Religion in YA

One of the things I’ve noticed recently about my quest to read more diverse books is that I’ve read hardly any books with religious protagonists. When I look at my shelves, there are hardly any books that contain characters who are religious. Why is that? Is it because I’m not overly religious myself, my buddhism being more a part of how I choose to live my life rather than being an active part of it? Is it because the authors themselves aren’t religious? Is it because many people presume young people aren’t as religious as the older generations? Regardless of the reasons, I think it’s important to read more novels with characters of different faiths in the same way it’s important to read novels with protagonists of different ethnicities or identities or disabilities. Diversity is diversity, right?

Most of the novels I’ve read that have any sort of religious element are those where characters are Christian, or less commonly, Jewish, however, they don’t discuss their faith beyond mentioning it once or twice. While many people’s faith manifests in this way — something that’s a part of them rather than something that they have multiple conversations or thoughts about daily — we need to read some stories that contain characters who do belong to a religion to varying degrees. Like every other diverse book, these novels can help us empathise with people different to ourselves and learn about people in different situations to ourselves. To me, the most powerful aspect of novels is that they allow us to form empathy.

One book I read recently that contained a protagonist who was somewhat religious was The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli. Although it wasn’t an issue that formed the basis of the narrative, it was interesting to hear the characters discuss Judaism and the Jewish community. Another fascinating book that allowed me to learn more about Judaism was Finding Nevo — an autobiography about a young person finding themselves and how they identify. While Nevo’s religion wasn’t the main focus of the autobiography, they stated how it forms who they are and their experiences in the Jewish community and different youth movements. That was something I never really knew much about, so I enjoyed reading more about the Jewish community.

One of the books I’ve had sitting on my TBR for years and haven’t had the chance to pick up yet is Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah. The protagonist in that novel is muslim, which is great to see, and I definitely want to get around to reading this one soon. I’d love to get more books with muslim protagonists on my TBR, as well as characters of other faiths!

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The Names They Gave UsLucy Hansson was ready for a perfect summer with her boyfriend, working at her childhood Bible camp on the lake. But when her mom’s cancer reappears, Lucy falters—in faith, in love, and in her ability to cope. When her boyfriend “pauses” their relationship and her summer job switches to a different camp—one for troubled kids—Lucy isn’t sure how much more she can handle. Attempting to accept a new normal, Lucy slowly regains footing among her vibrant, diverse coworkers, Sundays with her mom, and a crush on a fellow counselor. But when long-hidden family secrets emerge, can Lucy set aside her problems and discover what grace really means?

Emotionally-charged and unforgettable, Emery Lord’s storytelling shines with the promise of new love and true friendship, even in the face of life’s biggest challenges.

A novel I read recently that got me thinking about what place religion has in YA was The Names They Gave Us by Emery Lord, as the protagonist was Christian and religion played a bit part in the narrative. While it was initially hard for me to connect with the protagonist because I’m not used to the thought processes of someone who is quite religious and that has their faith playing a big part in their daily lives, I ended up absolutely adoring all the characters. In some ways, it reminded me of Our Own Private Universe as both novels had religious elements and took place on a camp, and I’m pleased to say that I loved The Names They Gave Us more than I expected to. It was simply phenomenal!

While religion is a massive part of Lucy’s life and she’s the daughter of a pastor, this book in no way comes off as preachy, which would have definitely turned me off it. Instead, it shows how her faith makes her who she is and also becomes something that she almost turns from when she’s feeling as though her prayers haven’t been answered. She’s such a loving, accepting person, and I felt as though I was sharing her pain in many ways. Her voice and her story was just so authentic and raw, and I couldn’t help but desperately hope things would turn out okay for her.

I know I’ve written previously about how I disliked ‘recovery camps’ in books, but this one was completely different to all the other stories I’d read and it worked so well with what underlying messages the author was trying to express. This wasn’t a camp like the mental illness recovery camps I’ve read about preciously — the protagonist, Lucy, attends a camp for people who are struggling with hardships in their life whereby she will be a leader for younger people. I loved how well this aspect was written and how the people she met there weren’t defined by what brought them to the camp. Lucy, along with myself, was somewhat judgemental about the camp, but I think we both were surprised by just how important and worthwhile Lucy’s time was there. I absolutely loved getting to know the other leaders there and learning more about their lives. I just want to make s’mores with them all.

Complete with a diverse array of characters and a plot that will make you feel all the feels, The Names They Gave Us should definitely be on your TBR. It was refreshing to read a YA novel with that religious element, and it really reminded me that I should be reading more books with protagonists of different faiths and I shouldn’t shy away from that topic just because it’s something I’m not used to. The characters were genuine, the romance was adorable, and the ending left me with tears streaming down my face and a heart full of hope. If you enjoy reading YA contemporaries, I can’t recommend The Name They Gave Us highly enough!

Rating:

5 StarsLet's Talk

Have you read The Names They Gave Us? Do you read many books with religious protagonists? Do you think you should? What are some YA novels with religious characters that I should add to my TBR? I’d love to know!

Thanks to Bloomsbury Australia for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!

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These are some recommendations for books with religious characters that I’m going to try and read soon!

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Cactus images sourced from plaidgecko on Creative Market.

