Themes in Young Adult Literature: Faith and Religion

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2583

Titles Discussed

Godless by Pete Hautman

The Patron Saint of Butterflies by Cecilia Galante

The Gospel According to Larry by Janet Tashjian

Dark Sons by Nikki Grimes

Thematic Overview

Religious stories have been a part of the training of young people as long as there have been stories. With the...

(The entire section contains 2583 words.)

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Titles Discussed

Godless by Pete Hautman

The Patron Saint of Butterflies by Cecilia Galante

The Gospel According to Larry by Janet Tashjian

Dark Sons by Nikki Grimes

Thematic Overview

Religious stories have been a part of the training of young people as long as there have been stories. With the precarious balance between a communities' faiths and their government, public schools avoid the topic altogether, however. Faith and religion in young adult literature help teenagers to deal with religious questions and doubts they have and feel uncomfortable asking their parents or religious leaders. These books also teach teens about other religions and how their belief system affects their behavior and worldview, and attempt to impart acceptance of diversity in religion.

Aaron Hartzler writes about the absence of religion in young adult literature in his article for Children's Book Council, “Diversity 101: Religion in YA.” Hartzler states that he sees people write about the absence of religion in YA novels due to lack of interest, but he feels the opposite to be true. Religion is still important and relevant to many young adults, especially since they are at a stage of development when many beliefs come into question. Many teenagers reevaluate their religious beliefs in high school or as they head into their college years. It is helpful to read about characters going through similar situations, and it is important to know experiencing doubt does not indicate negative character flaws. It is natural to question beliefs and even to form new beliefs that may be separate from the beliefs of parents or other authority figures.

Hartzler discusses various stereotypes often found in young adult books that deal with faith and religion including hypocritical characters, religion as mass hysteria, a book marketed exclusively to religious people, and religion as being a “relic of the past.” Hartzler uses Pete Hautman's Godless as an example of a book that many religious people would probably not like, but he feels these books should be more common because they show the struggles many teens have regarding their faith. Cecilia Galante's The Patron Saint of Butterflies would be a good example of a novel dealing with hypocritical characters and with a largely negative view of religion. Nikki Grimes's Dark Sons transforms religion as being a “relic of the past” and parallels the biblical story of Abraham and Sarah with similar contemporary characters. Janet Tashjian's The Gospel According to Larry is an example of a contemporary book that deals with the subjects of spirituality and faith apart from formal religion.

Works

The Gospel According to Larry by Janet Tashjian tells the life of a seventeen-year-old boy named Josh. Josh is intelligent and has a lot going for him, including getting early acceptance into Princeton University. What most people do not know about Josh is that he is the new Internet sensation. In Josh's free time he writes anti-consumerist “sermons” on a blog titled The Gospel According to Larry. Most of the sermons are opinion articles to spread awareness of how advertisements affect daily life. Josh encourages people to abandon brands, stop celebrity worship, and focus more on living rather than on accumulating “stuff.”

While Larry is accomplishing Josh's goal of changing the world, there are those who stop at nothing to bring Larry's true identity to the world. When Larry/Josh is found out, Josh decides to fake his suicide to get away from the media and start a new life. At the end of the book Larry chooses to have someone write his “real” story, a gospel about him and his work.

While Josh does not talk about being religious in any sense, he refers to his blogs as sermons, and he mentions picking the name Larry because it was the least Christian name he could think of. The author also includes excerpts from the Bible between several chapters. Josh believes in an afterlife and often feels his dead mother's presence and speaks to her. He feels that she responds to his questions and gives advice based on the first words he hears someone else say. It is ironic that Josh is superstitious and makes important life choices, such as whether or not to fake his suicide, based on otherworldly signs despite being so driven by technology.

While this is not a novel about religion, it is about the desire to change the world for the good, to have a positive impact on society, and to have faith that change is possible despite one's age or life circumstances. With the help of technology Larry affects billions of people with his words. Those people then hold protests, stop wearing brand name clothes, and gather together at a festivals promoting love and sustainability. Josh's spirituality, faith, intelligence, and desire to do good influences readers into believing that they too can make a change in the world if they only try and believe they can.

