ALAN v23n3 - Spiritual Themes in Young Adult Books

Volume 23, Number 3
Spring 1996

Spiritual Themes in Young Adult Books

K. L. Mendt

We Americans have plenty of material things: cars, houses, running shoes, brand name convenience foods, and video games. However, we often lack spiritual things: ceremonies, faith, a sense of transcendence, and spiritual connection. Spiritual poverty can leave us empty and lost when we experience a crisis in our lives, such as a divorce, a layoff, a long-distance move, a life-threatening illness, or the death of someone close.

A crisis in the lives of young adults is the psychosocial crisis of identity versus role confusion as described by Erik Erikson. It is the task of the adolescent to leave childhood behind and to define herself, to create an identity that can sustain her through the loss of innocence that we know of as the passage into adulthood. Those who remember young adulthood might agree that the passage can be as emotionally confusing and exhausting for the adolescent as any crisis an adult might face. Young adults can thus benefit from a sense of spirituality in their lives, an aspect of themselves they can draw on to help them integrate their new understandings of adult concepts, concepts such as their own mortality, for example.

Because young adults are immersed in the psychosocial crisis of identity definition and are beginning to decide for themselves what they will ultimately believe in terms of spirituality, young adulthood is an opportune time to explore spirituality. It is an opportune time to learn about the myriad belief systems operating in our world, the young adult quest for spiritual knowledge, and the young adult process of identity definition in relation to spirituality. Many young adult books can provide the spiritual information young adults need to assuage the loneliness of their passage; some of the possibilities are presented here.

Knowledge of Belief Systems
One way in which young adults can benefit from reading literature with spiritual themes is through an enlarged understanding of religious beliefs. The often compelling and action-packed offerings of many writers can grab and hold the younger reader long enough to interest him in unfamiliar countries and religions. In addition, the characters make beliefs and practices real, more immediate to the reader. In Pamela Service's The Reluctant God , for example, the main character is Ameni, an adolescent ancient Egyptian whom modern, fourteen-year-old Lorna awakens 4000 years after his death. Ameni was entombed at an early age because he became a god upon his father's death and was thus sacrificed to guard the ancient Egyptian dead. Ameni had quite a nice life before becoming a god, and was not thrilled at the prospect of dying so young nor at gallivanting around England with Lorna, 4000 years later, looking for a stolen urn. Service's writing pulls the reader into Ameni's reluctance, his search for the urn, and his experiences in both ancient and modern Egypt. The story also conveys basic information about the Ancient Egyptians and their spiritual beliefs and shows how concern for the dead is a point of contact among many belief systems.

A young adult novel that explains basic Buddhism while solving a mystery and pointing out the peculiar problems and joys of the life of a military family is Carol Farley's Ms. Isabelle Cornell, Herself . In this book, preteen Isabelle moves to Korea with her family and uses her new-found knowledge of Buddhism to solve a mystery on the military base. The reader experiences the culture shock of Isabelle's unhappy move to Korea, her attempts to navigate in Seoul (both physically and spiritually), and the effect upon her minister stepfather when she declares herself a Buddhist. Her stepfather's reaction points out similarities between Buddhism and Christianity. Meanwhile, the mystery Isabelle is compelled to solve keeps the plot moving.

Three other books that illustrate the daily lives of people subscribing to various belief systems include M. E. Kerr's Is That You, Miss Blue? , in which Christian boarding school students witness the persecution of a teacher who believes she has communicated with Jesus; Suzanne Fisher Staples' Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind , in which readers learn about young Shabanu's experience in rebelling against her Moslem/Pakistani heritage; and Chaim Potok's The Chosen , in which the friendship of two young Jewish boys is severely tested as they grow into young men because of their families' different interpretations of Judaism.

Another benefit of these novels is that they provide young adults with points of contact between religion and history. Religious beliefs fueled many events we now consider to be of major historical importance, and students need background on world religions to understand history. Even history-in-the-making requires a basic understanding of belief systems for intelligent response. A good example of a young adult book that illustrates this connection between religion and recent history is Sonia Levitin's The Return . In The Return , an Ethiopian Jew named Desta, persecuted in her own country, makes a long and dangerous trek to a camp in Sudan as the first leg of her journey to Israel. Desta, already an orphan, loses her older brother during the journey and has to grow up fast as she becomes responsible for her younger sister, Almaz. She later joins a group of friends (including the boy she is betrothed to) and finishes the journey to Sudan. However, they nearly die of starvation and thirst on the way to the camp because famine has come to the area. In the final chapter, Desta arrives at the Western Wall and compares herself to "the captives who returned from Babylon to reclaim Jerusalem once again as their home" (Levitin, p. 177) . She feels she, too, has returned.

