Sunday, December 20, 2009

Oh. My. God. -- Religion in YA ('Tis the season, after all!)

How many times do teen characters say "Oh my God" in novels? Or OMG. Or the super duper emphatic "Oh. Em. Gee." (Look how much a pause does to increase dramatic tension. I heart punctuation.) But rarely -- and I mean RARELY -- do we ever get a peek into the actual religious beliefs of a character.

It's as if most YA novels are permanently stuck in "Happy Holidays" mode. Some generic belief in God has an implied existence in every character's life, but not a whisper concretely exists.

Obvious Exceptions Off the Top of My Head:
(Meaning these Exceptions came from 5'4" above the ground. 
Not the tallest Exceptions, but you forgive me, right?)
Christian novels:

Novels about the daughter/son of a preacher/minister:

Novels centering on / mourning a death:

Novels about religious confusion:
(This was the cover when I read it!)

Last time I checked (about 10 seconds ago), 95% of Americans believe in some sort of deity or higher power. 83% believe specifically in God.

[I actually looked that one up! (And not on Wikipedia.) Go me!]

Are there novels that mention a character's religious affiliation? Sure.

But here's what I don't see -- characters going to a church / synagogue / mosque / temple. Or even mentioning that they're going. Or praying, like, at night. Or before meals. (Oh wait, they don't eat.)

Did I miss the memo? Is religion one of those things that's supposed to be assumed? Like how characters poop? (Not that we need to see those scenes, but honestly, if they didn't, many more novels would be set in a doctor's office with intestinal-centric plots.)

This is what concerns me though -- belief or non-belief in a higher power is intrinsic to who your character is. How they operate in the world. In fantasy, especially, religion is a key part of world-building.

I'm not saying that a character should go to church in every single novel. Or throw in a well-placed "Funny you should say that. I was reading the Bible last night..." But there's no way that NO ONE goes to church. Even if it's only because their parents force them. There must be some characters for whom religion is a tiny bit active in their lives. And high school is all about questioning and testing the BIG THINGS in life -- authority, sexuality, and smoldering gazes religion. So shouldn't religion be sprinkled in? I'm feeling untapped potential here.

What got me on this topic?
1) I spent 12 years in Catholic school, so religion was a big part of every (week)day in my teen years. (God and I had a very straightforward relationship, but Catholicism and I? Ohhhh it was complicated.)
2) I recently realized that I'd one of my characters, June, was pretty dedicated to Judaism, but in nearly 100,000 words, I never once hinted to her attending synagogue.

Books that don't fit into my Exceptions categories but do, in fact, incorporate religion/beliefs naturally in the plot:
Nya believes in the Saints, but she definitely questions them.

New Moon
Edward doesn't want to turn Bella because he believes that vampirism damns your soul to hell. Bella soooo does not care.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth
Mary has grown up with the Sisterhood ruling everything, but when her mother becomes Unconsecrated, she questions her faith in God and everything she's ever known.

Here's one thing I'm afraid of --- everyone's so concerned about being politically correct and appealing to a wide audience that they just leave religion untouched. Notice that all my examples were fantasy -- where's religion in the real world?

Hey, one example!
How to Be Bad
Jesse is a devout Christian, which causes tension in her relationship with her best friend.

Or is religion just a nonissue for most teens?
Or am I overthinking this?

For me, the jury's still out on the topic. The one thing I'm sure of -- even if religion NEVER appears on the page, every author needs to know what his/her characters believe. Religion appears a couple times in my novel -- mostly for June, because it's a source of tension in her family. Maddy, on the other hand, doesn't have religion as an active part of her life at all. Nina's somewhere in the middle.

I'd love some opinions! Would you object to more religion in YA novels, if it were included in an organic way? Are you including religion in your novel? What are some other examples of religion in YA, especially in realistic fiction?


  1. Personally, I'm fine without the religion.

    I spent 8 years going to my weekly CCD classes on top of regular school, then HAD to go to church every week for months leading up to my confirmation, sick or not. Now, a year, two months, and two days after my confirmation, I'm dreading the fact that I might have to go to church once again at 9:30 in the morning tomorrow/today. Even though there's a blizzard outside.

