“It’s taken me twenty years to grasp the truth of what happened in Jesus Land”
—Julia Scheeres (354)
Once in a great while—if you are lucky—a book comes along that stops you in your tracks, makes you turn around, question what you thought to be true, confirms your worst doubts, gives you immeasurable hope, and makes you a better person because of reading it. The first book to affect me in that way was To Kill a Mockingbird. The second was Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres, the winner of a 2006 Alex Award from the American Library Association (ALA).
Figure 1. Jesus Land cover
Each year the Alex Award is given to ten books written for adults—published the year prior—that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18. Winning books must be written in a genre that especially appeals to young adults, potentially appealing to teenagers, and well written and very readable. Scheeres’ memoir duly fits each of these principles.
In this article, five of my students at the University of Alabama and I make a case for teaching Jesus Land in high school English classes, despite its inherently controversial and troubling religious and racial themes. Beginning with an overview of the book, we continue with the genre of memoir and why this particular title is important for students to read and study. Quotations are used from my students’ papers and written reflections from class; these appear credited to them by name (Isabel Arteta, Chad Mcgartlin, Kristen Stults, Elizabeth Welsh, and Charles White). From there, we provide an analysis of and justify teaching Scheeres’ work according to criteria set by Carol Jago (2004), Ted Hipple (nd), and Kenneth Donelson and Alleen Nilsen (2005). I conclude with my own personal reactions to Julia and her book.
I came across Jesus Land by accident. While browsing the bookstore for a young adult novel, a book cover photograph totally captivated me: a young white girl and black boy in 1970s attire seemingly attending a school function (see Figure 1). This was no staged photo; this was real. What story was that one photo telling? Who were these two youngsters and how did they relate to Jesus? After looking at the back cover, I had to read it. And, read it I did—in nearly one sitting, staying up half the night to finish it.
Scheeres’ memoir is not so much her story as the story of her relationship with her adopted brother, David, growing up in a strict, religious household. As she states on her website (http://www.juliascheeres.com/),
Jesus Land is about my close relationship with my adopted brother David. It covers our Calvinist upbringing in Indiana and our stint at a Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic as teens. David, an African American, was adopted by my family in 1970, when he was 3. We were the same age. The book begins with our move to rural Indiana and our transition from a tiny Christian school to a large, public school where David and my other adopted black brother were the only minority students. It ends with David and me on a beach in the Dominican Republic. It’s a pretty wild ride between these two events. The central theme of Jesus Land is how race and religion tested our relationship. It’s a book about a couple of misfit kids learning to survive in a hostile environment, and the transcendence of sibling love.
Milner and Milner (2003) claim that autobiographies— the genre of which memoirs belong—“take us into the lives of others but at closer, more intimate range,” making us “eyewitnesses to actual events” (252). Milner and Milner assert that such works often catch adolescents’ natural interest about the lives of others. Specifically, memoirs differ from autobiographies in that “unlike autobiography, which moves in a dutiful line from birth to fame, omitting nothing significant, memoir assumes the life and ignores most of it. The writer of a memoir takes us back to a corner of his or her life that was unusually vivid or intense” (Zinsser, 1987, 13, cited in Milner & Milner, 2003). In Jesus Land, Julia takes readers on a present-tense journey through her turbulent teenage years, a time which still profoundly affects her.
As English teachers, we have relatively few problems deliberating about fictional religious and racial issues: Hester’s scarlet A, Atticus’ defense of Tom Robinson, or Jerry Renault’s refusal to sell chocolates. What will hook readers in Jesus Land, no matter how close to or far removed from Scheeres’ upbringing, is, ironically, their connection to issues of race and religion seen and experienced by Julia and David. Growing up in America, children and adolescents confront and are confronted by race and religion on a daily basis. In fact, the complexity of the two real-life issues sometimes renders students (and teachers) silent.
