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!
Lucy 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!
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!
These are some recommendations for books with religious characters that I’m going to try and read soon!
Cactus images sourced from plaidgecko on Creative Market.