    I believe in God and religion will always hold a place in my life. But actually going to church is becoming an act I despise because, let's face it, how many sleep deprived teens want to wake up at 9 in the morning on a weekend to spend an hour listening to someone else talk? Especially when the person has such a strong accent they can barely be understood or they're talking down to everyone like my local priests? I'd rather worship my way but instead I get more church than I could ever want.

    Bottom line is that there's enough religion forced on me in my real life. I'm perfectly happy not adding it in anymore in my happy place of reading.

  2. Ugh I am not missing religion in a YA novel, or in fact in any novel. But that is because I am Agnostic so...

    I say that if the book doesn't need it than its better without it. Like for example not going to the bathroom or eating. It's something that takes up space and it's not really necessary if the story doesn't need it.

    Like in The Hunger Games the girl ate every chapter because the eating was a big theme on the story. If religion ain't a big theme of your story just leave it out.

  3. If I'm remembering right, Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr focuses pretty much on the MC's (who's name I'm blanking on) faith and her struggle to get through her current situation and her decisions to go to God with her problems or not.
    Honestly, as a teen, religion isn't a huge part of my life. I went to church almost every Sunday from the age of 5 until I was about 14. Now, at 16, it's my choice. My parents sometimes go, but I choose to go with them or not.
    In YA I think when the author mentions a charcter's faith/going to church, the novel is often classified as Religious Fic. by the community and sadly that means a lot of people will avoid it competely.
    I'd like to see a character who's faith is just a part of who she is yet doesn't consume her or take over the story.
    Just my opinion :)
    Also, please ignore any typos, I wrote this comment from my phone.

  4. I had a very nonreligious upbringing (I only went to church for weddings and funerals) so it's something I can't relate to. I also don't believe in God (but have no problem with other people's beliefs) and therefore I'm reluctant to have it play an active role in any of my stories. I don't know if I could convey that kind of faith convincingly this it's something I've never understood.

    I'm Australian and can't recall having any friends that went to church regularly if at all. It's something that I've honestly not thought about putting into my stories.

    Thanks for the post, religion fascinates me.

  5. oh what a thought-provoking post!

    This is something I've definitely pondered over as well. In my own writing, I haven't really touched on it. I believe in God and certainly have a relationship with Him, but I *think* I'm inclined to agree with what Taschima commented. If religion/faith is a major part of the story, then it should be included. If it's not, then the novel flows just as well without a mention of it.

    Though, also, I definitely agree with you that whether or not it's mentioned, an auther certainly needs to know what their characters believe.

  6. As an atheist I am (obviously) fine without religion in these stories. I've been wanting to read The Dark Divine and still will but the religion bit I admit gives me pause. Honestly, there are so many books to read that if a story has christian main character I probably would use that as an indicator not to read it. I am probably kind of biased being brought up in a very christian home and that has made me adverse to it.

  7. I am always pleased to find a YA book where religion is part of who the character is. Personally, I think it usually isn't included because of the perception that if MC is Lutheran and Catholic reads it now the MC is less identifiable and if its not important to the story why incude; plus, I think that editors/writers may also be like the comments so far (belief doesn't equal organized religion/church/synagogue attendance.

    You omit one area of religion in YA that I think is fairly well represented: moving away from faith/organized religion/belief, for example, GODLESS by Pete Hautmann (what I call the "smart kids realize religion is bunk and full of hypocrites" book)

    Some stories with religion in YA I've enjoyed:
    STAINED by Jennifer Richard Jacobson
    MILLIONS by Frank Boyce
    CLAY by David Almond
    NICK & NORAH'S NO PLAY LIST by Cohn & Leviathan
    DOES MY HEAD LOOK BIG IN THIS by Randa Abdul-Fattah

    VOYA did a multiple issue series on religion on YA. I was less than enthused about some of the books they included, as mainstream religion issues included books that often painted the religion/believers in a negative light, while less mainstream religions did not include those books.

  8. I have an example of my own. Dirty Little Angels, by Chris Tusa. It's about a girl and her brother. They feel lost, so they find a safe haven in a religious court which is a little too dark for confort.

  9. I think making a character religious (in a book where religion isn't necessary to the plot) could be polarizing, just as it would be to say a character is a Democrat or a Republican. You risk having 50% of the country pre-judge the character in a way you may not want. If you make a character very Christian, you risk putting off atheists, agnostics, jews, hindus, etc. who may not be able to relate to the character.