Donelson and Nilsen (2005) note that “books that abashedly explore religious themes are relatively rare, partly because schools and libraries fear mixing church and state . . . it has been easier for schools to include religious books with historical settings” (132). Yet, they also stress that young adult literature does not exist in a vacuity. In these highly politicized times, students are mindful of what they see, read, and hear at home, on the news, from their peers, and on television and the Internet. Though a memoir, Jesus Land reads like a fiction novel with themes that would resonate with teen readers: a love story, survival, coming of age, family relationships, and abuse, to name a few. Such themes are found in the traditional and contemporary works currently read, discussed, and analyzed in English classes. As Kristin Stults states:
Many non-fiction books and memoirs address the issue of racism, but Scheeres’ memoir is unique in that it offers an up close glimpse of what racism was like as seen from the eyes of a white girl growing up with two black brothers. We get her unique perspective on experiencing the racism so closely, but also being separated from it because of her whiteness. This separation occurs even in her own household, where her brothers are routinely abused by their father, presumably because they are black, and Julia is spared even though she commits the same “sins.” In addition, the book deals with Christian fundamentalism. There are many memoirs where people have been scarred by their religious upbringings, but Julia’s is unique in that her parents were so full of zeal for their own church and for foreign missionaries, but utterly lacking in love for their own children. Her story is also different in that her parents went so far as to send her and her brother to a Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic. There, we get another perspective on the abuses committed in the name of Christianity.
Students and teachers can pay close attention to the way Scheeres is able to tell such a heart wrenching story while still maintaining her humor and even detachment from the situations at times. Students should study how she does this, and if it makes her story more or less effective. The way she uses a humorous and somewhat sarcastic tone at times makes the passages that are truly sentimental and heartfelt, that much more powerful.
Charles White and Chad McGartlin agree, adding that “readers can easily identify with such an explicitly true and real character as she deals with issues in a very internal manner . . . themes such as racism, religion and maturation in adolescence are consistently and smoothly woven throughout the book in a very eloquent manner as opposed to brief and superficial attempts at highlighting them as many books seem to do.”
Beyond typical classroom strategies such as literature circles and discussion questions, Jesus Land and Scheeres’ accessibility lends itself to deeper reader response activities. Charles and Chad offer several good ideas in Figure 2. Not withstanding the promising classroom instruction that could take place with this book, the very issues that make it so valuable are also those which might give some teachers, administrators, and parents concern. Patty Campbell (1994) claims that “sex, politics, and religion are the three traditionally taboo subjects in polite American society— and in young adult literature the greatest of these taboos is religion” (619). Religion, portrayed negatively in this case, is only the beginning. There is also sex, rape, abuse, and cursing. However, given that “any work is potentially censorable by someone, someplace, sometime, for some reason” (Donelson & Nilsen, 2005, 368)—even works as innocent as the dictionary and Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret— teachers have no more reason to worry about this book than they would otherwise.
Figure 2. Reader Response Ideas
The reality is that many adolescents do not approach reading Pride and Prejudice or Hamlet with the same love and enthusiasm that we do. More importantly, a large number of secondary students cannot read such texts. Only three percent of all eighth graders read at the advanced level and nearly one-third of all ninth graders are two or more years behind the average level of reading achievement and need extra help (Balfanz, McPartland, & Shaw, 2002; Perie, Grigg, & Donahue, 2005). In short: many students are not reading at all. Works such as Jesus Land will entice readers of all ability levels because of its themes. A recent Education Week (2007) story confirms this, reporting that today’s teen readers often prefer the occasionally dark and disturbing contemporary trade books precisely for their real-life conflicts. The dark themes in Jesus Land will appeal to many adolescent readers, even reluctant males, because they will address themselves “questions about justice . . . morality, and the existence of divinity” (Hughes, 1981, 14).
In my Adolescent Literature course, we use criteria set forth by Carol Jago, Kenneth Donelson and Alleen Nilsen, and Ted Hipple to examine and evaluate young adult literature for classroom use. After reading the assigned young adult novels, the class discussed them utilizing the three forms of evaluation because each focuses on a separate aspect of evaluating and teaching young adult literature: Jago’s to decide about whole-class versus individual study; Donelson and Nilsen’s for characteristics of the best young adult literature, and Hipple’s when discussing young adult literature. As Charles reflects, “It is important to follow a sound method to remind students, parents, and ourselves of a novel’s value in the classroom. Hipple, Jago, and Donelson and Nilsen ask important questions that help to clarify the significance of a novel.” In the sections that follow, using excerpts from the teachers’ final reflections, we analyze and break down the memoir to show how it corresponds to each set of criteria.
