The Compulsive Reader: Reading Rants: Why Faith in YA is Important

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Reading Rants: Why Faith in YA is Important

The question of the importance of faith in YA books was brought to my attention last night when, after posting my review of The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson (which was so glowing, a blind person could see the light), I got over 15 individual comments, tweets, and emails that basically went like this: "Oh, it sounds good, but I don't know about the religion, so I probably won't read it."

That about killed me because The Girl of Fire and Thorns is probably one of the best books I've read so far this year, and for people to dismiss it because some form of religion was in it seems so baseless and silly. As I mentioned after the review, there are a lot of really popular fantasy and science-fiction books out there with some sort of religion unique to the setting, so why is this book any different in the reactions it is receiving?

I can appreciate that not everyone is religious, and as a Christian girl who grew up attending a Lutheran private school, I'm very used to dealing with people telling me they disagree with my beliefs, or that my faith is wrong or misplaced. People disagreeing with me is fine. But what I can't seem to understand is why in the YA genre, where every other subject is no longer taboo, faith is too often pushed to the side. Books with faith in them, in general, receive the reactions that I received upon the posting of my review, and so many people simply won't give them a try.

We've always said that YA is about exploring those subjects that are hard, that are difficult to talk about, that have to deal with learning and growing up. And like it or not, religion plays into that. I believe that a very integral part of your teenage years is deciding what you believe. And when it comes to deciding what you believe, religion is taken into consideration.

Another thing that perturbs me is the intolerance I've encountered. Just because you've decided that you want nothing to do with religion doesn't mean that you shouldn't give books that have elements of it a try. And I do realize that this is a very subjective issue, but it just bothers me to see perfectly good books dismissed because they might mention a god. I'm a Christian, but I really do find it fascinating to read books with Mormon, Jewish, Muslim, and any other religious characters. They're a part of our society and culture, and I believe it's important to know more about them and their customs, even if I might disagree with their faith. Not every writer who writes about religion has some secret agenda to shove their beliefs down your throat, or try to convert you, despite the growing amount of bad press that those people receive.

The bottom line: It's okay to disagree with others' beliefs...it's not so cool to be intolerant or ignorant. Keep an open mind, be willing to read and learn about new things, and don't pass up a good book because there might be a trace of religion in it.

I'm going to be compiling a list of books that have to do with faith and religion--any religion--over the next couple of days, which I'll post here. What do you all think about faith in YA? Is it important? Which books have you read and enjoyed that have dealt with faith and religion?


Amy said...

great post!

I actually think that YA tends to handle faith a little more openly than some adult books do. And it makes sense because it's an age where you're dealing with those things yourself for the first time, my faith and struggling with it played a huge role in my life as a teenager. So yes it should be in books because it's part of the human experience and to ignore books because of it makes me very sad.

The book girl said...

I completely, totally agree. I am very religious myself. Lots of books are written by religious authors, and their novel's subject and themes can be very influenced by that author's faith. For example: Ally Condie is a Mormon like myself. Before she wrote her famous book Matched, she wrote some books based on the Mormon faith, which I loved as much as Matched. It's so baised to not read a book because of the religion. It's like saying you won't read Matched because Ally Condie is Mormon! It's a good, clean book with no violence, sex or language, which is no doubt because of her religious upbringing.

The Compulsive Reader said...

Ally Condie is a great example! I KNOW that there are other religious authors out there who are writing YA books that are fascinating and clean...which I enjoy because while Ellen Hopkins is awesome (and a Lutheran) and I love her books, sometimes I want to read about a character who is more similar to myself--someone who doesn't drink, do drugs, etc. It's the author's choice to incorporate those religious elements into their work or not, but I think it's the YA community's responsibility to create an atmosphere that is receptive and not intolerant.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Excellent post. I agree. Do people realize that when they close themselves off like that, they are saying (or coming across as saying), "My faith is so shaky, I dare not read anything else that does not reflect back what I believe."

