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On Death, Dying, and Faith in YA Fiction, a guest post by Tara K. Ross

When I was in high school, I wanted to be a doctor. It was an obsession. I voluntarily chose to study over going to parties, ditched shopping with friends to save for tuition and even broke off more than a few relationships. It became an all-encompassing mission. 

Surprise, surprise, the doctor thing never happened. It wasn’t until I sat down to answer the essay questions on the med school application forms that I realized my desire for the Dr. title was only a small part benevolent and a rather large part selfish and fearful.

I thought if I could learn everything there was to know about death and dying, I could live longer, cheat death…at least for a little while, and pretend to be a tiny bit like God. I was petrified of dying and was willing to do anything to keep it from happening. But, those motivations were not going to make me a very good doctor. I needed a different way to tame my fears.  

We’re only here on earth for a flash of time. No one truly knows what happens after the lights go out or the bright light appears. And that’s freaky! It’s a coming of age question that most of us brush against – whether it’s a loved one dying, a global tragedy, or reaching a place in our own life where death seems more appealing than living. When this happens, we begin to ask more questions. When will it happen? Will I still exist somehow? Will the afterlife be better than this? Does any of this matter if we will all be forgotten?

For me, those questions began haunting me in high school. While many teens grappled with bullying, self-esteem, racism, abuse, or betrayal, I only really had to mull over death. My teen years were, from the outside, rather ideal. But somehow, I still managed to create a fear monster out of nothing. That monster became an all-encompassing ticking time bomb that halted my ability to make every day decisions. I never shared my internal woes with anyone. What did I have to feel scared about? Wasn’t my life perfect? No one would care.

Here is the part that really sucked about being in this existential crisis as a teen: no one talked about it. Myself included. Everyone presented their best selfie side, and distracted themselves with their choice of self-medication: sports, academics, social media, video games, binge eating or puking, substance use, addiction, self-harm. Some took the high road and got professional help, but they never shared about it publicly. Only as slightly-more-adjusted adults have we managed to open up about how overwhelmed and afraid we were and honestly, continue to be.

As teens and young adults, we didn’t know what a messed up mental state could look like. We didn’t know that it could lead to generalized anxiety, panic attacks, depression or even suicidal thoughts. It wasn’t part of our health units or a frequent feature in magazines (yup, this was before blog culture or YouTube channels).      

So, I handled it the best way I could through my aforementioned obsession with academic perfection. As a break from cram sessions, also came a passion for escaping into books. When I found stories that tackled the same questions I couldn’t silence, I found company in the confusion.

I read widely. From nonfiction philosophers, like Robert Fulgum and The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff, to The Diary of Ann Frank and C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain. Knowing that literary greats struggled with these same questions was comforting, but in many ways, it made me feel even more pathetic. These were people who had lived through extreme hardship. They had a right to question life and death. I was just an average suburbanite teen from a nuclear family, who shouldn’t need to waste her life in worry. 

I kept searching. I wanted to read about someone living through these questions who was like me. Average.

This is when I turned to fiction and young adult stories. Stories written for me and my qualms. I didn’t understand completely in the moment, but it really was like hitting a psychological jackpot—ordinary people asking extraordinary questions within their ordinary lives.  It was me on the page. In a way, I found my own personalized self-help group. But each teen’s self-help group will look different  from my own.

The questions we ask will vary and the answers we seek will require diverse literary experiences. Some readers resonate with characters who share their culture or race, for others it’s the journey toward identity and acceptance. Sometimes, it’s a personal hardship or diagnosis they connect with, or a quest for purpose and meaning beyond themselves. For me, I went searching for stories of death, dying and faith in the great unknown. I know, a little depressing. But the outcome was life-changing. I found that I wasn’t alone. The books themselves, helped me to live beyond the stories on the page. I began to feel less afraid.

I continued to read and my search for stories changed from “what if” questions to “now what?” This second set of questions made me look beyond the physical and psychological and consider my spiritual health and beliefs as well. I went looking for stories of faith and hope and belonging. Surprisingly, they were more challenging to find.  

In recent years, YA fiction has trended toward tackling more diverse and riskier topics. It provides a voice about racism, sexual orientation, gender, abuse, sexism, death, and dying. But less often about the great spiritual unknowns. Why not? Are we afraid to explore these questions of faith?  Are we worried we will share too strong an opinion or come across as preachy? Perhaps, but are the readers not worth that risk? Are they not searching for purpose beyond our flash of time on earth?