Carol Jago, an advocate of teaching great literature with rigorous standards to all students, asserts that “there is an art to choosing books for students” (2004, 47); not all that are assigned and read should be included in the curriculum. Literature that works best for whole-class reading
My students and I agree that Jesus Land fits all of Jago’s criteria; however, as teachers we know there will be issues. Isabel Arteta warns, “using this book as a whole-class book requires a mature, critical group of students.” In terms of language being suited to the author’s purpose, according to all four teachers, the book meets the first standard. Kristin writes:
In Jesus Land the author has an amazing ability to use language that is perfectly suited to her story. Writing about topics that are painful and disturbing, she never glosses over any of the events that took place. However, she is also able to describe them in such a way that the reader is aware of how she tried to remove herself emotionally from the situations she was facing. She is able to disturb the reader, to make us see the significance and the horror of the experiences without asking for pity or using overly emotional language. For example, when she describes being raped by her brother, Jerome, she says:I hear him lock the door and creep toward my bed. The mattress tilts under his weight. By the time he touches me, I’m far away. I breathe deeply, pretending to be asleep, falling through layers of numbness, sensation draining from my body like dirty bath water. My mind flits through a collage of images and thoughts—a horse galloping across a field of clover, the conjugation of To Be in French, the marigolds on Deb’s table. At some point, the collage fades, and time fades, but somehow I remember to keep breathing. (78)In this passage, her language is appropriate to that of a teenage girl. However, it is also powerful and poetic, expressing emotions that perhaps she can only now, as an adult, put into words.
Jago’s second condition, whether a work exposes readers to complex human dilemmas, is also met. Again, I use Kristin’s response in this area.
This book does nothing if not expose the reader to complex human dilemmas. The reader must confront issues of religion, racism, incest, rape, sexuality, and human relationships . . . Julia is torn between being the sister of her two black brothers and being the favored white daughter. She feels sorry for her brothers, that they are treated unfairly by their peers and by their own parents, but at the same time she hates Jerome for the sexual abuse he inflicts on her, and feels resentful toward David when his presence makes popularity at school unattainable. In addition, Julia desires a relationship with her parents, desires to hear them say that they love her, but she also hates her mother for her neglect, and hates her father for the physical abuse he inflicts on her brothers. She also hates their hypocrisy, the way they prioritize foreign missions above their own family, and put on an air of piety at church. She is brutally honest when she talks about the dilemmas that face many teenage girls.
Chad agrees, commenting that “complex human dilemma is the core intent and purpose of the memoir. Scheeres has eloquently lived through an entire cauldron of human drama and dilemma.”
One common complaint from high school students is that the characters in books they read for school have nothing to do with them. Even in my adolescent literature class, the 20- to 30-year-old students had a hard time relating to some of the characters in the novels they read. However, we all agreed that the characters in Jesus Land are compelling, disconcerting, and well-developed. According to Isabel:
The character development in Jesus Land is so good that only after a few pages you feel you could recognize them [the mother, Jerome, the father] if you met them on the street. “She’s in one of her moods; we knew it as soon as we returned from our bike ride. She was in the kitchen, ripping coupons from the newspaper, her lips smashed into a hard little line. She didn’t say hello and neither did we. We took one look at her and went downstairs; it’s best to fall under the radar when she gets like this” (16). “The door implodes sucking David into the room. Jerome stands there, tall and glowering in the shadows. He has turned off the intercom, and the blinds are shut. The room smells sour, like dirty laundry. I follow David inside, and Jerome locks the door behind me. He’s several shades darker than David, almost coal-colored. No one would confuse them for brothers” (64). “But somewhere along the line he dropped out of our lives . . . He became a stranger to us, a stranger who comes around to mete out punishment. A stranger whose presence we’ve come to resent” (68).
“Even the minor characters,” says Kristin, “are all painfully real. Scott, Julia’s boyfriend, begins as an attempted gang rapist, then turns to someone who appears to want to date Julia just for sex, and then ultimately professes his love for her and wants to marry her. These changes and contradictions all make the characters seem very real.” This point validates the need for good memoirs to be taught—the characters are real, with real stories to tell and real-life connections to be made.
We concur, too, that this memoir explores universal themes and combines different periods and cultures. Isabel makes the point that “even though the story is set in a specific time and place, the themes explored are timeless and universal. Cultural and religious struggle—as well as bigotry and hypocrisy—plague us today as clearly as 30 years ago.” There is an immediacy of themes, too. “The book discusses the difference between their lives at Lafayette Christian and when they switch to the much larger public high school . . . the culture of school, of their Calvinist church, of their dysfunctional home and of the reform school” (Kristin).
An Interview with Julia Scheeres
What caused you to finally sit down and write Jesus Land?
