Religion in YA Books • Dive Into Diversity

Dive Into Diversity Reading Challenge

Each Sunday, I found myself driving down the back roads of our small town with my grandparents, headed to our tiny Catholic church. I was baptized there and participated as a reader, attended Sunday school, and in high school was confirmed, too. I didn’t really know anything other than Catholicism until my sophomore year in high school when my best friend began asking me to attend her Wednesday night youth group at her Baptist church. The differences between her church and mine were night and day: there weren’t nearly as many rituals at hers, people talked a lot more openly about things like sin, sexuality, and who God is. It was then that I realized that not all churches are the same. I guess hypothetically I had known that before, but until I saw it in action, I didn’t know there could be something different.

[Full disclosure: I began going with Leslie because there was a cute boy involved.]

The summer after my Sophomore year, I went to a church camp in Glorieta, NM with Leslie’s youth group. I went hoping that I’d sit next to that cute boy on the way there and that sometime over that week he would FINALLY ask me to be his girlfriend. Spoiler alert: his dad was our bus driver to New Mexico and made a bet with him to see how many girls’ phone numbers he could get while he was there. We pulled into the camp and my heart was just crushed. Thank goodness I found out before all the festivities began because I think my sole focus would have remained pursuing him if I hadn’t found out the truth early on. Instead, I tried to ignore him and threw myself into bonding with my group and being active.

And it’s there that my heart really seemed to change and this whole idea of Christianity really became something more. It was more than just a proclamation. It was more than just attending church on Sundays. Sure I had a lot of questions and things I just didn’t know the answer to, but I felt anxious to seek out those answers and to explore religion in a whole new way.

This little piece of my history is something that still impacts my day-to-day life and it’s something I am searching for when I’m reading: What do the characters believe? Are they searching like I was (still am)?

I think at our core we’re curious humans and we like to test the waters. We don’t easily accept things at face value or believe things necessarily because we’re told to. There have been a few standout books for me that really reflected how it felt for me to question and seek those answers:

stealing parker, small town sinners, things i can't forget

Stealing Parker, Small Town Sinners, and Things I Can’t Forget have given me characters that aren’t always right, don’t know all the ins and outs of their beliefs, want to learn more, are flawed and imperfect, and they all struggle. Gosh, even as a nearly 30 year old woman (say WHAT?!) I still feel this way. I don’t always know what’s right or what I’m supposed to do. These books extend this amazing olive branch that say, “IT’S OKAY TO NOT KNOW!”

Perhaps what I’ve felt lately in a lot of my reading has been that there’s either a strong believe or a great nonchalance. In two books I recently read (The Last Time We Say Goodbye and Since You’ve Been Gone), the main characters both admit to having no faith as they’re going through these GIANT life changing events; the conversation stops there and once they’ve said, “I don’t know what to believe” that’s it. But I’ve also noticed that aside from Christianity, I’m not seeing a whole lot of exploration of other religions. Perhaps those with Christianity stand out to me because that’s what I identify with the most, but ideally, I’d really love to be able to update this post with a long list of books that explore other faiths. Religion and beliefs are just one of the multitude of things that make us diverse, and I’d love to see this tackled more in what I’m reading. I want to know my character’s struggles and strongholds.

So here you have it, my great question to you guys: Where is religion in young adult books? What books have you read that have done a really nice job exploring religion? 


Thanks for joining the discussion for this month’s Dive Into Diversity! Don’t forget to link-up with you diverse posts below. Rebecca, Estelle, and I cannot wait to read them and check out your blogs! If you haven’t had a chance to join the DID reading challenge, feel free to visit the intro post and use #DiversityDive on Twitter & Instagram!

Estelle: Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker

Small Town Sinners by Melissa C WalkerSmall Town Sinners by Melissa C. Walker ( web | twitter )
Publication Date: July 19, 2011
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 259
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: religion, prejudices, parents and their children
Format read: Borrowed from library

Summary: Lacey has been looking forward to auditioning for top billing of her church’s Hell House since as long as she can remember. But when a boy from her childhood comes back to town and things begin changing in her circle of friends, she starts to wonder about faith and what she has always been taught.

For those of you who didn’t know (I didn’t) — Hell Houses really exist. Designed to be a sort of Haunted House, it’s a live theater featuring different scenes (gay marriage, abortion, drunk driving) that are taken to new heights of horrifying in hopes of helping others to see “the light”. Our main character, Lacey, believes in the power of the church, her father (the children’s pastor), and Hell Houses. She believes she will be saving souls. (And all she had ever dreamed about is being the “Abortion Girl”.)

As a liberal person whose stance on religion differs from day to day, there were many things about Lacey and her friends that baffled me. I almost felt like they were living in a 1950s small town bubble while present day went on without them. (1 billion points to Walker for environment creation.) And their voices – especially Lacey’s and her best friend Starla Joy – were downright robotic (although passionate) as if reciting words and phrases directly from the Bible.

I don’t want to seem disrespectful. Religion is a very personal thing and we all have the luxury and freedom to believe what we want. But it was downright frustrating to hear how small minded these folks were. (Another billion points to Walker for voice and characterization.) Ty, a childhood friend of Lacey’s, coming back to town was like a much needed gust/hurricane of fresh air. I admire him for being so patient and artfully tiptoeing around his own truths and beliefs that might cause others to shun him. I’m not sure I would have been able to do the same.

There are 2 specific events that cause Lacey much grief and start her down this road of exploration. I’m so with her. It didn’t make sense that some people who were cruel did not face certain consequences. Or how quickly people turned on each other in times when support was needed. I’m being completely vague, I know, but I don’t want to give anything away. While Lacey struggles with her own beliefs (which aren’t necessarily the ones she has been spoonfed her whole life), her relationship with her family is changing too. As someone who was brought up to never question anything, suddenly her mind can’t stop wandering. Does she have to have everything figured out because of a passage in the Bible or is everything a case by case basis? If you eliminate the religious aspect, this is an issue all kids deal with when it comes to their parents – when is the right time to trust your instincts and what they have taught you so you can come to your own conclusions? (We see both sides here.)

I firmly believe in embarking on your own journey to figure out your faith — whether it be in religion or humanity or both. Walker truly gets Lacey and how her journey will be bumpy and difficult, causing her to ping pong between what she knows and what she feels is right. It’s equally hard for parents to come to terms with their child coming into their own. It’s scary and letting go is sometimes granting understanding, flexibility, and the opportunity to speak your mind without judgement. Or else risk resentment and detachment.

Small Town Sinners is a well-written and engrossing coming of age story. Despite the religious background (that continued to rub me the wrong way), Walker hits on many relevant issues that affect, frankly, anyone who is breathing. Acceptance, forgiveness, understanding, trust, bravery, and taking the first step in your own direction.

“Can anyone see the world any other way but through their own personal lens?”

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