I think they are. I know first-hand from working in public schools and youth centers for over ten year that teens are searching for purpose. They want to matter beyond their flash of time on earth and they are desperate for narratives to ground themselves within. If we don’t give them characters in fiction, they will look for it elsewhere.   

My dream would be for writers of all faiths to be welcomed and encouraged to include their spiritual beliefs within their stories. We know that greater than half of all Canadians and Americans consider faith to be an important part of their identity (PEW Research Center, 2019). So why do we shy away from offering this aspect of diversity in our libraries and general book store shelves?

In my debut novel, I tried to share one of these viewpoints, one that impacted my own coming of age journey. Interestingly, the story was too Christian for the general market, but not Christian enough for some faith-based presses. I was fortunate to find people who believed in the story and worked in love to bring it to where it is today. But there are many other writers, who don’t fit into a publishing bubble and even more readers who are searching for characters like them, who have not yet made of their mind on what they believe.  

This is what makes fiction so powerful. Stories give us an opportunity to journey with someone through life, to ask the tough questions. To challenge us beyond “what if’s” and present stories that tackle the “now what’s”. They change who we are, and how we see the world. Whether we choose to take our own life in the same direction as those characters is up to us. But at the very least, let’s give teens diverse stories so they will not feel alone in those choices.

(For more posts about faith and spirituality in YA, check out TLT’s Faith and Spirituality in YA Literature index here.)

Meet Tara K. Ross

Tara K. Ross lives with her husband, two daughters and rescued fur-baby in a field of cookie-cutter homes near Toronto, Canada. She works as a school speech-language pathologist and mentors with local youth programs. When Tara is not writing or reading all things young adult fiction, you can find her rock climbing the Ontario escarpment, planning her family’s next jungle trek or podcasting/blogging at www.tarakross.com.

​FADE TO WHITE is her debut novel.

About Fade to White by Tara K. Ross

Thea Fenton’s life looks picture-perfect, but inside, she is falling apart. Wracked by anxiety no one seems to understand or care about, she resorts to self-harm to deflect the pain inside.

When a local teen commits suicide, Thea’s anxiety skyrockets. Unexplainable things happen, leaving her feeling trapped within her own chaotic mind. The lines between reality and another world start to blur, and her previously mundane issues seem more daunting and insurmountable than ever.

Then she meets Khi, a mysterious new boy from the coffee shop who seems to know her better than she knows herself-and doesn’t think she’s crazy. His quiet confidence and unfounded familiarity draw her into an unconventional friendship.

Khi journeys with her through grief, fear, and confusion to arrive at compassion for the one person Thea never thought she could love.

A deeply transformational novel from an authentic new voice in Christian young adult fiction.

ISBN-13: 9781645262633
Publisher: Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas
Publication date: 05/30/2020
Age Range: 13 – 18 Years

Book Review: The Ocean in My Ears by Meagan Macvie

Publisher’s description

ra6Meri Miller lives in Soldotna, Alaska. Never heard of it? That’s because in Slowdotna the most riveting activities for a teenager are salmon fishing and grabbing a Big Gulp at the local 7-Eleven. More than anything, Meri wants to hop in her VW Bug and head somewhere exciting, like New York or L.A. or any city where going to the theater doesn’t only mean the movies. Everything is so scripted here—don’t have too much fun, date this guy because he’s older and popular, stay put because that’s what everyone else does.

But when her senior year should be all boys, SAT prep, and prom drama, Meri feels more and more distance between herself and the people she loves. Her grandma dies, her brother gets hurt, and even her best friend checks out to spend more time with some guy. As she struggles with family, grief, friends, and hormones, Meri must decide if she really is ready for the world beyond her backyard.

Meagan Macvie’s debut novel, The Ocean in My Ears , raises questions of love, purpose, and the power to choose your own future even when your future’s the thing that scares you the most.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

