YA Corner: Religion and YA Lit

One of my favorite reads in the two  years is a gem called Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco Stork.  It’s about a teenage boy who exhibits autism-spectrum traits.  Marcelo’s father wants him to break out of the comfortable, sheltered world Marcelo inhabits, so he arranges for his son to take a summer internship at his law firm instead of caring for the horses at Marcelo’s school.    It’s a beautiful book, and notable for a number of reasons, one of which I’d like to talk about in this post.

Although a diagnosis is never explicit in the text, Marcelo’s traits indicate a high-funtioning form of Autism such as Asperger’s syndrome.  One of Marcelo’s peculiarities is an active, intense interest in religion.  He studies his own Catholic faith, but also studies and discusses religious philosophy with a friend of his mother’s, a rabbi. Stork manages to integrate religion into his narrative quite seamlessly.  As Marcelo faces the ambiguity that necessarily accompanies the coming-of-age experience, he’s guided by more than his own experience.  Stork weaves religious thought and practice into his discussion of right and wrong, guilt and innocence.

Not many authors attempt this at all in young adult, and certainly few do it well.  Outside of the niche Christian fiction market (disclaimer: I have read very little of this, but frequently come across reviews for these publications.  My admittedly limited perception of them is that they are generally somewhat shallow and clichéd representations of teenage experience), it seems religion is either politicized or ignored all together.

I find this disappointing and sort of strange.  I tend to think adolescence is an interesting time for most people in terms of faith and religion.  You begin to think, to question, to explore, accept and reject different mythologies.  Stork adeptly tackles that process with Marcelo.  I can’t think of another YA author of whom I can say the same.

What does that have to do with this blog?  Well, I want to know who you think does religion, particularly Mormon religion well.  Are there LDS authors (let’s limit the discussion to YA stuff) who have effectively presented either religious practice or philosophy in their stories?  How do they make it work without alienating readers who are outside of that faith community?

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9 Responses to YA Corner: Religion and YA Lit

  1. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    IS there an LDS author who is publishing stories about the Mormon culture/religion for a non-LDS readership? And who isn’t self-publishing? I’m not talking about fundamental Mormonism and polygamy. I’m talking real Mormonism.

  2. Harlow Clark says:

    The first story I think of is Kimberly Heuston’s The Shakeress. I suspect the novel after it, Dante’s Daughter, will deal with the religious thought of 13th and 14th century Italy. I’ve been wanting to read it and I finally saw it in the library a while back.

    The Shakeress can be thought of as an etiological tale explaining why someone mentioned in early sections of the D&C never married. There’s a lot about Shaker beliefs and why they would appeal to someone, and why someone would leave the faith.

    Around the same time I also read Soldier Boys by Dean Hughes, and Brothers in Valor, Michael O. Tunnell’s retelling of the Huebener story. These stories all deal with the characters’ religious beliefs and were all published by national presses, as was Chris Crowe’s Mississippi Trial, 1955 which has somewhat more to do with racism than religion.

    “How do they make it work without alienating readers who are outside of that faith community?” That’s a fascinating question, and I’ve heard a lot of Mormons fastening on it, on the implication that readers who are outside of a faith community, or outside any faith community at all, would find it alienating to read about the doings of a faith community.

    That may be true if they think they’re reading a sales brochure, but not if they’re reading about peoples’ experiences and how their religious beliefs affect their experiences and vice versa. I think that’s how these authors avoid alienating people outside the communities they write about. You can feel the sheer joy of the storytelling in these books. These are written by people who like to tell stories, who like to hear them. “Here’s a review I wrote.”

    For stories aimed more at the Mormon audience, Jack Weyland’s On The Run is worth looking at. It starts out as a typical thriller/mismatched buddies on the run story, but about halfway through, as they get to a safe place to lie low, it shifts to a story about what you do with enforced solitude. Again, the religious ideas arise from the characters’ experiences.

    One final example is L.C. Lewis’s Free Men and Dreamers series, which is more adult that YA, but in the first book, Dark Sky at Dawn, the characters are in their late teens. As a novel about the War of 1812 the Free Men part is most prominent, but the religious yearnings and dreams of the characters play a recurring part, especially in book 3 Dawn’s Early Light.

    And, being set in and around 1812, we meet Captain Steven Mack at the end of book one and witness his nephew’s leg surgery in book two, Twilight’s Last Gleaming.

    When I listened to Jimmy Carter’s novel The Hornet’s Nest I learned that the British offered freedom to slaves who would fight for the crown (just as the North did fourscore and seven years later). The British did the same thing in 1812, so Lewis set herself the task of writing about white plantation owners under attack by black slaves without evoking or invoking old white fears of blacks. The way she does it is quite remarkable and involves the characters’ spiritual lives and an invocation.

    And it’s 1:01 AM, and even though my son won’t be home from his Hairy Potty and the Deathly Hallows e’en for a couple more hours, I’m going to bed.

  3. FYI, Harlow’s reviews of Kimberly Heuston’s THE SHAKERESS, Dean Hughes’ SOLDIER BOYS, Michael O. Tunnell’s BROTHERS IN VALOR, and Chris Crowe’s MISSISSIPPI TRIAL, 1995 can be found in the AML Review Archive:


    But, Harlow, we need reviews from your for Jack Weyland’s ON THE RUN and for L. C. Lewis’ FREE MEN AND DREAMER series. That is cool about Captain Mack’s nephew.

  4. Jonathan Langford says:

    I think Harlow is right that many readers who don’t share Mormon religious beliefs — or any religious beliefs at all — can still be engaged by well-written characters for whom religious belief is a major motivator.

    All of us in reading fiction, I believe, look for a combination of the familiar and the strange. For some, religious belief will be part of that “familiar” element. For others, it will be part of the “strange” element. Either way, it can work.

    I’m not sure it’s true (as we sometimes seem to think) that in order to appeal to nonreligious and/or non-Mormon readers, a work of fiction with a Mormon character has to take a different approach from what would appeal to Mormon readers. For example, my experience with reviewers of No Going Back suggests that non-Mormon readers were not as confused by the embedded Mormon elements of the story as some Mormon (and ex-Mormon) reviewers thought they would be.

  5. Darlene says:

    In terms of YA: Orson Scott Card has some practicing religious people in his Ender stories (and others). Recently, Emily Wing Smith published “Back When You Were Easier to Love,” which doesn’t address religious belief particularly, but addresses prejudice towards some of the cultural aspects of a religious community.

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