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28 thoughts on “Religion in YA

  1. I felt the same way about the book, nearly put it down after 50
    Pages because I’m not religious and then realised I was being silly and should read on anyway. This book really proved that just because a characters religious and I’m not doesn’t mean I can enjoy them and the cast really pulled the story up for me 😊

    Glad you ended up liking it! Great review ❤️

  2. In Australia, and in the UK as well, I think there’s a certain cringe factor attached to people expressing their religion openly (although this is almost exclusively related to Christianity). I can’t think of many books where religion is a major part of the story line, but the most recent that springs to mind is When Dimple Met Rishi. Their Hindu beliefs not only inform their behaviours, but are discussed when they are making decisions. And Rishi’s mother performs Puja, which was lovely to read.

  3. I don’t think I’ve read any books where religion has had more than a fleeting mention. Its a shame because it’s a great opportunity to experience a faith and way if thinking you haven’t experience yourself which is what’s so great about diverse books!

  4. I just read The Names They Gave Us this week, and I thought it was a beautiful coming of age tale. I thought she incorporated Lucy’s faith as part of who she was, but Lord did not make it the focus of the story. I am religious. I went to Catholic school as a kid, and my grandfather was a very devout Catholic; it was always part of my life. So, religion in books doesn’t bother me at all. I love learning about different cultures, countries, and religions. I have been reading a lot of cultural coming of age books lately (Saints and Misfits, The Authentics, That Thing We Call a Heart). They were all #OwnVoices and included some talk of religion. I loved learning about all these places, people, and things that I may not have known a ton about. The more we learn about people who are different from us, the more we can understand them and that, in my opinion, is a pathway to so many wonderful things.
    Sam @ WLABB

  5. I never stopped and thought about it before, but you’re right – I can’t think of a fiction book I’ve read recently that talks openly about any religion, or whose characters follow a particular one. I’ll try some of the ones you’ve mentioned! Thank you for this mind-opener post!

  6. This is just my opinion, but I think a lot of authors are afraid of writing religious protags. I see a lot of reviews that are negative when the protagonist is “preachy” or “the book talked too much about God” and there are a lot more atheists than there used to be.
    Just my opinion: I could be totally wrong too.

  7. This is a great topic! It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot as well.

    I tried to read as many religiously diverse books as I could in May, and I did write a post about what I learned from that experience (no pressure or anything, but here’s the link if you’re interested: https://thestorysalve.wordpress.com/2017/05/29/discussion-reading-religious-diversity/). I was raised Christian, although I’m no longer practicing, so it really interests me to find the ways that the world’s religions aren’t as different as some people like to think.

    The Names They Gave Us definitely sounds interesting, I may check that out. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    It does make me wonder why there aren’t more religious books out there in the mainstream. Maybe authors don’t want to offend anyone by tying their protagonist down to a specific religion. On the subject of Buddhism, though, I just finished Tash Hearts Tolstoy and she’s Buddhist. It’s not a huge part of the plot, but I thought it was a really neat touch – and I liked learning a little bit about meditation. It’s also just the most adorable contemporary with an asexual protagonist and I’m trying to get everyone I know to read it 🙂

  8. I like the points you make! I think the problem is that authors generally try to shy away from religion because they are afraid it will be a turn-off to non-religious people. It’s a fear thing. I think those that don’t include religion are also afraid that people will reject their faith, and if your religion is very important to you, that can be hurtful.

    I have another suggestion for you if you’re interested! THE ACTOR AND THE HOUSEWIFE by Shannon Hale. Not only was this book hilarious, but it also had a very unique plot. It’s about an LDS (Mormon) housewife from Utah and her bizarre friendship with a famous British actor. The story isn’t about religion, but it is a big part of the main character’s life and influences most of her decisions in the book. You should add it to your list and let me know what you think! 🙂

  9. This has been something on my mind recently too, since reading The Names They Gave Us. I really liked that faith was a huge part of it and I think it’s an important thing. Like you said, diversity is diversity. I feel like it comes down to the whole fear of offending people which I think is a bit ridiculous. I’d love to read some more religiously diverse books in the future.

  10. In fantasy especially, writing about any kind of religion is hard because in a fantasy universe, it opens up a whole can of worms to start bringing up the topic of God, or multiple gods even. However, I have read an epic fantasy called The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms where the author makes her own gods and mythology, and it’s REALLY well thought out.

  11. I have no problem with religion in my books. Faith can be a huge part of a character’s live and be a great addition to their development.

    However, I really don’t read a lot of books where faith/religion plays a huge role. That’s probably because I don’t often read contemporaries that are coming of age or realistic fiction. Not that other’s can’t have religion as a feature, just that it isn’t so common. (Which is one of the points of this discussion!).

    But I also admit that I don’t really like books that are preachy (like their believes are the be all and end all of every belief system) so if I get those vibes from a synopsis, I’ll probably pass. What works for you might not work for me so I like books that share their faith but don’t feel like they are pressuring the readers. (I hope that makes sense, it’s so hard to describe what I’m trying to say!)

  12. Does My Head Look Big In This? is a great example of an insightful, thoughtful and empathetic religious YA book. I think it exemplifies what religious YA should be trying to achieve: informing people of all cultures and religions what religion means to this individual on their unique journey. I strongly recommend two incredible books that feature religion in this way: A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman (also an uplifting representation of disability) and Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age by Amani Al-Khatahtbeh. Both were five star reads that have stayed with me since reading.

  13. I’ve read Saints and Misfits by S.K Ali where the protagonist is a muslim. As a muslim, I can totally relate with the protagonist in Saints and Misfits and it really made me think a lot about Islam. I have write a post on Saints and Misfits on my blog. I really hope there will be more religious YA book because people can learn others culture and religion by reading books and it might clear some misunderstanding about certain culture or religion.

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