Religion in mainstream YA titles seems to be conspicuous either in its absence or as the focal point of a problem—typically a young person struggling against oppression. Of course, there are religious presses that put out books that address faith in a positive light, often with an explicitly educational purpose. Each of the above types of stories reflects reality for some readers, of course, but the overall implicit message from mainstream publishers appears to be that religious people either don’t exist or that they are, not to put too fine a point on it, the bad guys. And yet, there are a number of young adults for whom religion is a positive part of their lives, to a greater or lesser degree, not a huge source of angst. For these young people, faith offers a framework for doing good in the world, answering important existential questions, and feeling connected to family and community, among other things.
This year I’ve been intrigued to notice an increase in the number of books where religious faith is just one element of the protagonists’ lives, one that is naturally woven into the plot, the way many books now include other types of diversity as part of the texture of the story, not “the problem” at its center. These days it’s relatively easy for teens to find genre fiction that includes characters who are queer or people of color, or realistic fiction where such characters are depicted in well-rounded ways, not framed simply in relation to their marginalized identities. It is important to have books that acknowledge struggles related to difference, of course, but erasure takes an emotional toll as does repeated exposure to traumatic situations. We need more narratives to balance out these two extremes.
Forward Me Back to You by Mitali Perkins (FSG) offers an extraordinarily nuanced and layered depiction of faith and good intentions, interrogating the ways that we frame questions of privilege, loss, and good fortune. Race, religion, adoption, family…all these subjects and more are at the core of this deeply emotional tale of members of a Boston church youth group spending a summer working with survivors of trafficking in Kolkata.
The rising popularity of witchcraft is reflected in The Lost Coast by Amy Rose Capetta (Candlewick), a lush Northern California-based fantasy centered on a group of queer young witches trying to find one of their own who has gone missing. They are diverse across multiple dimensions; one character asks, “What word fits in a way that makes you happy at this very moment?”—a question that will resonate with many teens, whether they are witches or not.
Kissing Ezra Holtz by Brianna R. Shrum (Sky Pony Press) notably features a rarely seen Sephardic Jewish protagonist. Bisexual Amalia falls for fellow synagogue member Ezra (one of whose two dads is trans) in a book our reviewer praised as refreshing for depicting “characters for whom religion is significant but not the point.” It’s a charming romance that incorporates Jewish identity into its characters’ lives, in the process presenting us with teens many readers will recognize.
After reading Let’s Call It a Doomsday by Katie Henry (Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins)—whose main character is a thoughtful, intelligent open-minded, and caring young woman who finds great meaning in belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—I sent a copy to a friend who is a Latter-day Saint. She said she was used to her church always being the butt of jokes in books—a sad commentary on how some communities are considered acceptable to mock. Fortunately, this title presents a fully developed, sympathetic, all-too-human cast that will shatter stereotypes while entertaining with its highly original premise.
Vibrantly diverse Guyana is the setting for the fantasy The Dark of the Sea by Imam Baksh (Blouse and Skirt, Sept. 15). Danesh is nominally Hindu, with devout parents and an irreligious grandfather who encourages him to be skeptical of what the pandit has to say. But otherworldly adventures lead him to question the nature of reality, enlightenment, and belief. The rich texture of the Christian, Muslim, and Hindu communities who live side-by-side combine with Greco-Roman mythology in this intriguing tale.
I Hope You Get This Message by Farah Naz Rishi (HarperTeen, Oct. 22) defies easy categorization: It’s the story of an alien invasion of Earth, a commentary on what humans have done to our planet, and a thoughtful reflection on relationships broken and mended that will appeal to a broad range of readers. A Pakistani American Muslim teen and his family, including his lesbian sister, explore faith, cultural norms, and the ties that bind them together against a backdrop of impending devastation. It offers a refreshing portrayal of diversity within a small Nevada Muslim community.
Laura Simeon is the young adult editor.