the oceanMeri is complex. Heading into her senior year of high school, she’s desperate to leave her tiny Alaska town (a town known for two things—salmon fishing and having the highest per capita teen birthrate in the nation), but also terrified of leaving behind everything she knows. She has sex with a creepy older guy she’s dating but is also worried that it’s a sin and she might regret it (also, he’s a terrible human being but she hangs out with him for waaaaay too long). She doesn’t reveal anything about her life to her distant (both emotionally and physically) parents but longs for someone to do some parenting and for them to maybe understand her or even just see her. She has big dreams and big doubts. She’s been raised in a religious setting, having gone to Christian school until junior high. Her mother, and the church, repeatedly drive home the point that sex outside of marriage is a sin. It’s terrible, awful, you will go to hell, you will get diseases, you will get pregnant. Meri hears all of this but still wants to make her own choices, come to her own conclusions. It’s never easy stumbling your way through adolescence (the only way through is by stumbling, I think), but Meri is having a particularly hard time senior year. Her dad is either always off working in the oil fields or at home ordering her around, her grandma is dying (and her mom is gone for much of the book in Idaho tending to Meri’s grandma), her best friend has ditched her for a boy, and she likes Joaquin, a nice dude who she worries her parents won’t approve of, but instead dates jerky oaf Brett. She’s trying to figure out what she wants in life, but that’s hard to do in her tiny, isolated town with the constant talk of judging, sinning, and Satan.

 

Set in 1990, this look at a small town girl feeling trapped, frustrated, and ready to explore bigger horizons will appeal to fans of Carrie Mesrobian’s Just a Girl and other realistic YA where the main plot is the day-to-day existence of a teenager just trying to figure it all out. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781932010947
Publisher: Ooligan Press
Publication date: 11/07/2017

Book Review: Our Own Private Universe by Robin Talley

Publisher’s description

our-ownFifteen-year-old Aki Simon has a theory. And it’s mostly about sex.

No, it isn’t that kind of theory. Aki already knows she’s bisexual—even if, until now, it’s mostly been in the hypothetical sense. Aki has dated only guys so far, and her best friend, Lori, is the only person who knows she likes girls, too.

Actually, Aki’s theory is that she’s got only one shot at living an interesting life—and that means she’s got to stop sitting around and thinking so much. It’s time for her to actually do something. Or at least try.

So when Aki and Lori set off on a church youth-group trip to a small Mexican town for the summer and Aki meets Christa—slightly older, far more experienced—it seems her theory is prime for the testing.

But it’s not going to be easy. For one thing, how exactly do two girls have sex, anyway? And more important, how can you tell if you’re in love? It’s going to be a summer of testing theories—and the result may just be love.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Maryland 15-year-olds Aki, who is black, and her white best friend, Lori, are spending a month in a teeny town far outside of Tijuana. They’re there on a mission trip with their church, helping to build a new church, along with groups from two other churches (from Maryland and West Virginia). Aki’s dad, the youth minister, is on the trip, as is Lori’s aunt, as a chaperone. Lori’s excited about the chance to meet some new boys and hopefully have a summer fling. Aki is apprehensively excited to maybe finally start feeling like she’s living her life. She feels like everything is hypothetical, just ideas, and that she never actually lives out anything, instead stuck endlessly debating everything in her head. Last year, Aki told Lori she thinks she might be bisexual—but Aki feels that her identity, like everything else in her life, is only hypothetical. This all changes when she meets cute white, pansexual Christa, who is a year older and seems far bolder and more experienced than Aki. The girls start hooking up, deciding that what they are having is just a summer fling. After all, Christa has a boyfriend back home, though they decided to be on a break for the summer and see other people. Christa has heard that Aki is a talented musician, and Aki, who gave up music a while back for complicated reasons, allows Christa to continue to think she’s still actively playing and composing. It’s just a fling—there’s no harm in some little lies, is there? Before long, the two are sneaking away every chance they get, despite being worried about being found out. Christa has always hidden her sexuality from her very conservative parents and is worried it would somehow get back to them that she’s hooking up with Aki. Aki’s brother, also on the trip, says their parents wouldn’t be okay with Aki being queer. So they keep it a secret. Or try to.

 

Meanwhile, Aki’s relationship with Lori is falling apart, as she’s pretty much completely bailed on her to be with Christa. The two get in a major fight when Lori reveals who she has been secretly hooking up with—someone that is such a bad choice, Aki thinks they should turn to an adult for some guidance. And while Aki is pretty obsessed with Christa, she’s also working on the things they went to Mexico to do—painting, building a fence, working with children—and growing more interested and involved in some of the social justice issues the national convention will be voting on. She and Jake, a bi boy from another church, start some petitions and work on putting together a debate to educate their group about the issues.