The Quest for Spiritual Knowledge
Another common thread in spiritual literature is that of the quest for spiritual knowledge or the spiritual journey. Many of the characters in young adult books journey in search of knowledge of good and evil, of the self, and of the meaning and mysteries of life. In Anpao: An American Indian Odyssey by Jamake Highwater , Anpao sets out to find his father, the sun, to ask his permission to marry. During his long journey, Anpao hears stories of the origin of the world and of its many creatures and strange phenomena. He becomes a man through his journey because he learns to see how good and evil exist in all things, including himself. The journey ultimately becomes so important to him that Anpao says, "I have become my journey and my journey has become me. Without it I am nothing. When I pause I forget who I am or why I exist" (Highwater, p. 123).

Another book in which the character and the journey merge is Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha , a book many remember from their own young adult days. It is the story of Siddhartha's lifelong search for knowledge about himself and the meaning of life, as well as his quest for spiritual peace and for the source of reality. Siddhartha wants to begin his quest because he feels he already possesses all of the knowledge his community can give him. However, Siddhartha's father will not approve of Siddhartha's plans. Siddhartha thus attempts to overcome his father's authority through sheer obstinence in a scene that will strike chords of recognition in many readers, both young adult and adult. After wearing his father down, Siddhartha begins a physical and spiritual journey that takes him from religious fanaticism to material and sensual depravity and ultimately to the knowledge he seeks. Siddhartha has been a landmark novel for generations of young adults and will probably continue to be so for generations to come.

Two other books concerned with spiritual journeys are Walkabout by James Vance Marshall and The Island by Gary Paulsen . In Walkabout , two American children stranded in the Australian Outback meet a bush boy who is on a spiritual quest for manhood. The bush boy helps the children, but by doing so allows the children to inadvertently endanger his journey to manhood. In Paulsen's The Island , fourteen-year-old Wil finds (or is found by) an uninhabited island in Wisconsin that becomes his spiritual home. On the island he meditates, writes, paints, and seeks to know . But his unconventional search for knowledge makes many people, such as his parents, uncomfortable because they just cannot see the value in Wil's pursuits, nor in his connection to the island.

The importance of the young adult journey, in both fiction and life, is not the destination but the experiences of the journey, the experiences that can make us human, understanding, and wise. The pilgrims in young adult literature show readers that if they fix their eyes on the goal, they might miss the journey, and forget, as Anpao says, who they are or why they exist.

Identity Definition in Relation to Spirituality
Young adults, in defining themselves, choose from the myriad beliefs available those beliefs that contribute to the identities they mold, identities that differentiate them from the rest of the seemingly monolithic adult world. The struggle to differentiate, to avoid conformity and develop individual identity, should be a struggle in which they recognize their uniqueness but in which they also discover how values and beliefs are shared by humans all over the world. For example, a student might realize that various explanations for the origin of the world, although dissimilar at first glance, show a common core of values: the preference for good acts over evil acts, for example, and the importance of spiritual growth. It is the young adult's task to choose those beliefs whose answers most satisfy her.

Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima exemplifies this notion of a variety of beliefs but with common values, from which six-year-old Tony must choose his own path to salvation. Should he believe in the old magic of Ultima, the curandera , the Catholic faith of his mother, or la gente's legend of the golden carp? This notion of choice as the foundation of identity is echoed in his options for his future: a farmer-priest as his mother, a Luna, desires; a vaquero as his father, a Marez, desires; or a scholar, as Ultima the curandera , seems to see as his future. It is Tony's task to assess the possibilities and decide for himself what he will adopt as his own set of beliefs.

Another book in which the main character searches for his own answers is Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach . Jonathan is in search of the right way for him, for the beliefs that most fit with his vision of life, a vision in which perfect knowledge of flight is the highest goal. Jonathan leaves behind the rest of the seagull crowd but gains paradise and transcendence. Two particularly appealing aspect of Bach's book are its search for principles around which to build a life and its main character, Jonathan, who is a bird and, therefore, not a member of any established religion. In addition, the book is simple enough for the most immature young adult, yet at the same time conceptually dense enough to satisfy more mature readers.

