Discussion: Religion in YA Books

December 17, 2017     laurathebibliophile     Discussion

I understand that this can be a bit of a sensitive topic for some people, but I think it’s a good topic for discussion. I am Catholic, and it’s an important part of my life. When I was a teenager, I participated in religion classes at my church, occasionally performed at Mass (Catholic church service), was a member of my church’s youth group, went to a Catholic music festival every summer, and even flew all the way to Australia for Catholic World Youth Day. (Yes, it was amazing.)

Most people enjoy finding a depiction of themselves in a book. Representation is SO important, friends. A lot of people talk about representation of race, of gender expressions and sexualities, of cultures, and the banishment of negative stereotypes. All of these things are incredibly important, but they are not what I’m talking about today. What not very many people talk about is representation of religion.

Pick up the YA book nearest you. Got it? What does that character believe, spiritually? Do they have a religion? If so, do they actually care about it and participate in it, or is it framed as a bare character point that really only exists as an afterthought? Try to list all the books you can think of where the YA characters actually discuss religion, or don’t dismiss it as something their parents do. Even many of my very favorite authors do this.

Now chastise me through the screen. “Laura,” tell me, “there are plenty of YA books where the character totally has a religion. They go to church. They care.”

Ah, dear reader, but do they really? Even the books I can scrounge up where the character does care, there is always a caveat. He cares about his religion and goes to church, but it’s just a sentence saying he was there. She’s Jewish, and she attends synagogue, but it doesn’t actually affect her character in any discernible way, and you wouldn’t notice if she didn’t outright tell you.

It starts to get frustrating. Why can’t a character sit in church service without daydreaming about being somewhere else? Why can’t a teen believe in a higher power without defending themselves by insisting that they’re just spiritual– they don’t go in for all that organized religion stuff. Organized religion is not for everyone. It’s not. Belief in and of itself is not for everyone, and all people are entitled to their own system.

It is also difficult to write about something in a YA book that you feel might make it less accessible or that might gunk up the plot. I know that there are many valid reasons for this, I do, but it still grates at me.

It’s tiring to only see something that is a big part of yourself represented very seldom and in painful stereotype when it’s present at all. Nuns, Monks, and Priests are often viewed as strict at best and cruel at worst. Convents are reduced to “places where they send troubled girls” and the belief system is represented as strict rules forced on poor teens who just want to live their own lives. I am sure that some people have had experiences like that, but that is not the church I have been in my entire life. The convents I’ve gone to have been lovely places where you are equally welcome to visit for reflection or for making pottery. I’ve come to prefer books that don’t mention Catholicism at all, due to the hurtfulness of the depictions I so often see.

What are your thoughts? Do you see your belief system in books? If not, does it bother you?

From my bookshelf to yours, Laura


4 responses to “Discussion: Religion in YA Books

  1. This so much! But I guess some YA authors tend to be unfair to religions and/or are atheist themselves so they just paint it all as evil and domineering, and literary every stereotype out there . I’ve seen literary agents say they want diverse books, but in the same breath say they don’t want manuscripts with religious themes which makes zero sense. You cannot fully appreciate a culture without considering how important religion is to a person from it.

    It’s really difficult to find YA that depict teens positively with religion. I had to read adult religious fiction as a teen myself because it was so hard to find them for my age group. Still, mostly, you have to stick religious teen books to even find it–which is still lacking considerably.

    I think people, especially adults outside a religious belief, seem to forget that teens across cultures can be genuinely interested and invested in their religions. Certain authors can perpetuate negative stereotypes whether they realize it or not.. Same way with movies.

  2. laurathebibliophile

    I agree. The thing is, so many publishers and authors agree that representing different cultures is important, but fail to realize that for a lot of people, their religion is a major part of their culture.

    • erinthebooknut

      This is one reason I enjoy Blink and Thomas Nelson titles. Since they are under the Harper Christian banner they have more Christian rep than what you see under the standard pub. Sadly other religions don’t have that and it is restricted to only one or two pubs.

  3. Jo

    I do agree that there seems to be a distinct lack of religion in YA considering how much a part of daily life it is for many people. Whilst personally, it’s not something that I can relate to or something I would write about, as I am an atheist and it just wouldn’t feel at all authentic coming from me, I definitely think it needs to be seen more. I just recently read a book of which religion does feature, the world has it’s own kind of religion as they have slightly different gods from ours, but it also features representation of Hinduism, which I thought was pretty cool.

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