Roses are red;
Violets are blue.
I’m a Baptist, Muslim, Mormon;
How ’bout you?
With an opener like the one above, you may have guessed the subject of this article: Religion and Young Adult Literature: I began thinking about this topic and about writing this article seven months ago. Truthfully, I had never stopped to think about the duality: religion and literature for teens. Except for reading my own religious texts, I had never considered if there were any young adult titles that centered their plot and characters smack dab in the middle or even on the periphery of religion. Undoubtedly, my lack of exposure to such literature shaped an opinion that it must not be a popular approach. The genre, if you will, was not bursting with titles, so as part of concrete preparation, I thought long and hard about my own adolescent reading. Initially, that led me nowhere. I then visited English and reading classrooms, surveyed young readers, and searched for titles that seemed religious in nature. I talked with my college students, and I obtained membership in a religious book club. But after months of research and study, I only guardedly believe the situation may not be as desperate as I once thought.
It is true that while craning my neck around library and classroom bookshelves and poring over electronic files, I found only a few books that mentioned a spiritual journey of any kind. Although I understand the difference, that one quality can exist without the other, I found myself referring to “religious” and “spiritual” as synonyms, as there are simply not enough words to describe either of the words. So, after investing this time on “religion” and its books, I was naturally focused on the lack thereof. As a reader and, well, a “seeker,” I became curious about the dearth of spiritual content couched in young adult books. I wondered why. What made this topic, unlike so many uncomfortable topics, taboo? Do students opt out of religious material? Do parents discourage these reading selections? Consider this irony: In my research, I found no books which explicitly embraced the Sermon on the Mount, yet I found numerous selections with content that might offend even the most liberal parent. It bears investigating that in this extensive world of young adult literature, much that is brimming with controversial subjects of incest, abuse, murder, sex, the supernatural, violence, cutting, inhumanity, and much more, what hinders religious literature from being abundantly produced by writers, and what hinders it from being fully embraced by young readers?
Yes, that would be a whale of a topic for another time, but my interests lie in the here and now. I put on my teacher’s hat and focused on the three most pressing questions on my mind:
I knew straight away that the second question—what in-public-school reading can be considered (or do students feel) is religious in nature?—was problematic. The question itself had backed me into a corner with prospects of few answers. Why? The answer is found in the First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. With this amendment and in terms of text, teachers and legislators are aware of the separation of church; nevertheless, schools continue to remain a playing and/or battlefield in terms of religion, i.e. prayer, devotionals, Bible clubs, etc. For purposes of this study, the question was relevant, but for me to assume students might be universally assigned a book steeped in religious considerations, was, at best, naïve or misguided. I had no choice but to step back and reconfigure my question.
But “of whom” was I asking the questions? I wanted to explore answers from librarians and teachers of YAL, but to know what teens were reading seemed far more useful and informative. Wisely we have learned and accepted that the reading habits of the two are not always synchronized, and to sample one population and not the other might provide a hopeful yet inaccurate assessment of the actual reading situation. Well-intentioned teachers and tutors of reading may suggest titles “until the cows come home,” but if a reader is not tantalized by the genre, the book will probably remain on a dusty bedroom shelf.
My investigation of the situation, I must admit, was far from hard research. I conducted a casual and anonymous survey of 500-plus students, which was arguably small-scale, but I was more interested in a spot-sampling rather than one with deliberate cross-cultural considerations and large-scale probability. In other words, I was putting a little Utah-toe into new and national waters, and pursuing tiresome quantitative or rich qualitative research was not my goal. I wanted to poll my community, the kids who live in my town, and the teachers I know and see from time to time. I took heart in the realization that should the question of YAL and religion again surface, deeper considerations can be made by a true researcher. So, with that being said, this was my protocol: A questionnaire was electronically sent to a list serve of approximately 150 English teachers who had recently begun a career in teaching secondary English and language arts. The questionnaire contained six broad questions about reading preferences, and all respondents remained anonymous. Teachers mailed the responses back to me in plain envelopes which prevented me from knowing what schools the responses came from and the names of the participating teachers and students. As merely an exploratory tool and one that provided answers that allowed me to make inferences, I surveyed the responses and made loose categorizations of answers.
By my calculations and because Utah teachers usually teach large classrooms, I could have received more than 1500 responses, but as I counted my piles of papers, I had a hand-count of 500 responses. Even so, the number thrilled me, but the caliber of the responses left a great deal to be desired. I began to wish for answers written in volumes rather than “Don’t know” or, sadly, the “I don’t read” response. As I considered the categories and quality of the responses, I was reminded of survey research that speaks to types of responses usually found within samples. Many of my responses appeared to align with the bulleted information below, and like every researcher, I tried to minimize the problems associated with sampling, non-responses, and biased.
