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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.”

Book Review: The Names They Gave Us by Emery Lord

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If you want to skip the lengthy review, let me just say this: I love this book and think everyone should read it.

Now for the real review.

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Publisher’s Book Description:

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 Thoughts

I love this book and think everyone should read it. Yep, that’s where I’m still at with this book.

Lucy begins our story as a devout somewhat conservative Christian with an equally devout and amazing boyfriend. And then the rug is pulled out from under her on prom night when she learns that her mother’s cancer has returned and it is more aggressive then ever. This makes Lucy angry. Angry at the universe, angry at her parents for keeping secrets, but mostly angry at God because she prayed for her mother to be healed and she thought she was and now she isn’t.

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.

In a deal with her mother – who plays the cancer card – Lucy goes to a summer camp next to her family owned church camp. This camp is for “troubled youth.” She goes to be a camp counselor, but she ends up being helped just as much as the kids she ends up helping. Along the way she meets a pregnant teen, a male to female transgender teen, and a variety of kids struggling with broken homes and issues that our far outside the realm of what she knows. And although Lucy makes many missteps along the way, we see Lucy expressing the grace and compassion that underlines her faith to each and every one of them. In our current reality when people of the Christian faith are often seen yelling down those who are different and calling them monsters, it’s nice to have a Christian character on the page reminding us all what that is supposed to look like. It’s especially nice because we know and understand that she is in fact struggling with her personal faith, but it is still an important part of who she is.

Lucy also meets a new boy who seems capable of handling Lucy’s true expression of emotions, including the doubt and anger that comes with having a severely ill parent. This new boy, Jones, is possibly my favorite boy in YA literature ever. Every teen readers will swoon at Jones, and they should.

There are more family secrets revealed. There are tears. There are lessons to be learned. But they are learned in the most organic and authentic way possible, through rich storytelling, complex character development, and beautifully put together words on a page. At the end Lucy is changed, as is her expression of her faith, but she remains true to who she is every step of the way and it is a beautiful thing.

Faith is very important to both The Teen and I. And I can personally tell you that I have had intense periods of anger at God. It happened when I almost died in pregnancy and lost my baby. It happened when we had to leave our life and move to start over. And this book really spoke to the very core of me. After reading this book I immediately handed it to The Teen who read it that very day. It took her less than 24 hours and she too loved it. We talked about it. We gushed about it. We talked about our faith. We talked about being mother and daughter. We talked about family and boys and love and secrets. I love that this book exists in this world.

Some of my favorite things about this book:

  • A healthy, intact family
  • Good mother/daughter relationship
  • Good friendships
  • Authentic faith expression
  • Healthy communication about sex
  • Richly developed supporting characters, including characters who are not white or cisgender
  • Richly developed teens who talk about their feelings and mistakes

I love this book and think everyone should read it, in case you haven’t heard me say that yet.