Putting "Fire and Thorns" on my TBR list!

Beth S. said...

Great post! Food for thought for all the naysayers of faith in literature - or just life in general.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I'm religious too and have read "the dark divine" and "twilight series" which has the whole "get married then have sex" moral too it which is a big thing in some religions.
I think thats stupid that people would blow off a book because of the religion now if it is shoved down your thout every other sentence then ok I can see that but to say "no I won't read this because it says there is religion in it" is horrible

I might pass up on "the girl of fire and thorns" not because of the religion but because I'm not big on fantasy (like pure kings and queens and brave knights kind of thing) so it might confuse me that and I already have 60+ books on my TBR list
I also read about angels a lot I love YA books with angels in it "Angel star" being my favorite at the moment as well as the hush hush trilogy

La Coccinelle said...

If a book is written well and has a good story, I don't mind if there's a religious aspect to it. Then again, I'm not particularly religious... and it seems that the people who have the biggest problem with religion/spirituality in books are upset because it's not their religion being portrayed. One of my favourite books takes place in India and incorporates ideas from Hinduism and Buddhism into the plotline. It's a good story and it's written well. And yet, I've seen people give it bad reviews simply because they don't like or don't believe in aspects of those religions! If you're going to stay away from every book that doesn't agree with your worldview, your reading choices are going to become very limited.

That said, I tend to stay away from anything overtly classed as "Christian fiction", simply because the books in that category that I have read were poorly written and kind of preachy. That's not to say that I won't read books about Christian characters. I just don't enjoy books where everything is coloured through a certain religious lens, especially if the reasons for that are taken for granted or are just a reflection of the author's beliefs. If religion plays a big part in the story, I want it to be relevant somehow. Otherwise, why mention it in the first place?

Christina T said...

Excellent post! I will be checking out your review of The Girl of Fire and Thorns.

There are some really good YA books that incorporate faith such as Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger (Sikhism) and Does My Head Look Big In This (Islam). I've also heard good things about OyMG (Judaism) but haven't had a chance to read it yet. I like that these characters think about what they believe (or don't believe) and are interested in figuring things out for themselves.

I think faith is something natural and it makes sense for teens to be thinking about what they believe or if they believe what they've been raised to think by their parents. It is too bad that it isn't really explored in YA fiction very often and that some people are put off from books if it is.

Rachel Stark said...

Great post, and good food for thought. I am not religious, but I was raised in a Christian household and it was a very important part of my life growing up. What I maintain of that upbrtheinging is the lessons that religion taught me: love, selflessness, and a sense of responsibility toward others. Even if we don't agree with a certain faith, we can look to religious tenants to teach us something vital about how to live our lives and what the human experience means. And because I read books to learn about this world, I find myself gravitating toward religious themes because of what they can teach me about humanity as a whole.

One of the best kidlit books I've read which dealt with religion was Marcelo in the Real World. That book was just magical.

Mariah said...

I have no problem with faith in YA as long as its not being jammed down my through. I like learning about different faiths and I think refusing to read a book because it has faith in it is ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

Two books on my TBR list that directly discuss religion are Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker and OyMG by Amy Fellner Dominy. Reviews have indicated that they're even-handed and non-preachy.

Having been raised without an organized faith in a Judeo-Catholic community that also included Mormons and Muslims, I'm usually curious to read about religions. I actually learned about all of these religions in school, partially through my classmates giving presentations. In fact, I feel like I know the least about Protestantism. I know that I'm intolerant of Bible Belt evangelism, but maybe Small Town Sinners will help change my mind.

I didn't know that Marcelo in the Real World deals with religion. It's been on my TBR list for other easons and now it's been bumped up higher.

Rebecca Herman said...

I do think some authors go out of their way to avoid mentions of religion. I'm not very religious but don't mind reading about religious characters if it fits the story. I find it odd when a historical novel is set in a time when 99% of people were very religious (such as the Medieval era) yet there is no mention of religion at all because the author is afraid of offending someone, or something like that.