In addition to a healthy amount of authentic “I don’t know” responses, I enjoyed reading the majority of responses which gave other thoughtful and explicated responses to the questions. It is their responses that shed light on the “whys and why nots” of religion and young adult literature. Let’s consider a sampling of all the informative and representative answers:
|1. What type of young adult literature do you read? Why?||
|2. Have you recently read a book that dealt with a religious theme? What was its title? What was the book about?||
|3. Would you like to read a young adult book that dealt with the issues of religion, beliefs, morals, etc.? Why or why not?||
|4. Would your parents like you to read a young adult novel/book that dealt with a religious topic? Please explain.||
|5. What book have you recently read IN SCHOOL that taught you a moral or lesson about life? Please explain.||
|6. How comfortable would you be reading a book about all types of faith? Please explain.||
I was fascinated with the breadth of these responses, and yet even after I considered the maturity level of the students, I was surprised by answers that remained superficial or logically flawed. Even within my liberal view that any type of meaning may be derived from a book regardless of its pre-designated genre, student answers stumped me. I have never categorized such novels as Go Ask Alice or Old Yeller as books written to specifically teach morals, ethics, or religious principles. In the responses to question #5 seen above, we see that many students muddle the distinction between a book with religious content and one that includes a theme that encourages readers to live reflective and compassionate lives. In fairness to the respondents, public schools are not the venue for religious materials, but even when given the opportunity to share titles of books with a religious slant, many students struggled to remember the names of any such book. It seems apparent that either spiritual or religious books are rarely in the hands of our adolescent readers or that teens don’t make the fine distinctions among religion, ethics, or morals. A book that emotionally speaks to an individual’s quest for life-meaning can most certainly be regarded as a book that is profound and a guide. Experience as a reader can help label those distinctions.
In my search for YAL situated within a religious context, I came across several new-to-me books that unquestionably fell within the parameter. These texts were not easy to find and were not on the top of popular book lists, yet each book made for a thoughtful and pleasant read. My reactions to the books were positive, and I was immediately attracted to the stories, the characters, the dilemmas, and the unmistakable religious context. When I questioned university readers in my YAL course, no one had heard of the books. When I also questioned literacy teachers who are familiar with young adult literature, the books were also unfamiliar. Perhaps the suggestion of a few titles will help open the door to a faith-genre that has been pushed aside, forgotten, or untapped for whatever reason.
The Tent by Gary Paulsen is a story that unfolds squarely within a religious context. A down-and-out dad named Corey and his 14 year-old son Steven find themselves without employment. After stealing a motel Bible and getting an old army tent, father and son set out to provide tent revivals to the local Texan believers. Even though Corey is anything but a minister, he has a knack for giving sermons, performing faith healings, passing the collection plate, and making a living as a religious sham. As their riches and Bible-reading sessions increase, so do their consciences. Father and son turn their lives around, and in parable style, the story shows readers how faith and honesty can grow when we listen to the Word of God.
Using beautiful poetic free verse, Nikki Grimes has written a book that juxtaposes the biblical story of Hagar, Ishmael, and Abraham with a modern story of African American Sam, his father, and the father’s new Caucasian wife and child. Dark Sons is a captivating novel that speaks to a modern conflict by using the Old Testament story of mother Hagar and son Ishmael who are exiled by Abraham when a child is finally born to Sarah, Abraham’s first wife. Religion is more than just a theme found in this book; it is the central backdrop for this story, and it would be impossible for readers to miss the Old Testament parallel. The on-going parable of Sam and Ishmael explore their lives within the context of both God’s relationship to them and with their earthly father who has “replaced” them with a new family
Send Me Down a Miracle, by Han Nolen, is a riveting novel that reminded me of my impressionable adolescent years. I loved reading about the daughter born of an Alabaman preacher. Perfectly named for her perfect behavior, Charity Pittman had always believed her father was infallible. But at age 14, after an eccentric and artistic young woman with crazy ways moves into town, Charity finds herself at odds with her father and his God. She befriends the new girl, Adrienne, over her father’s objections. After a self-imposed deprivation experiment of three weeks of solitude, no food, and meditation, Adrienne emerges with the confession she has seen Jesus sitting in her living room chair. Soon the town is in an uproar. Predictably, Pastor Pittman believes Adrienne is the devil, or at least controlled by the devil. In contrast, Charity is overcome with faith; she believes in the heavenly visitation and in the power of the Jesus-chair, and she defiantly stands up to her father. In this book, one which asks readers to question the depth and security of our belief systems, a young girl is required to test and then stand by her own religious convictions. A great read!
In an action-filled story told by 9th-grader Genevieve, Fallout by Trudy Krisher packs a punch that will invite all teens to examine their social and religious beliefs. As a destructive hurricane nears North Carolina, and as a suspicious McCarthy-loving father prepares to fight communism, Genevieve meets Brenda Whompers, a California girl whose radical social beliefs and atheism oppose all that Genevieve has ever known. By the book’s end, fallout occurs for everyone. Brenda becomes interested in faith, and Genevieve realizes she must live by her own convictions.
Buddha Boy by Kathe Koja (2003) examines the unlikely friendship between a hip teen and bald Buddhist teen who goes to temple after school, begs lunch money like a monk, and wears no coat in the winter to build inner discipline. Out of awe and wonderment, Justin befriends Jinsen as they work together on a school project. When peer pressure affects them both, readers learn how Karma works for both boys and how Buddhism calls upon a “god inside” and eliminates “hungry ghosts” to make living more moral and peaceful.
