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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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Meet Rob Bittner

Photo credit: Sonya Sones

Photo credit: Sonya Sones

 

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

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

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

Bestest. Ramadan. Ever. by Medeia Sharif

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

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

How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

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

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

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

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

Like No Other by Una LaMarche

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Fate brought them together. Will life tear them apart? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devoted by Jen Mathieu

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Rachel Walker is devoted to God.

She prays every day, attends Calvary Christian Church with her family, helps care for her five younger siblings, dresses modestly, and prepares herself to be a wife and mother who serves the Lord with joy.

But Rachel is curious about the world her family has turned away from, and increasingly finds that neither the church nor her homeschool education has the answers she craves. Rachel has always found solace in her beliefs, but now she can’t shake the feeling that her devotion might destroy her soul.

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

The Names They Gave Us by Emery Lord

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

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