Jesus Land had been percolating inside of me for 20 years before I finally sat down to write it. I think gaining the perspective and wisdom of age helped me, as well as becoming a professional writer (I’m a journalist by trade). David’s story had been weighing on me all that time, and I felt compelled to tell people about him, about how beautiful and tragic and hopeful a person he was. Immortalizing him in a book was the best way to get his story out there.
Did you have concerns about how it would be received by your family?
No. My main concern was honoring my brother’s memory. My family’s reactions didn’t really factor in—I was going to write the book no matter what.
Who do you consider your biggest fan/supporter?
My husband, Tim Rose. He helped me through some dark days when I had lost hope of selling my book.
Was there ever a point where you felt discouraged while writing?
Sure, when I had to relive (in my mind) a scene in my mind where David was physically abused. After completing such a scene, I’d go lie down on my bed and cry.
Was there any one method that helped you put your story onto the page?
Not really. Aside for forcing myself to sit still and concentrate and to aim for at least 700 words a day when I was in writing—not editing—mode.
When you first sat down to write Jesus Land, who was your imagined audience?
I didn’t think of a readership. I just thought of David and our experiences together and my need to record them.
If you were pitching your memoir to a young adult reader, what would you say to get them hooked?
Oh, tough question. This is the story of a couple of misfit siblings whose relationship is tested by racism, religious hypocrisy and toxic adults and who emerge stronger because of it.
What does winning the ALEX Award mean to you?
It means that my book appeals to young adults as well as old adults, which means more people will read it and get to know my brother.
What would be your response to censorship issues involving schools and parents in light of the language and mature themes presented in Jesus Land?
I think the themes in Jesus Land are mild compared to what high school kids are doing these days. And my book is an honest portrayal of themes that do happen to kids, but which adults prefer to ignore or brush under the carpet, including teenage drinking and sex.
Was there a reason behind minimizing the roles of your parents within the book? (There’s actually a formula that many YA authors follow which calls for the absence of parents)
I wanted the focus to be my relationship with my brother, not my parents.
Do you receive letters/emails from teens? What do they have to say about your memoir?
I get a lot of emails from people who felt like they were somehow misfits too, growing up. Because of their religious beliefs, skin color, etc. A lot of people write to say they really felt like they knew David after reading my book and wished they could have met him in real life. It’s very flattering.
Do you have advice for teens who may have a story to tell but only have limited chances to write narratives in school?
Keep a vivid journal. Don’t show it to anyone. You’ll love having it in 10, 20, 30 years. Time is so fleeting. Having an artifact of your younger self is precious.
What kind of writing did you do in school? What kind of English student were you?
Depends. I wasn’t a good student in high school but while getting my Master’s degree in Journalism, I did a lot of writing, obviously. I’m more interested in modern writing than in the classics, possibly do to my impatient nature and background as a no-frills reporter.
How did writing Jesus Land as a memoir make it more powerful than a fiction presentation?
Because it’s true. Amazing true stories are exponentially more interesting than amazing made-up stories.
Does the idea of having your memoir taught as a classroom text appeal to you? How do you feel about the need for memoir/autobiography in the English classroom?
Sure. I think it’s important for students to read true-life stories that either resonate with their own lives or are incredibly different. It gives them a better sense of self and place. Reading autobiographies may also make them feel a little less lonely, knowing that others have also had difficult lives and survived.
“All through the book the reader is challenged to reexamine beliefs, challenge value systems, at least revise moral standings” (Isabel). Organized religion is portrayed in a negative and hypocritical light: Julia’s parents are zealot-like, yet they emotionally and physically abuse their children, and Escuela Caribe more closely resembles a concentration camp than a Christian reform school. “Maybe this characteristic of the book is the one that may make the book difficult to use as a whole-class assignment. Young adults who read this memoir have to be mature and critical, ready to evaluate the novel within its time and place and then extrapolate from it that which is meaningful to them” (Isabel).
The last criterion, telling a good story with places for laughing and crying, is met, despite the harshness and seriousness of the book. Charles writes that “the last criteria is my favorite . . . in Jesus Land, the moment when [the] brother and sister leave the camp for the first time is the funniest because they both started spouting more profanity than they had ever used in their lives—words like ‘papaya ass’ made me laugh.” Kristin did not laugh, but rather found “poignant moments.” She found many moments for crying—Julia’s repeated rapes, their mistreatment at Escuela Caribe, David and Jerome’s physical abuse, and David’s death. To quote her directly,
Even the beautiful moments though, were clouded by a feeling that “this cannot last.” It was beautiful to see brother and sister together, finally free of their bondage, but the whole tone of the book was such that doom seemed imminent at all times. That being said, there were moments that were humorous, even if it was more of a sarcastic than laugh-out-loud kind of humor. The most memorable was when the Sunday School teacher tells their class that they can’t “jack off with Jesus.” Moments like this are plentiful, and make you shake your head.