The Patron Saint of Butterflies by Cecilia Galante shows the dangers of blind faith. The characters Hope and Agnes have spent their entire lives in a religious commune in New England. Mount Blessing is an isolated farm that is run by a charismatic man named Emmanuel. The people who live in Mount Blessing must obey strict commandments laid out by Emmanuel so they may aspire to become perfect. Agnes muses, “It's not always easy, especially the striving for perfection one … but like Emmanuel says: The only thing worse than not being perfect is not trying to be perfect. So I keep trying.” She believes that God speaks through Emmanuel to lead the commune to holiness. Her goal in life is to become a saint. On the other hand, Hope sees past Emmanuel's holy mask and knows him to be a cruel man who enjoys manipulating others.

The book begins after Hope and Agnes are whipped and abused in the Regulation Room, where children and adults are sent to be “retrained” by Emmanuel. While Hope is aware that this is child abuse, Agnes believes it is only to help them achieve perfection. Although Agnes's parents are aware of what goes on in the Regulation Room, they do nothing to stop it. Soon Agnes's grandmother comes to visit and learns about the Regulation Room by accident. Hope persuades her to take them away from Mount Blessing as soon as possible. She agrees when Agnes's younger brother is gravely injured and Emmanuel prevents anyone from calling an ambulance.

Agnes eventually realizes that Emmanuel was not the man she thought, but it takes tragedy and hardship for her to believe this. If not for her brother's pleading, Agnes might have never told the police about the abuse at Mount Blessing. Hope explains that Agnes needed to be reprogrammed from Emmanuel's brainwashing. Agnes must learn to live away from Mount Blessing, make her own decisions, and form a new relationship with God. She states, “I don't want to be Saint Agnes anymore. I just want to be Agnes. Whoever she might be.”

While The Gospel According to Larry inspires faith, The Patron Saint of Butterflies shows what happens when people place so much faith in a human leader that they become blind to the dangers and no longer think for themselves. It is important to note that Galante is not ridiculing or criticizing religion but instead is warning of the importance for all individuals to make informed decisions rather than become a mindless follower.

Jason Bock in Godless by Pete Hautman learns the dangers of being charismatic. As his father points out, Jason's friends listen to him. He is very creative and a self-described atheist, despite his father's serious belief in Catholicism. He often writes and draws comic books and imagines exciting adventures in order to endure everyday boredom.

During a church meeting his father makes him attend, Jason creates the religion of the Ten Legged God for shock value. The Ten Legged God is the town water tower. Rather than stopping there, Jason tells his closest friend about his idea for a new religion that worships the tower and its life-giving water. To Jason's surprise, his friends latch on to the idea, form a religious hierarchy, and even create commandments. Most of the members, including Jason, are using this religion as a way to get together, pass the time, and have fun. Jason makes no secret that he is mocking religion in general.

Jason does make a point to tell the reader that just because he does not believe in his made-up religion does not mean he does not take it seriously, stating: “So you ask, how can Jason Bock be serious about a religion that worships a false god? Are you kidding?” Jason then gives the example of watching a football game. He says that people take the game seriously even though it is not a “real battle” but a made-up spectator sport. “Same thing about water towers and God. I don't have to be a believer to be serious about my religion.”

Despite the seemingly harmless nature of Jason's religion, it all goes wrong when the group decides to hold a service on the water tower at midnight. They climb the tower and break it open in order to swim inside. One boy, Henry, slips and falls off the side and onto the catwalk. He survives but breaks his leg. The police are called, and Jason is blamed for influencing the others.

The situation worsens as Jason realizes his friend Shin is having a mental break and truly believes that the water tower is a god and that it speaks to him. Shin, trying to get closer to his god, climbs the tower in a lightning storm. Jason finds him, calls the police after being unable to get him down, and is again blamed as a negative influence Shin.

Jason has a difficult time understanding the power he has over his friends, but at the same time he feels it is unfair to receive most of the blame. In reality, both are true: Jason is exciting and charismatic, but for the most part, his friends are responsible for their own actions.

Jason still has a hard time believing in religion but admits that “you can't really understand what it means to be Catholic (or Muslim, or whatever) unless you have faith.” Jason envies people who have faith but is resigned to the belief system he currently has. “Maybe one day I'll find a deity to believe in. Until then, my god is made of steel and dust.”