Annette Mills said...

First of all, I am a Christian. But when I see a book labeled "Christian Fiction" it's a turn off to me. I wouldn't like it if they labeled it "Jewish Fiction" either, or any other faith. If a book happens to talk about religion or some type of faith, that's' OK.

Enjoyed your thoughts.

Thea said...

I understand what you're saying, and I don't mind books that involve religion, but I avoid books where specific opinions are forced on the reader. (Like Twilight.)

Kelsey said...

Not wanting to read a certain book because it contains content someone disagrees with doesn't make them intolerant or ignorant. If I tried to convince *you* that you shouldn't read it, that would be intolerant and if I made false assumptions about the book, that would be ignorant.

I get the most enjoyment out of secular or mostly secular books. It's not ignorant or intolerant, it's just personal preference. I have to deal with people who make me uncomfortable about my lack of faith on a weekly basis, and books are a form of escape for me. I don't want to feel judged by my books the way I do so often from my peers.

I'm glad you like the book, but you should be understanding and respectful of those who choose to move on to books they would enjoy more.

Amy @ Turn the Page said...

I agree to a point. I don't have a problem with religion in books - it can be a great way to learn about different faiths. I don't however, appreciate being preached too. And a lot of books cannot find the balance - though that's not to say they aren't out there, but I dislike having someone's religious view point stuffed down my throat and that goes for real life as well as literature . If it has a religious aspect = great. If it is overly preachy, I will most likely put it down quickly.

I am however, very much looking forward to Girl of Fire and Thorns.

Dawn said...

This is a nice post, and it's good to see so much discussion. I agree with you, although I find that I turn away more often because of reasons other religion. Stuff like gratuitous language, for example. But, as far as religion goes, I tend to shy away from a book if it might show faith in a negative light. Angel Burn, for instance, is a book that I was drawn to by the cover, but I read an interview somewhere with the author and realized the book was portraying angels as bad creatures, and I wasn't sure that was my cup of tea.

The Compulsive Reader said...

Kelsey: I disagree. If you refuse to read a book SOLELY based on the fact that it contains some sort of religion, that is ignorant. It's like someone saying, "I'm not going to read this book because there are homosexual characters in it, and I'm against homosexuality," or "I refuse to read a book that has underage drinking because that's against the law."

If there are other circumstances, such as the fact that the book is all about one girl's path to God, and you're against religion...then I guess I can understand that. Because on the opposite end of the spectrum, I'm sure that some people tend to not want to read a book that focuses on another teen girl turning into and staying an alcoholic, or a homosexual love affair. Personally, I think different perspectives are beneficial, but I also acknowledge that you can't force anyone to read something.

I just am of the opinion that books with religion get such a bad reputation in YA, and there are so many people who end up bashing them and not even giving them a try and for what reason? Because they're insecure about the their own faith? Because it's "uncool" to go to church? If it's not your belief, then okay. But don't attack it and claim it's trying to convert you when it's really not. And don't make good books with religion in them hard to access for the YA readers who do believe.

The Compulsive Reader said...

Vicky: My thoughts exactly.

Kate: I can understand your feelings about fantasy, but may I recommend borrowing it from the library and just trying it? It is fantasy, but not like knights and quests sort of fantasy!

La Cocinelle: I sadly do know a lot of Christian people who don't like any sort of entertainment that has to deal with any religion but Christianity, and I don't always agree with that sentiment. I still remember the ruckus that was caused in my private school when a teacher showed us The Other Side of Heaven. which is about a Mormon missionary. It's an excellent movie and worth showing, but some parents were furious. And I agree, in general books labeled Christian fiction are cheesy, touchy-feely books about faith that really aren't relevant to real life or real theology.

The Compulsive Reader said...

Mariah and Anon: Unfortunately there are always people in every religion who want to jam their ideas down people's throats. And the thing about Christianity is that there are so many variations of it, and the ones that the majority of Christians will recognize as false, misleading, or untrue are the ones that get the most attention and give the rest of us a reputation as self-righteous Bible-thumpers who hate everyone not like them and tell people they're going to hell.

