are missionaries to the Indians in Canada, which lends itself easily to sharing biblical principles.

Work also has written The Secret in the Silver Box, another story about the adventures of Jodi and her friend Lexie, this one involving an old prospector and his silver box in Central British Columbia.
Elmer kicks off his series about Australia with Escape to Murray River, a gripping tale targeting middle-grade readers. It’s appeal is wider. I’m the parent of a teen and I could hardly put it down! Although the main character, Patrick, is 12, readers easily can identify with his mom or older sister Becky, 14.
In this book, Patrick’s father is framed for a crime he did not commit and sentenced to 10 years in an Australian prison. Unbeknownst to him, his family follows, only to learn he has escaped to elude the man responsible for his imprisonment. The book is captivating to the very last page. I didn’t want it to end yet!
Two more series Christian teens may find interesting are the Jenny McGrady Mystery series by Patricia Rushford and the Casey and the Classifieds series by Tracy Groot.
The Jenny McGrady series starts with Too Many Secrets, a tale about the disappearance of Jenny’s grandmother along with a million dollars worth of stolen diamonds.
Casey and the Classifieds for 10 to 14 year olds includes The Mystery of the Stolen Statue and The Mystery of the Forgotten Fortune.
The Swipe Series, by Evan Angler, is a dystopian series that looks at Christian beliefs about getting “the mark”.  Set in a future North America, every person is required the mark at 13 and you must swipe the mark for everything, from getting food to transportation.  But what happens if you refuse to get the mark?

As the mother of a 14-year-old boy, I’ve begun writing a series aimed at preteens and teens called Bible Camp Mysteries. The series, in digital format, is about a community church and its youths’ adventures in the Florida backwoods.
The first book in the series, Lost in the Woods: A Bible Camp Mystery is about 13-year-old Zack, who disappears in the middle of the night during the group’s back-to-nature retreat.
In the story, the group of inexperienced campers experience no-see-ums at dusk, an illness that strikes more than half of the campers and an impending hurricane that takes an unexpected turn in their direction.
Readers learn along with Zack how important it is to be obedient and do what God says. More importantly, they learn through Zack’s example the biblical path of salvation.


About the writer: A former newspaper reporter who came to know the Lord as an adult, Cheryl Rogers publishes the New Christian Books Online Magazine, which includes new book announcements and excerpts. She writes both fiction and nonfiction for varying age groups. For the teen market, she has written Lost in the Woods: A Bible Camp Mystery, Just Like Jonah Wail Tales, a short story collection featuring modern Jonahs, and Fast Track to Victory, A Christian Guidebook, a book with 40 devotions teaching how to truly love and forgive others, why it’s important to set aside pride, how to deal with tragedy and death and more.
Contact her at:
LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=51864408&trk=tab_pro