In developing their characteristics of the best young adult literature, Donelson and Nilsen (2005, 14-35) referred to numerous sources, including other best book and awards lists (e.g., Printz, Newbery, School Library Journal) and professional organizations (such as ALA). Using this list as a guide, we determined that even though it is a memoir aimed at adult readers, Jesus Land meets the characteristics, although there were some slight disagreements in a few areas.
I have taken one of Ted Hipple’s assignments1, used for discussing The Catcher in the Rye, and modified it for use with any novel. His ten questions center on more personal reactions, such as how the novel agrees with a reader’s personal beliefs and its emotional impact (See Figure 3).
Figure 3. Hipple Evaluation (adapted for classroom use)
From reading the teachers’ analyses and evaluations of the novel, it is clear that Hipple’s set of questions “squared” with them the most and they produced writing nearly as beautiful as Scheeres’.
Isabel’s final paper introduction says it perfectly: “it is really important to state . . . that when a book touches you in so many different ways, when you feel for the characters so deeply, when you trudge with them through the muck and when you rebel with your own impotence to change the world, an objective evaluation is far from attainable. That being said, the Ted Hipple criteria are probably better suited for analysis than any other.”
As soon as Reverend Dykstra pronounced the final “amen” and bustled down the aisle toward the narthex, Rick and I would rush up the back stairway to the windowless attic, where we’d feel our way through fusty stacks of Psalter Hymnals and the cool satin of choir robes to a cushionless sofa. There, we’d sit facing each other in the darkness, taking turns running a fingertip over each other’s palms, without speaking, as bats fluttered overhead and cars honked faintly in the parking lot. After Rick’s glow-in-the-dark wristwatch marked five minutes, we’d slip back down the staircase to reunite with our families.
These fingertip caresses were exquisite, amplified by our inability to see the lust and embarrassment in each other’s faces. There was only a tingling sensation and our open-mouthed breathing. (84) (Kristin)
Shortly after reading the book, I emailed Julia asking if one of my students, Elizabeth, could interview her for her class paper (see p. 74). With kindness and trust not often found in this world, Julia emailed back with her phone number letting me know I could call any time. That began a correspondence that continued through Elizabeth’s interview, my two-week stint in a third-world country, and a busy semester. It is precisely this personal, friendly, unguarded persona that makes Jesus Land what it is. As a reader, you (I use this term on purpose) feel a personal connection to Julia, David, and their story. It is as if each and every reader is a “you” who can expect a phone call or email from Julia at any time.
Julia, and her book, hold true to the claim that through them, we are introduced to “real people” and “develop a partnership with the narrator-subject as we receive the self-disclosure and willing confidences that are so hard-won in our everyday friendships” (Milner & Milner, 2003, p. 252). Such relationships are rare . . . and so is a book as powerfully poignant as Jesus Land.
1 After Ted died in 2004, I found this assignment. I am not sure if he created it or “borrowed” it from another source.
Lisa Scherff is assistant professor of English education at The University of Alabama and coeditor of English Leadership Quarterly. Her research focuses on adolescent literacy and teacher preparation, induction, and mentoring.
Isabel Arteta-Durini was born in Ecuador. She studied Animal Science at Cornell University, received an MBA from the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, and is currently finishing a master’s degree in education from the University of Alabama. She teaches 10th-grade biology at the American School of Quito.
Originally from Atlanta, Chad McGartlin serves as the humanities department head at the American School of Quito (Ecuador) where he teaches history and Theory of Knowledge. He also taught in Nanjing, China, and Mexico City, Mexico. Chad holds a bachelor’s degree in Social Science Education from Kennesaw State University and a master’s in secondary education from the Univ. of Alabama.
Kristin Stults is currently a master’s degree student and stay-at-home mom of two boys. She lives in Durham, North Carolina.
Elizabeth M.Welsh is a preservice English teacher at the University of Alabama.
Charles White taught high school English in California before arriving at Colegio Americano in Quito to teach IB English. He is currently teaching English and Cinema Studies in Istanbul, Turkey, at Uskudar Amerikan Lisesi.
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