The Compulsive Reader said...

Annette: I agree.

Thea: No one likes to be told how to live their life. I guess it's been a long time since I last read Twilight and I don't quite understand what you mean.

Dawn: I understand what you mean. I guess that's part of the reason I haven't really caught on to the fallen angel trend, as it just doesn't always sit well with me the way faith is portrayed. I did, however, enjoy Angelfire and the Hush, Hush books, even if they aren't theologically correct.

Kimberly Sabatini said...

This was a fantastic post. For me its all about how well the book is written. I'll read anything that a great book has to offer. BTW-Great conversation. :o)

Anonymous said...

Oh, high five! I went to a seventh day Adventist school for 11 years though I was brought up catholic.

It was not fun, in fact they blamed us other faith kids for all the crap the Adventists ones did.

As for faith in books, I think it's all up to the skill of the author, so it doesn't feel preachy or heavy handed

Kelsey said...

@The Compulsive Reader:

See, I never once bashed the book. I never said it was bad, and I never said I thought it was trying to convert me. I may even recommend it to a friend. I think faith in books is very important for those that want such a thing. I was just pointing out that it is not ignorant to lose interest in a book because it contains content that I wouldn't enjoy reading about. My dad doesn't like reading books from a first person female perspective, but I don't get on his case because he's missing out on The Hunger Games--it's personal preference, not ignorance.

"ignorance (ˈɪɡnərəns)
— n lack of knowledge, information, or education; the state of being ignorant"

You are using the word incorrectly. See, if I didn't know what the book was about and still didn't want to read it, THAT would be ignorance. Also, it's insulting to go around calling people ignorant/intolerant because they don't want to read what you want them to read.

If people don't want to read about homosexuality, that is perfectly fine. It doesn't mean they are ignorant, it just means those sorts of books are not the sorts of books they want to read. If in real life they disliked homosexuals that would be intolerance.

There are lots of different types of people in the world who don't all share your same worldview. The best thing about books is we have a choice in what we want to read and what we don't want to read. I don't like my books to be preachy or political, that's all. I like my books best when they don't mention that sort of thing at all (even if they are saying things I agree with!) Ultimately, I just don't want it in my fiction because I don't like to think too much when I read for fun--I just want to relax and enjoy. It's perfectly okay that you do, though. I'm sure there are some things on my reading list that you would not be enthused about reading either.

By the way: Religious themes or vague religious comments don't bother me in the slightest (JK Rowling did a great job with this). But anything overt, obvious or preachy makes me want to move on.

Pam Steinke said...

GREAT post!

I like you, was raised Lutheran...through much reading and discovery about the religions you've mentioned I find myself more of a Universalist...and much more "spiritual" than "religious".

I recently became the librarian of a very small town (Pop 800+) with 8 churches after being raised in LARGE cities, and have also run across similar feelings about books that have a non-Christian religion running through them. It saddens me when anyone dismisses a great book because of any prejudice. I want to use that old tagline from the 70's "try it, you'll like it".

What I absolutely love about YA fiction is it's willingness to push boundaries...and hope to introduce these wonderful books to more readers.

The Compulsive Reader said...

Kelsey: I get what you're saying, I really do. I'm not saying that people who prefer to read books without religion are intolerant or ignorant...we all form our own preferences based on our experiences. But people who refuse because they're so narrow-minded and aren't even willing to give the book the time of day just because there is mention of religion are being unreasonable.

The Compulsive Reader said...

Alex: What is it with denominations that do that? I never could understand that. And I agree about author's skill...have you read Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr? AMAZING!

Kaethe said...

Your rant put me off in a way that the original review never could.

Melanie said...

I agree.

Once Was Lost is one of the few books that handles the issue of faith very well. It's one of my alltime favorites.

Liviania said...

I got the same reaction to my review of The Dark Divine.