    And, honestly, religious or not, most teens find church boring. They don't want it in their books. Just as they don't need to read about the character pooping, peeing, etc.

    If it's integral to the plot, that's different.

    The Dark Divine is VERY churchy, but I think it's integral to the plot. Don't want to give spoilers. ;)

  10. Awesome post! I've had the same thoughts when reading YA books. I grew up in church, and while I quit going during my teen years God and everything else was still a part of my life. I know some people might think putting that in their book might give it a "Christian Fiction" genre, but I don't see how if it's not the main center of the book, ya know. I think it's great when more authors have God and religion in their books because like you said over half the population believes in a higher power and believes in God.

  11. Wow -- Thanks for all the thoughtful comments, guys! Religion in mainstream YA is definitely something people feel strongly about -- one way or the other!

    Julie - Yes, waking up early on the weekend is awful! In high school I also felt oversaturated with religion. Do you think you'd identify with a character who's forced to go to church too?

    Taschima - Excellent point -- religion shouldn't be included just for the sake of inclusion. That's a big no-no for any element of a novel!

    Emilee - That's some skilled phone typing! It's true -- even the tiniest religion scares some people away. I'm 100% with you on faith being a natural part of a character, just like a sense of humor -- not everything, but a piece of the whole.

    Jade - Thanks for commenting! I've always been fascinated by everyone's different religious belief. I mean, people fight wars over this stuff!

    Sara - I agree. There will definitely be some novels I write that have no religion whatsoever... but you still need to understand your characters!

    Anonymous - I would actually love to read a novel with an atheist main character in a Christian household, even if that's just the background of the actual plot. I do not envy you the possible real life conflicts, though.

    Liz - Thanks for the great list! I'm definitely against painting anyone in a bad light because of their belief or non-belief. (A character might be prejudiced, but I wouldn't want an overall book to have that!)

    Barnsdale - That books sounds interesting! Thanks for the add.

    Anonymous - I agree, there's the potential for polarizing. I think it's all in how the author handles it and weaves it in naturally. (TDD is a great example.) And unless a church scene significantly furthers the internal or external conflict, no one wants to read about someone else attending church!

    JYTBB - Thanks for the input! A lot of people comment that they stopped attending church in their teens, which says something about how much our opinions of religion change at that age!

  12. To me it doesn't matter if there is or isn't religion in a novel. As long as it's not preachy (which I've never encountered) then it's all good. I like reading about characters with different beliefs and opinions. I think it's great and also important to have a fair representation many different teens in YA.

  13. Yes, I was also going to recommend Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr as an example of when religion is present but does not become a big conflict within the story. I think that people don't really write about religion because there's this big thing about separation of church and state. Mainly, it's the argument of, well, you can't write about this because it has the possibility of becoming a touchy subject. Please. It's not necessary to have something "different" become a controversial topic in everything.

    Personally, I don't really relate to religious settings or characters in books, but I also don't mind their presence. I think it would be nice to see more religious characters, where religion is a part of their lives but not something that is controversial. It's kind of like how I feel about minority characters in books.

  14. Oh, have you read Evolution, Me, & Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande yet? This religious girl has been kicked out of her church for her beliefs and actions, and then there's this huge uproar when the school tries to teach evolution in science classes. I thought it was a well-written portrayal of how one can still be religious and "smart," "open-minded," "science-minded," etc. all these words that make religion sound like close-minded conservative bashers, but they don't all have to be.

  15. I write YA and as I didn't "discover" God until later in my own life, I have no problem leaving it out. My kids would have a problem writing a book without it, because my kids grew up with it, but I didn't. So...that's my take on things. Everyone is best writing from their own frame-of-reference on this one.

  16. This is great. I love this topic and am so glad you opened this discussion! I want to say something deep and intelligent--but I'm busted for time right now. I'm coming back, though, I promise!

  17. I'm with Anonymous2 and Tina Lynn. I don't think teens would want to read about religion or their characters going to church unless it was important, or unless something happened there, and it could definitely cause some issues for readers if they judge a character. I also think that church scenes just for the sake of making sure the reader knows the character attends church (or CCD, temple, etc.) would probably get cut. But if it could be neatly weaved into the plot (instead of setting events at the school dance, set them at a church dance, etc.) it might be excellent for teen readers who want to read about someone like them.

