In December 2018, Donna Freitas wrote an article for The New York Times titled “Is Any Topic Off Limits When You Write for Teenagers? Maybe Just One.” In it, she argues that, while YA has done a lot of good work in becoming more diverse in recent years, one topic remains unmentionable: religion. I argued much the same in 2016 in my post “Why Aren’t We Talking about Religious Diversity?” Even though we talk about representing all kinds of characters so young readers can see themselves reflected in literature, we simply cannot represent characters of faith. Readers, it seems, sometimes fear that even mentioning that a character has a religion could make a book “preachy.” Talking about a character who prays, goes to synagogue, or asks questions about their faith is “evangelizing” and could tempt impressionable youth to convert on the spot, or at least just be annoying. Many people seem to distinguish no difference between a character making a soapbox speech about why their religion is the best and a character who is simply depicted as wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday or fasting during Ramadan.
However, religious practices are part of the daily lives of many and spiritual beliefs influence what people do, think, and say. This is simply reality. A person of faith will likely see the world in a unique way and have to navigate it a little differently. Maybe they realize the cafeteria is not serving anything they can eat that day. Maybe they have to skip a sleepover so they can go to Mass. Maybe they struggle with wanting to wait for marriage, but having feelings for someone or being mocked for their beliefs. Maybe they want to lie, but wrestle with the knowledge that doing so is a sin. Not depicting these things continues to make people of faith the “Other,” the weirdos, the fringe freaks.
Donna Freitas addresses the problem of non-representation very poignantly:
To ignore religion in Y.A. cedes the entire conversation about religion and spirituality, and all that it stands for, to exactly the kind of intolerant voices that Y.A. publishing has fought so hard against. Teenage readers search for themselves in books. The world of Y.A. is an activist one — an ideal sphere in which to interrupt the toxic religion-speak and attitudes that dominate our politics and culture at the moment, and to model the kind of spiritual longing so many young adults harbor, often secretly. Like me, they learn to be ashamed of it.
In other words, the silence around religion in YA continues to make religion seem like a shameful secret. People fear to admit that they are religious because they do not want to be mocked or even threatened. They do not want to be identified as a lunatic or a bigot. They do not want to be seen part of that religion where “all priests are predators” or where “everyone is a terrorist.” And these fears are not unfounded. When religious characters are depicted in YA, they are often represented negatively as prudish, over-scrupulous, or brainwashed. They’re the freak who won’t sleep around or the character who is clearly only religious because they can’t think for themselves. When YA depicts religion only to deride it, readers learn that being religious is indefensible.
YA, however, has the power to change that and to show readers that being religious does not have to be a dirty little secret. Depicting characters as religious would show what should be obvious: people of faith are normal people. The people we all already attend school with, work with, and hang out with. They’re not all crazed, brainwashed, or perpetually evangelizing. They are simply people. Moreover, depicting more characters of faith could show the wide range of what it means to be religious. Even in religions like Catholicism where dogma says what Catholics must believe, plenty of people who identify as Catholic do not all follow the same rules or believe the same things. Making blanket statements about people of faith becomes a lot more difficult when readers begin to see the wide range of beliefs people hold.
YA needs more religious characters–and not only characters grappling with issues like the Catholic sexual abuse scandal. Characters who are going about their lives, saving the world, traveling through space, doing what YA characters typically do–just while having a religion. Books are supposed to expand our minds, to help us walk in another person’s shoes. So why should religion be taboo? If we only opened to YA to more characters of faith, surely we would find that religion is not that scary.