Godless is much more light hearted than The Patron Saint of Butterflies, but they both discuss the dangers of following others blindly and respecting diverse beliefs about religion. Hope and Agnes must learn to respect each other's beliefs and understand there are many ways to worship God. Jason must learn that it is inappropriate to mock religions just because one believes differently and that charisma and power can be dangerous.

Dark Sons by Nikki Grimes is written almost entirely as a prose poem and tells the story of two boys from different times. Ishmael is the son of the biblical Abraham and talks about how he and his mother deal with the jealousy of Abraham's first wife, Sarah. With the birth of Isaac, Abraham's son by Sarah, Ishmael and his mother leave to fend for themselves in the desert.

Samuel is a modern-day teenager dealing with his parents' divorce and his father's remarriage. Samuel's father also has another son, and Samuel worries he is losing his father's love and attention.

Both boys foster a close connection with God and use that relationship to help them deal with their problems. Samuel asks his prayer group to help him pray for an “attitude adjustment” in order to help him deal with his new stepmother. Both boys feel close to their mothers and seek to protect and defend them from the hurt and pain the men in their lives caused them, while also learning to forgive their fathers for that hurt. Samuel asks God to help him forgive his father for leaving his mother and starting a new family. He mentions that he is finally tired of holding on to the anger and bitterness. He learns to let go of negative feelings, move on, and understand that although his father is not perfect, it does not mean that they cannot love each other.

At the end of the book Samuel reads the story of Abraham and realizes he is a lot like Ishmael, and if Ishmael survived, then so can he. In an interview with Grimes, she states her goal in writing Dark Sons was to show young adults that they can struggle with their relationship with their family and with God, but that having faith in God will always see them through.

Conclusions

Historically, questions of morality and ethics were answered through one's religion, and many religions claim that apart from their god there is no goodness. Philosophy and aesthetics in young adult novels can offer the scaffolding for young adults to engage in and improve their world.

Young adults' emerging civic mindedness and departure from traditional religion is no coincidence. Many young people consider history and myriad atrocities committed in the names of various gods, possibly while recognizing that much good has been done in those same names. As young people try to create identities that can function for them, they must decide whether injecting belief in a god into their sense of responsibility will benefit them. Young adult literature offers a safe place to ask how to relate to the world with or without a god.

With more people adopting postmodernist and relativist views, religion as it has traditionally been understood will often not be compatible with how readers see the world. Characters within young adult novels are given the freedom to approach their internal lives without a “right versus wrong,” or correct/incorrect binary, and consider a “helpful/harmful” dichotomy.

Many people, including atheists and antitheists, want meaningful experiences, peace in ritual, and community in shared beliefs. Young adult literature can provide a place for readers to explore these processes without having to believe any particular thing and without needing a particular opinion. Literature creates a space to elevate discourse and enjoy life, and the only requirement for entry is reading it.

Further Reading

  • Hartzler, Aaron. “Diversity 101: Religion in YA.” CBC Diversity. Children's Book Council, 2014. Web. 16 May 2015. <http://www.cbcdiversity.com/post/76251960183/diversity-101-religion-in-ya>.
  • Rawson, Casey H. “Are All Lists Created Equal? Diversity in Award-Winning and Bestselling Young Adult Fiction.” YALSA. Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults, 14 June 2011. Web. 16 May 2015. <http://www.yalsa.ala.org/jrlya/2011/06/are-all-lists-created-equal-diversity-in-award-winning-and-bestselling-young adult-fiction>.

Bibliography

  • Rev. of Dark Sons, by Nikki Grimes. Kirkus Reviews 73.15 (2005): 848. Academic Search Complete. Web. 16 May 2015. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=17945835>.
  • Rev. of Godless, by Pete Hautman. Kirkus Reviews 72.9 (2004): 442. Academic Search Complete. Web. 16 May 2015. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=13155922>.
  • Jemtegaard, Kristi Elle. “The Gospel According to Larry/Vote for Larry (Book).” Rev. of The Gospel according to Larry, by Janet Tashjian. Horn Book Magazine 80.5 (2004): 610. Academic Search Complete. Web. 1 July 2015. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=14198415>.
  • Rev. of The Patron Saint of Butterflies, by Cecilia Galante. Kirkus Reviews 76.8 (2008): 424. Academic Search Complete. Web. 16 May 2015. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=31908026>.
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