 

A big part of Aki’s story is trying to figure out exactly what her identity is and what it means for her. She spends a lot of time thinking about what it means to be bisexual. She knows she is “not straight.” She knows she is attracted to girls–or at least to Christa. She has a lot of questions and thoughts about the fluid nature of sexuality, about labels, about identities shifting, about what it means to be bisexual. I think these thoughts and questions make this an especially valuable book for teens. Aki is young, just starting to figure out her identity, and completely open to asking herself questions. She is just starting to meet other queer teenagers (closeted Christa, possibly-soon-to-be-out Jake, and openly queer Madison). She is starting to reveal her identity (whatever it is or may become) to people in her life. She is also learning a lot about sex—not just from first-person experience, but from research. As she and Christa grow closer, Aki spends some time researching safer sex options. She tracks down what she needs while the youth group is at a college for two days for a conference. She’s informed and takes charge.

 

It’s a big month for Aki, one where her life finally starts to feel real and not just hypothetical. The underlying themes of changing people’s minds, truth, honesty, and love are reinforced through multiple storylines with Aki and many secondary characters. This exploration of love, sex, and identity is thoughtfully told. Aki’s interest in and thoughts on both religion and social justice issues help show just how much growing she is doing while taking a more active role in her own life. Talley has a knack for writing really complicated, authentic characters. Readers will appreciate the obvious respect for teenagers as smart, thoughtful, complex, sexual, and politically-aware beings. A great story about first love and a growing awareness of both self and the greater world. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780373211982

Publisher: Harlequin

Publication date: 01/31/2017

Book Review: Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit by Jaye Robin Brown

Publisher’s description

georgiaJoanna meets the perfect girl for her and must decide whether to break a promise that could change everything for her and her family or lose out on love in this charming young adult romance that’s perfect for fans of Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’ and Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.

Joanna Gordon has been out and proud for years, but when her popular radio evangelist father remarries and decides to move all three of them from Atlanta to the more conservative Rome, Georgia, he asks Jo to do the impossible: to lie low for the rest of her senior year. And Jo reluctantly agrees.

Although it is (mostly) much easier for Jo to fit in as a straight girl, things get complicated when she meets Mary Carlson, the oh-so-tempting sister of her new friend at school. But Jo couldn’t possibly think of breaking her promise to her dad. Even if she’s starting to fall for the girl. Even if there’s a chance Mary Carlson might be interested in her, too. Right?

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I enjoyed the heck out of this book. It’s not perfect—sometimes the plot felt convoluted, sometimes characters acted in ways that felt inconsistent—but this is a great story that feels really fresh and, super bonus, is a f/f romance with a happy ending. I find it easy to forgive minor flaws when the other many positives far outweigh things I found lacking.

 

The plot is pretty well summarized in that description up there, but it’s all of the nuance that makes it worth reading. The fact that the story is so much about faith and identity was really interesting and, again, feels like something we don’t see a whole lot of. Joanna moves to small Rome, Georgia for her senior year. She thinks of it as “where queer girls go to die.” For a lot of reasons (none of them particularly great), her reverend dad would like Joanna to go back in the closet, or “lie low” as he calls it. Tied to this is the fact that Joanna intends to start her own radio ministry, like her dad, to help support kids like her—gay kids of faith and teens in general. If Joanna “lies low” for the year, she can eventually share her true self again with people and come out on her radio show.

 

The whole deal seems kind of bonkers, but she goes along with it. She gets a makeover to appear more “normal,” in a kind of “why not go for broke?” move. Joanna starts attending the youth group at her new stepmother’s church, quickly becomes friends with a close-knit group of girls, and suddenly is doing things like going to football games, parties, and sleepovers. The story could stop there—could just be about a girl who was out but now isn’t, and how faith ties in with all of it—but it takes the much more interesting step of having Joanna fall for Mary Carlson, a seemingly straight girl and the sister of Joanna’s one other real friend, B.T.B. She keeps getting signals that maybe Mary Carlson could be into her—something she finds almost impossible to believe but readers sure won’t—and before long finds herself in a super weird position: dating a girl who wants to come out, but pretending her (Joanna’s) attraction to girls is also a new revelation, and really needing to not be out herself, to keep up her part of her agreement with her dad.

 

For the most part, the story follows a predictable path, but it’s completely fun, cute, and satisfying the whole way through. Despite Joanna’s dad’s desire for her to hide her sexuality for a while, he is supportive and loving (which is part of what makes his request seem so weird and inconsistent with who he actually is), as is her stepmother, other family members, and nearly all of her friends old and new. Me telling you the girls get their happily ever after isn’t meant to spoil anything, but is meant to reinforce how important this book, and the girls’ relationship, is. Funny, thoughtful, sweet, and complicated, this book is a necessary addition to all YA collections. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062270986

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 08/30/2016