A final example of young adult literature showing young adults making spiritual choices as a foundation for adult identity is Katherine Paterson's Jacob Have I Loved . In this novel, the narrator, Sarah Louise, enters adolescence and plunges into turmoil, blaming her beautiful, talented twin sister Caroline and the Bible verse about the twins Jacob and Esau (Romans 9:13, "Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated") for her bitterness. Her rage, however, finally spurs her into building herself "a soul" (Paterson, p. 228) and a life of her own. To develop a life of one's own is the task of young adulthood, and Jacob Have I Loved portrays that struggle with insight and compassion.

Many young adults are truly in crisis during the passage into adulthood for a variety of reasons. In addition, 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.

A Selection of Young Adult Books with Spiritual Themes: An Annotated Bibliography
  • Anaya, Rudolfo. Bless Me, Ultima. Berkeley: TQS, 1972.
    A very young Chicano boy becomes a man as he searches for the true source of salvation and questions the destinies his parents dream of for him.
  • Bach, Richard. Jonathan Livingston Seagull . Avon, 1970.
    A seagull strivesĀ for perfect knowledge of flight. He finds paradise, becomes a teacher of others, and learns to transcend both space and time.
  • Coatsworth, Elizabeth. The Cat Who Went to Heaven . Aladdin/Macmillan, 1990.
    A Japanese artist is convinced by his cat's example to include the cat in a painting of Buddha and the animal reincarnations he experienced.
  • Craven, Margaret. I Heard the Owl Call My Name. Dell, 1973.
    A young Catholic priest, who does not know he will soon die, discovers the spirituality and sadness of a dwindling group of Native Americans in the Northwest. Before he dies, he learns what life is about.
  • Farley, Carol. Ms. Isabelle Cornell, Herself . Atheneum, 1980.
    A preteen experiences a minister stepfather, Korea, and Buddhism, and solves a mystery.
  • Hesse, Hermann. Siddhartha . New Directions, 1951.
    The classic story of the young Siddhartha's quest for spiritual wisdom.
  • Highwater, Jamake. Anpao: An American Indian Odyssey . Lippincott, 1977.
    Anpao, son of the Sun, sets out to find his father so that he can get permission to marry his true love. On his way he hears stories of the origin of the world, of its creatures, and of strange phenomena, and has many adventures. On his return he encounters the damage done by the arrival of new peoples in his lands.
  • Kerr, M.E. Is That You, Miss Blue? Dell, 1975.
    Those in charge of a girls' parochial boarding school persecute anyone different: poor students, atheists, and a teacher who has a strong faith and believes she has communicated with Jesus.
  • Levitin, Sonia. The Return . Fawcett Juniper, 1978.
    Desta, a young Ethiopian Jew, leaves her home because of religious persecution and journeys to a camp in Sudan in hopes of making it to Israel.
  • Marshall, James Vance. Walkabout . Sundance, 1959.
    Two American children stranded in the Australian Outback meet a bush boy who ultimately dies because the children circumvent his spiritual quest for manhood.
  • Paterson, Katherine. Jacob Have I Loved . Harper Trophy, 1980.
    A young girl feels always second to her sister, like the twins Jacob and Esau of the Bible. She feels God despises her for no reason and makes her life go sour, but before she is completely lost to bitterness she begins to forge a new identity and life.
  • Paulsen, Gary. The Island . Dell, 1988.
    Wil finds an island that becomes a spiritual home for him. On the island he can meditate, write, and paint. But his living on the island makes some people uncomfortable.
  • Potok, Chaim. The Chosen . Simon and Schuster, 1967.
    Two teenage boys, one Orthodox and the other Hassidic, meet when one tries to kill the other with a baseball. They develop a deep and abiding friendship that is put to several difficult tests.
  • Rylant, Cynthia. Missing May . Dell Yearling, 1992.
    May dies and Ob misses her so much that he considers trying to contact her. Instead, he makes contact with those around him.
  • ______. A Fine White Dust . Dell Yearling, 1986.
    Pete is saved by a drifting revivalist preacher and decides God has called him to bring the word of God to others. But Pete's faith is tested.
  • Service, Pamela. The Reluctant God . Atheneum, 1988.
    Lorna wakens Ameni, who has been asleep in his tomb for 4000 years, and together they try to recover an artifact which guarantees eternal rest for ancient Egyptians.
  • Staples, Suzanne Fisher. Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind . Knopf/Borzoi Sprinters, 1989.
    Twelve-year-old Shabanu would rather take care of the camels than marry, especially when circumstances force her to marry a man 20 or more years her senior. But the norms of her Pakistani/Moslem culture dictate that she submit.

K. L. Mendt has been a technical writer and is now a high school English teacher. He prepared this article for a class in literature for adolescents at the University of Colorado at Denver.