Kindness: A Treasury of Buddhist Wisdom for Children and Parents by Sarah Conover (2001), wry and interesting short stories of traditions in India, Japan, and Tibet are told in fable form. Each story is prefaced with words of wisdom, and adolescent readers read through lyrical and delightful voices that share an ethos of Buddhism that relates to everyone’s life journey.
Does This Thing Make My Head Look Big? by Randa Abdel-Fatthah (2007), readers are introduced to the struggle of Amal, a normal yet faithful Muslim teenage girl. Knowing she will set herself up for discrimination at school and with peers, Amal decides to show her unwavering faithfulness by wearing the hajib everywhere every where she goes. This powerful book for teens, regardless of their beliefs in any religion, shows the strength of Amal. She is ridiculed, loses friends, and upsets the dress code of the school. Nevertheless, Amal remains true to her convictions. As a great role model for teenage girls, readers identify with Amal’s struggle to courageously stand in a world of peer pressure, the allure of television, and designer clothing trends.
Making a Difference: Putting Jewish Spirituality into Action, One Bar Mitzvah at a Time, by Bradley Shavit Artson (nonfiction, 2001) asks and answers universal questions from adolescents: in this faith, what will my life be like when I grow up? Stating that the Torah teaches that God made a sacred promise to the Jewish people, young readers can learn how to make a commitment between themselves and God.
The consideration of this question—to read or not to read spiritual/religious YAL books—has not only been fascinating but also a bit problematic. If we subscribe to the philosophy of theological professor Vigen Guroian who believes “the moral imagination needs to be cultivated like the tea rose in the garden. Left unattended and unfed, the rose will languish and a thistle will grow in its place” (178), then we must as literature teachers consider the role literacy plays in our moral development. Many of us have been raised on some “good soup” for the soul, but many of us, including today’s teens, have not. It is also natural that we further acknowledge that many teens are seeking spiritual indicators. Can they turn to a text for lessons on faith, repentance, or of multiplying their talents? Indirectly and if they read with a desire to know, I believe they can.
Nevertheless, with so many parties at play—parents and friends; teachers and pastors; creationists and evolutionists; Democrats and Republicans; Christians, Jews, and Muslims; and liberals and conservatives—I would never assume to know religious literature that would please all people. At face value, an enlarged understanding of how any religion works in the lives of others sounds innocuous enough, but for a Born-Again girl to be swept away by Hare Krishna literature would likely upset any set of Christian caregivers. I would, however, encourage going the first mile: ask each of us to re-examine the value of text, all text, and their abilities to accompany an adolescent on a spiritual quest. What lessons can be learned? What human attributes did we see evident in the story, and can we attribute those to our or any other value system? This is a bold but earnest statement: moral development can and does occur outside the context of organized religion, and teachers can, no, we must, use literature to support the spiritual quests.
As a final thought, we should read once again the important words of M.L. Mendt, “Spiritual Themes in Young Adult Books,” printed in the spring 1996 edition of the ALAN Review.
. . . many young adults are dealing with new understandings of concepts such as death, their own mortality, spiritual transcendence, and the soul. Young adulthood can be a time of loneliness, emotional turmoil, and confusion. However, it can also be a time of spiritual growth, introspection, and values clarification, especially when young adults can exercise their capabilities for formal operational thought through spiritual themes in young adult literature. Through such literature, their experiences are enhanced by exposure to information about various belief systems and the humans who subscribe to them, to characters in search of spiritual understanding or knowledge, and to characters integrating various beliefs into their emerging adult identities. All too soon, the crises of adulthood will be upon today’s young adults; they need now to begin building the spiritual foundations that will sustain them through the uncertain future. Staying within the safe and secular genres does not always make for a smooth ride through life. In adolescence, when days are filled with self-doubt, loneliness, anger, feelings of betrayal, and any number of real or perceived emotions, there must be self-help somewhere. I believe the help can be found on a bookshelf. As adults, we have known that for a long time, and may we have the courage to dig deeper in the shelves and suggest a spiritual book that highlights the teen’s world and the challenges inherent in young adult culture.
In conclusion, let’s return at this point to teen response from the anonymous survey. In question 5, when asked what school book has taught a moral or lesson in life, the final response illustrates our duty as teachers: “Most of the books I read don’t teach lessons.” Fortunately, we know this is not the case. Much of what we teach and read is grounded in social and religious mores, and as teachers, we must make those explicit text connections that engender qualitative changes in the way young individuals think and then act. We have accepted a moral duty to care for our children. We are bound by this concern, and undoubtedly many of us are bound by the promise of an ancient theologian: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Mathew 7:7).
The Holy Bible, King James Version. Salt Lake City, 1988.
Guroian, Vigen. Tending the Heart of Virtue. New York: Oxford University Press: 1998.
O’Connor, T. “Survey Research Design.” Megalinks in Criminal Justice. 4 Sept. 2008. http://www.apsu.edu/oconnort/3760/3760lect04.htm