Please join us to discuss everything literary (especially kid literary): good books, the writing life, the people and businesses who create books, controversies in book world, what's good to snack on while reading and writing, and anything else bookish. We welcome your thoughts.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

It's Raining Religion

Quick: what subject do you think is the most taboo in children’s and young adult literature? For my money, it’s not money, it’s not sex, it’s not even race, though that’s arguable.


Would you give your readers no sense of how old your character is, or what part of the country they live in, or how they feel about any of their relationships? Then why aren’t you giving any clue about their relationship with God (even if that relationship is nonbelief)? Or with their aunt who’s a nun? Or their next-door neighbor who is an observant Jew? Why are we not exploring religious questions? Or if we are, why in a diffuse May-The-Force-Be-With-You way that’s unconnected to practicing religion?

I think as writers we neglect religion because we’re afraid. Okay, being honest here, I’ll revise that to say that I’m afraid, so I’m wondering if other people are too. I’m mostly afraid I’ll do it wrong, or be cliché, or take shortcuts, or offend somebody, or be labeled, or have the religion be gratuitous. (Anybody else notice that you could easily substitute the word “sex” for religion here? Not a coincidence methinks.)

But I think we lose something when we make an end-run around religion. And that goes for whether you’re writing something with high stakes or issues, or a fun read. If we want characters with some depth and complexity, we might think about exploring just about the most complex subject there is.

Two quick hurrahs: Fellow Rt. 19 blogger Judy Press has a work-in-progress about an elementary-aged kid, Pinky, who is a detective. Pinky is hilarious with dead-on boy humor. He’s also Jewish, and that’s a big part of what makes him hilarious—not because the book is about being Jewish, but because it makes Pinky so real-life and specific. You feel like you really know Pinky. You’ll have to wait to read about Pinky’s exploits until a brilliant editor acquires it, but it will be worth the wait.

Another book you can read right now is Tyger, Tyger by Kersten Hamilton. The story is a fast-paced urban fantasy using Irish mythology and the Christian faith with a nice dose of romance. And great, quirky characters. The main characters are practicing Catholics, and not only does their faith make the characters more interesting, it is key to certain turning points. Given Irish history, it often astounds me when writers have Irish-based stories that completely ignore Catholicism. Tyger, Tyger is so much richer because the author embraced religion. A couple of interviews with the author: Uma Krishnaswami's blog and Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations Blog.

Have a Blessed Passover.

Have a Blessed Triduum.

Have a Joyous Easter.


  1. I've been giving this some thought lately too. In my case, I'd find it difficult to create a full character from a religion other than my own - I'd fear that even with careful research I might nuance something wrongly or misleadingly and thereby misrepresent something so important. And as for my own religion I've no desire to add fuel to the fire against it, nor to contribute to its proselytising efforts, nor to present it as an unremarkable part of ordinary life...so for me, for now, my characters don't have any clear religious persuasion. Perhaps later on, when (hopefully) I'm a bit more skilled, I will give it more thought though, as I think you're right about the richness it lends a story and the peculiar omission of such an important part of the human experience!

  2. Anna, I agree that creating a full character from a religion not my own would be daunting, and not something I'm up to. Or at least, a character for whom that religion is important. But I think it's a little like when people argue for having people of color in a story when the point of the story isn't about being a certain ethnicity - can't it just be seen as something normal?

    But your comment that you don't want to make it an unremarkable part of ordinary life makes me think. Do I really want that? I don't know. In fiction, I write fantasy, but the book I'm theoretically working on (and will in actuality when I'm finished with some nonfiction deadlines) takes place in this world. So how can I write truth without religion? But there are additional spiritual elements due to the fantasy, so how can I write truth with religion?

    For myself, my fear is more like what you're saying, that I'm not skilled enough yet to do it well. So that while being integral to the story, religion doesn't overwhelm the story or make it a story that someone from another faith is uncomfortable reading.

  3. Thanks for this post, Cynthia. I agree that religion is far too often overlooked in children's literature, and I would love to see more of it. My concern in working religion into my fiction is that my work will be immediately categorized as "Christian fiction" and will be avoided by groups of readers for that reason alone. The last thing I want to do is alienate any readership! So I suppose I'm seeking a happy medium between completely secular work and fiction that is categorized as "religious fiction." One novel I hope to tackle someday will follow a teen girl on a spiritual quest for meaning that will lead her to explore various religions. It's an idea that's been percolating as a valuable one for a youth society that, I believe, is largely secular and suffering as a result.

    Food for thought, to be sure.

  4. Hi livnjoosh, agreed, that's a big fear of mine, that something would be categorized as "Christian fiction" and thus avoided by many. Including me. Even though I do love it when there are spiritual issues tackled in a way that is compatible with my beliefs, I'm not looking to fiction to define doctrine for me. Or preach, for that matter. Your idea sounds intriguing; percolating is a wonderful thing!

    Which reminds me, I think I need my second cup of coffee so I can get back to work!