    Like Tina Lynn said, it all depends on how you were brought up or how you live now. I probably won't write religion into the plot much because I'm not particularly religious (although I was pretty serious about my Catholicism around the time of my Confirmation). It wouldn't even occur to me to have my characters at church, since I don't go. But if I ever did write a novel with religious characters, I would definitely want to mention their religious activities.

    Great post! It's definitely giving me something to think about...

  18. I don't know if this goes for everyone, but me and my friend were talking once a few years ago, when we were in 7th grade, about religion.
    We were saying that sometimes religion can make us feel almost uncomfortable, because in this crazy world, we aren't even sure what we believe in, and when people talk about it, we are always afraid of either them A. trying to force their beliefs on us or B. them silently or even openly judging us for not being sure of our beliefs.
    Books that mention religion aren't as 'scary' as books 100% about religion, and those aren't as 'scary' as actual conversations with people about religion. But it still makes me feel almost unworthy to those that have strong belief systems.

    But maybe thats just us.

  19. But that being said, I have read books that were religious books. Maybe its the knowing that the book will beal with religion is what makes it easier for me to want to pick up. So I agree with the people that say include if its important dont if its not.

    Or maybe not. I dont know, I'm never good with chosing sides. Because I understand the other side of the issue. Because if drinking drugs and sex can all be casually mentioned but not be important plot points, why shouldn't religion be able to be mention with out being an important plot point?

    Ugh, so this is why my beliefs are so all over the place, because I cant help but understand both side of everything.

  20. This issue has definitely crossed my mind as I write. Do you mention your mc praying or wishing or merely hoping? It seems to me writers are concerned not only with alienating some of their potential readers, but also with having ther work classified as a "religious" book. IMO, unless it's a focal point of the plot or characterization, then it can take a back seat. It seems to me that unless the character/story is making a statement on religion or faith, that the character's belief system can shine through without an overt declaration.

  21. Thanks for bringing up this topic. It seems like religion is the last taboo among mainstream publishers, perhaps because they feel religious publishers have this market covered. Religious publishers hobble their writers will all kinds of restrictions, though. No cursing, no drinking (not even adults of legal age), etc. Faith is supposed to have something to say about life, real life, not one that's been sanitized beyond all recognition.

    For some teens, faith is a huge piece of who they are. It gives them a sense of purpose and challenges them to mature into ethical people. Still, they have to function in a world that’s less than picture perfect. Kids like this read. A lot. I think there is untapped market here--books in which messy life and faith collide. I'm trying to do my part, but who knows if I'll ever find a publisher.

  22. This is fascinating to me. Particularly because the book we'll work on next has some pretty heavy religious themes involved. Great post gals!

  23. Wow, I feel like I'm late to the party-that's what I get for going on Vacation. Um...I play both sides on this one. My reaction to religion in books (or lack thereof) depends entirely on the story itself. If the religion is an organic part of the story, love having it there. If it's not a part of the character and they put it in anyway, it feels weird and preachy.

    Personally, I left religion out of my current story entirely--but that's a very conscious decision and has a lot to do with the fact that in the fantasy world my characters inhabit, there is no religion. There's no absence of religion either (i.e. they aren't atheists). Religion is just an entirely foreign concept, so it doesn't come up. Whether or not that will change as the series progresses is still TBD, but for now, that's where it stands, and I'd prefer it stay that way, only because I think adding religion to the story would feel out of place. (Plus, I think a lot of times people associate the character's beliefs with the author's beliefs, and vice versa, and my own personal beliefs are not something I like to discuss in relation to my character's beliefs)

    Thanks for the interesting post, and sorry I haven't been commenting lately. I've become guilty of Blurking. :)

  24. Eek! So many AMAZING COMMENTS!

    Michelle - I am SO not a fan of preachy. But heck yes for fair representation!

    Steph – Thanks for the recommendations! I haven’t read either, but I’ve heard good things about both. And you’re very right – just because something has the potential to be controversial doesn’t mean an author should shy away from it. I also dislike cliché portrayals of “religious” or “devout” characters in novels – middle ground, please!

    Tina – Excellent point. I went to Catholic school, but my family wasn’t really churchgoing or super religious, so there’s my frame of reference. But I’ve always been fascinated by religion as a whole, so I love writing characters with differing beliefs.

