Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Invisibility of Religion in Children's & YA Fiction

Now I’m going to preface this post with, I could very well be wrong.  And if I am, please, please give me examples in the comments, because I’m genuinely interested in this topic and it relates tangentially to my research. 

So, why is it that religion is practically invisible in children’s and YA literature?  You have to look far and between to find any mention not only of God or a church, but especially of a character holding any religious beliefs or partaking in any religious practices.  Over the past year or so, the only religious details I’ve gotten from any children’s or YA books, that I can recall, have been Laura Amy Schlitz’s Splendors and Glooms and Ruta Sepetys’ Out of the Easy.  

Now both of these are set in the past, and it is a fact that people in general were more religious in the past.  But I’ve read many a historical fiction book where the author failed to add the historical detail to have their characters exhibit any religiosity.  So I commend both Sepetys and Schlitz on staying true to the historicity of their pieces and not taking out the religious details for the sake of safeness or political correctness!

However, have you read any books recently, picture books, children’s novels, or YA stories, especially in a contemporary setting in which religion plays either a prominent role or at least is a part of a character’s lifestyle or worldview in any way?  And I’m specifically referring to mainstream publishers, obviously there are many Christian publishers for example that are heavy with these themes, but I’m curious about major publishing houses.

You could tell me, well why don’t you just read Christian fiction? I could, but I’m curious why religion evades so much of mainstream children’s/YA fiction.  We live in a time when we are asking our children to relate to others, to read about characters who live very different lives from us, and also about characters who may resemble us or people we know but we ask readers to look at them with new eyes.  I don’t have to go to a specialty bookstore or specially labeled off shelf in a bookstore in order to read children’s and YA books on Asian Americans or African Americans or LGBT characters or Latinos.  We are asking our children to embrace diversity, to read about characters from all of these backgrounds, lifestyles etc, but why is it that we aren’t asking them to read about characters who have religion as a major part of their life?

In part I think so many are afraid that, well if we have them read about a character who has religion at the center of their life, or who participates at some level in religious practices, we’ll be imposing views.  Why is this? We don’t call it an imposition when children are asked to or choose to read about a character from various backgrounds and lifestyle choices?

Religion is still a major part of many, many children’s lives, but you wouldn’t know it if you took a look at children’s books coming out today.  I’m not asking for books where religion is the sole theme of the story, although that would be interesting, but at least some characters that have religious mindsets and that acknowledge that, yes in fact, religion is part of culture, and part of the lives of children and young adult readers.

Again, if I'm wrong about this, please leave me any examples or comments or thoughts below! I'm genuinely very curious :)


  1. Thanks for sending me the link to this, Jess - I completely agree with you. I feel like authors get scared of coming across as being 'preachy', but like you point out, it so doesn't have to be, and that is frustrating!

    It's interesting, the way that so many subjects are becoming de-taboo, but religion remains one that we're still not entirely comfortable about. I wonder why. Maybe because faith can't be explained in the same way that other 'issues' can - not that I'm saying faith's an isssue, but you know how I mean? Like mental health and culture-clash etc, we can explain the where-what-when-why of them, but there's always going to be an unknown, even unknowable element in any depiction/discussion of faith and religion. Eh, I don't know.

    I can't think of many books that deal with religion (other than "Once was Lost" obviously) - I think in Miranda Kenneally's books (Catching Jordan, Stealing Parker, Things I Can't Forget...) some of her characters have a church background/church involvement but I haven't read them myself, so I don't know exactly, or how well she handles it. Ditto for The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson.

    1. Hi Alexandra!! Thanks so much for your reply and for reading the post! I'm really interested in this dilemma, so I'm still continuing to mull over it, but I think you are spot on, especially with the fact that there is that inherent unknowable element to religion, but still I wish more authors would give it a shot.

      I actually just finished reading K.L Going's The Garden of Eve, it's a middle grade novel which deals with loss, death and life but intermingles fairy tale elements with contemporary fiction. She did a nice job, apparently Going was inspired when a family member asked her to write about an apple tree and the she started thinking about the importance of apples in both literature and religion. There's a fair amount of allusions to both fairy tales and the bible, specifically the creation story.

      I read a positive review of it afterwards, and she said that she had actually read some other reviews that were not so positive because they thought Going's text was too overtly religious, and I was shocked because she is now way trying to be didactic or convert people to religion, she just did a great job melding things. But who knows... Thanks again for your thoughts!

  2. This is a fascinating topic! I agree that the exclusion of religion in so many contemporary novels feels blatant--almost like it was there, near the surface, and the author purposely decided to squash it out. Perhaps I'm being overly dramatic, but that's what it seems like to me.

    On the subject of Christian fiction, I tend to dislike it for the same reason I stated above--it also feels blatant and forced instead of natural and unassuming. I wish we could just approach religion in a calm, natural manner...not forcing it out and not forcing it in.

    1. Hi Amy! Thanks so much for stopping by! It is quite a quandary isn't it?? It seems on either end we're not getting it right, it's either forcibly removed or forcibly implanted, instead of being natural.

      Have you read any of Regina Doman's YA fairy tale novels? I've read the first one and really enjoyed it and feel like maybe those are the closest I've gotten to having the religious elements feel natural and at ease, its believable and just part of the character's life. Doman gives us characters who value the role religion plays in their life, while steering clear of proselytizing or being didactic in her tone, that's pretty much nonexistent in the story. If you have read any of Regina's works I'd be interested to hear what you think...I haven't talked to many about them yet.

      Thanks again for stopping by!

    2. I haven't read anything by Regina Doman, but now I'm going to put her on my list!

      Thanks for coming by my blog, too!

  3. I definitely agree with you, this is a very interesting topic. I would love it if you could explore it further on your blog! I also wanted to add a couple of exceptions I thought of right off the top of my head:

    Are you There God - It's me Margaret - Judy Blume

    Leaving Fishers - Margaret Peterson Haddix ( This is about a girl who gets mixed up in a cult, but religion and the misuse of religion is definitely the main theme).

  4. Oh gosh you bring up a great point. It's extremely rare to find religion as a topic in these books. It's sad really, because even if the main character isn't religious, there's bound to be someone or some part of them that thinkings about religion. To me that would certainly make the story more realistic. I agree with Alexandra, I think it's become somewhat of a taboo subject maybe people are just afraid of what to say or what others will say. Sad thing, but I also wouldn't want it to be something that's forced, just something natural like Amy says.

  5. My parents always guided me toward the classics and fiction published before 1900. There I found that faith was part of the fabric of life for the characters and not an element of the story that had to be incorporated or forced into the plot to make a point.

  6. I suspect that a great deal of the reason children's literature tends to avoid religion is a reaction against a single religion being pushed above others. Christian, Buddhist, pagan, children grow up in them all and if there are books about Christian children and none about Buddhist or Jewish children, will children from those other religions feel excluded from mainstream culture?

    Yet, if there were really good books about children from all the religions, think how freeing that might be.