Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Pious YA

Lots and lots and lots of teens are very religious Christians. Are there books for them in mainstream YA literature, or is YA a vast wasteland of inappropriate content and unrelatable characters? I read two books recently with Evangelical Christian protagonists: Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande, and the brand-new Pure by Terra Elan McVoy.

(A note about terminology: "Evangelical Christian" is perhaps not the right term, but it's the best one I can come up with; it's what evokes the way religion is treated in these books for me. Tabitha in Pure is probably a mainline Protestant, but her beliefs and ways of expressing them are similar to that of evangelicals I have known.)

I picked up Evolution because I read a blog review that said this had a lot of "Christian-bashing", and I was curious to see if I thought this was true, or a case of someone taking offense where there's none to be found. It's the story of Mena, who was kicked out of her church (and, therefore, alienated from all of her friends) for getting the other kids in trouble when they harass a boy at their school. Mena's friends' next project is to keep evolution out of their biology class, and Mena finds herself unsure what to think either about her friends or about evolution. She falls in with a group of politically active students (including an awesome boyfriend) and--I'm sure this is not really a spoiler--ends up being able to reconcile her religious beliefs with evolution, based on stuff she finds in the Bible and advice from a teacher who really shares way too much with her student (my main quibble with the book; this part was both uncomfortable and incredibly didactic, and felt like a liberal-religious tract). While Mena sort of abandons her previous belief system for a liberal Protestant attitude, I didn't find any Christian-bashing whatsoever, only bashing of cruel behavior and unthinking obedience. It is, in fact, a pro-Christian book, and I think might be an uncomfortable read for a teenager who wasn't. I liked that Mena mentioned just a couple of times that she's planning to "wait for marriage"; it isn't a focus of the book, but she doesn't necessarily act like it's going to be a piece of cake.

That IS the focus of Pure--the hot topic of purity rings, True Love Waits style. Pure is a muddled book, with characters that aren't fleshed out well and a crazy climactic school assembly where every club from the Model UN to the Golf Club performs an elaborate and meaningful presentation (I could write a whole post about the strangeness of this scene, but I'll just say that it felt like School Assembly Ex Machina and was not unlike one of my favorite parts of High School Musical, except without the semi-unintentional hilarity). The protagonist, Tabitha, does talk about her religious beliefs quite a bit, but they never felt quite sincere to me; I could only read her as a girl who firmly believes in purity rings now but will abandon the whole idea by the time she gets to college, if not sooner. And I felt like the book was somewhat mocking toward the girl who has the strongest belief in her purity ring. (Okay, I wanted to mock her, too. But still.) Despite those things, there isn't really a lot of nuance to the book; it always felt like a book written around a topic. I think it'd be more likely to be of interest to junior high girls, who might notice less--IF their parents will let them read it. (I hated the cover, which I thought was inappropriately suggestive and very likely to turn off the parents of the very girls it's aimed at.) Here's a review with a different opinion.

Reading both of these books, I thought that neither was the right book for evangelical Christian high schoolers; neither is really that accepting of and kind to that belief system. It's a cliche, but I guess what I'm looking for is a YA book with a very religious Christian protagonist that's about something other than religious belief; that shows a group of friends similar to those in the lives of the intended readers. Maybe, if YA is going to reach these kids, they should just stick to the non-religious but innocent YA, like Jennifer Bradbury's Shift or stuff published before 1970.

I can think of a few books that might fit in, like Paula Yoo's lovely Good Enough, but maybe that has too much rebellion. Still--isn't that really one of the defining things about YA, the beginning of serious separation between kids and parents? And if that's the case, is mainstream YA ever going to satisfy? Should it be left to the Christian imprints to try? What YA would you recommend to devoutly Christian teens, if your aim is only to help them find books that reflect their lives?


Anonymous said...

Madeleine L'Engle is the author who comes to mind, but I suspect she'd seem pretty dated to teenagers now. It does seem like a curious gap now that you mention it!

Wendy said...

I'd say some of Madeleine L'Engle is classic (Wrinkle, natch), some dated (Young Unicorns, anyone?), some would depend on the reader (my favorite, The Moon By Night); and some would be acceptable to uber-religious parents (except for the crazies) but some wouldn't--A House Like a Lotus, not so much.

Kathleen McDade said...

I can't separate it like that. A book is good or it isn't, and I think writing them for a specific audience messes them up.

L'Engle is the only one I can think of who has overtly religious characters that work, and I don't know that they would work for the kind of people you're thinking of.

The other thing I'm thinking of is YA historical novels and biographies about religious characters...but maybe I'm the only one who appreciates those. :-)

Wendy said...

Separate what like what? Anyway, I'm not necessarily looking for books written for the specific audience of devout teenagers--though I think lots of books are written for a specific audience, such as, say, gay teens, and aren't the worse for it--but books that these kids will find themselves in. It's much easier for gay teens to find themselves in books than it was when I was young, but I remember wanting that--and I think it must be the same for other subgroups of teenagers.

Elizabeth said...

These books seem like they'd irritate me because they do sound didactic.

I'm not religious and so generally haven't sought out books with religious characters, but I loved the character Hassan in John Green's An Abundance of Katherines. He's Muslim, not Christian, but I imagine a lot of devout Christian kids might be able to relate to him... which, actually, would be very cool given the prevalence of anti-Muslim bigotry in the U.S. (I believe Green himself is a very religious Christian.)

I had kind of mixed feelings about that book as a whole, but about Hassan, I have nothing but fond memories.

Jess said...

I remember reading L'Engle as a kid and being both pleasantly surprised to find religious characters and shocked by some things (well, mostly A House Like a Lotus).

Marcelo in the Real World is another one where the characters talk about religion - although I can't remember how much they actually practice anything. And I'll second Elizabeth's comment about Hassan - it's great to see a character who's serious about his faith but doesn't let that stop him from making fun of himself.