    Beth – Glad you liked it! Can’t wait to hear your thoughts. (Ohhh pressure’s on! Hehehe)

    Heather – Yes, I’m also totally against putting anything in a novel “just because.” I’m intrigued to see more mainstream characters who maybe believe in God but aren’t necessarily an active part of a religious community (because I think they’re underrepresented the most) – as long as it fits smoothly into the narration.

    Mandy – Love that you brought this up! My friends and I would sometimes have long conversations about what we’re taught vs. what we believe, what we do in our own lives, etc. Because you start forming your own opinions about the world during your teen years, it’s the perfect time to really question those “big ideas.” And yes, it can be very unsettling. But I think that’s why it’s perfect to approach in YA. Also, I love the point you made that drinking/drugs/sex aren’t as taboo as religion.

    Carolina – “The character's belief system can shine through without an overt declaration” – That’s exactly how I see it, though of course neither of us are against overt declaration. But it just doesn’t have to be a big deal!

    Laurel – Well put! I mean, I cursed as a teen, but because of my Catholic background, I’d think “I probably shouldn’t curse so much,” and I’d try to stop. (I’m still working on it.) It’s so tough as a teen to navigate your own view of right and wrong in light of what you’ve learned from authority figures and religion.

    Lisa and Laura – As always, can’t wait to read anything you’ve written! I’m intrigued!

    Shannon – I know - I was gone most of the day, so it’s amazing catching up on all this! It’s great that you know how religion fits (or doesn’t fit, in your case) into your fantasy world. That’s the main idea – to at least know in your own mind, so that you’re not leaving a hole on the page. And the first step to Blurking recovery is to admit you have a problem, so you’re on your way!

  25. I think the story is the important thing. I've read Once was Lost (loved it). Sara Zarr managed to create characters who were flawed because they were human and not because they had faith in God. What bothers me in fiction is when the christian (or other faith)characters are heavily sterotyped and not written just as people with a certain belief. I've read Evolution, Me and other Freaks of Nature and really liked it as well because the author makes a case that faith and science can co-exist, though the pastor in this case was a sterotyped hypocrite as were all the kids in the youth group. So, I guess what I'm saying is if you are going to write about people of faith, steer clear of stereo types and just write a good story.

  26. Oooo- good topic.

    I would love to see more religion in YA novels. Or novels in general, really. I think that spirituality is a huge part of character, and to ignore it means your character is less well-rounded and less integrated with their world. Especially in fantasy settings, as you mentioned. However, I am tired of "Christian" novels that really read more like moralization than good stories. Tough balance to achieve.

  27. Elle - "What bothers me in fiction is when the christian (or other faith) characters are heavily sterotyped and not written just as people with a certain belief." Yes!

    Not Nessie - For most teens, moralizations are a big turnoff, so it's definitely a delicate balance. But sometimes you can have a devout Christian character without the story becoming moralistic - like in HOW TO BE BAD - because Jesse was only one element of the novel. (That novel is SO not moralistic in the least.)

  28. In my YA 1st Novel of 3, The Obsidian Mask, the protagonist, a girl of 15 envies two other teens who pray together in a scene where they are all tied up together having been kidnapped and held for ransom. She wishes she could believe as they do. I have conveyed to the reader that belief isn't so much a choice, but an ability, and sometimes those that wish they could believe still have trouble doing so...
    its not a big thing in the book, but adds to the building of the character of the girl. It also lets readers know that sometimes atheists try but still cant believe. its like a missing God gene.

  29. I just finished Taken By Storm, which was interesting because it was the first book I've read that deals with religion, where the MC isn't questioning and trying to escape her religion, but embracing/believing in it. (Oddly most of the books dealing with religion are Mormon) There was still a few times were the MC was talking to her BF about her religion, and about how it can help him that still aroused the discomfort level for me, but I still loved the story. In order for a story to have depth, it has to have some discomfort factor, so I don't see why religion could be that factor.

  30. C - Thanks for giving us a great example of how a writer can include it in a small but meaningful way in his or her own work. And atheism and agnosticism both have a place in YA.

    Mandy - Good example! It sounds like the author kept the religious beliefs adhered to the character, which keeps the novel as a whole from being preachy. Plus, if some of the characters aren't super religious, it's not overwhelming.


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