Are You There, God? It’s Me, a Secularist, Humanist, Areligious, Questioning, Gay Committed Christian, Atheist: Adolescence and Religion in YAL
Volume 48: Issue 1 (Fall 2020)
Submissions due: March 1st, 2020
Former TAR editors Wendy Glenn, Ricki Ginsberg, and Danielle King asked teachers, researchers, and other YA advocates to consider the questions, “What’s Now? What’s New? What’s Next?” in their final issue, published in 2019. TAR readers responded, writing predominantly about religion and areligion (not influenced by or practicing religion) in YAL. A year later, we wonder: how are diverse adolescents and their a/religious or atheist affiliations, beliefs, and practices represented in the YA genre? How are a/religious and atheist teen characters portrayed? What religious affiliations get dominant positive representation in YAL? Who gets to be a/religious or atheist in YAL? Do adolescent agnostics, humanists, non-believers, questioners, and skeptics get any attention in the genre? Why does religion (especially areligion and atheism) in YAL still seem like a taboo topic?
We invite correspondence about ideas for articles, and submission of completed manuscripts. We would especially love to hear from teens about how they feel about the portrayal of a/religion or atheism in YAL, if they find a/religion or atheism to be of a central importance in YAL, and why. Here’s a partial list of topics, meant only to suggest the range of our interests for this issue:
- Is religion still a taboo topic in YAL? If so, why? Longtime YA scholar and advocate Patty Campbell has claimed the greatest of all taboos in YAL is religion. In a recent (2018) New York Times article, YA author Donna Freitas shared: “This feeling of mine — that a YA writer had best stay away from the topic of faith — is elusive, a kind of vapor that began swirling around me a decade ago when I wrote my first YA novel, ‘The Possibilities of Sainthood,’ about a Catholic girl who longs to become the first living saint… Being too overt about religion in a YA novel seemed a mistake, maybe even an act of self-sabotage — unless one is writing about cults or lampooning religion.” Why does writing about a/religion in YAL seem off-limits?
- In Patrick Ness’s Release, Adam Thorn grapples with love and heartbreak while living under strict rules in an Evangelical household where he hears “I love you, but…” from his family who have always struggled to believe Adam “might be a bit gay.” The religious teachings of his father and the lack of general acceptance from his family force Adam to question if the love he felt for his ex, Enzo, was real love: “Because what if they were right? What if there was something wrong with him? What if, on some level, way deep inside, right down to the very simplest, purified form of what he was, what if he was corrupted?” Manuel, an openly gay teen and committed Christian also has some thoughts on love in Alex Sanchez’s God Box. Manuel tells his closeted lover, Paul: “Pablito, the Bible was meant to be a bridge, not a wedge. It’s the greatest love story ever told, about God’s enduring and unconditional love for his creation–love beyond all reason. To understand it, you have to read it with love as the standard. Love God. Love your neighbor. Love yourself. Always remember that.” Finally, Julia Watts’ YA novel Quiver, presents Libby, an evangelical Christian and Zo, her feminist, gender fluid neighbor who must both navigate their families’ cultural differences to fight for their friendship. What can readers learn from YAL about how to navigate romance, friendship, family values and beliefs, AND multiple intersectional adolescent identities that include gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, and fundamentalist religious affiliations?
- Why is religion so divisive? Religion can be used as a weapon or to exploit and oppress. How can we use YAL to talk about what religion is and isn’t? How can YAL show us how to bridge differences and create unity rather than disunity? A claim of the field of young adult literature is its power to be a window or sliding glass door (Bishop, 1990) into unfamiliar cultures. Can YAL encourage its readers to be more empathetic towards individuals from different religious backgrounds and to be more understanding of other religious perspectives? What would this look like in scholarship, pedagogy, or in a YAL novel?
- Atheism is featured in several YA novels, including Darius the Great is Not Okay, by Adib Khorram; Heretics Anonymous, by Katie Henry; Blind Faith, by Ellen Wittlinger; A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life, by Dana Reinhardt; Godless, by Pete Hautman; and Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary by Keshni Kashyap. How can these YA novels be used to better understand atheist affiliations and beliefs? Why do teens choose to be atheist or areligious? What can we learn from these teens about the limits of religion? Where do these teens find community and connectedness?
- Volume 46, Issue 3 of TAR focused on the representations of Christianity in YAL and we wonder, how does the field of YAL take up non-Christian or non-dominant religious affiliations? What would it look like to have an American Muslim protagonist whose religious beliefs are not defined as threats of terrorism? Do texts like this exist? In The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner, parishioners of the protagonist, Dill’s, Pentecostal church handle serpents, drink poison as a sign of faith, and are thusly positioned as stereotypical, ignorant, small-town Southerners. How can YAL be used to “talk back to” too simplistic, limiting, problematic portrayals of religion in the genre?
Conversations and Controversies in the Field
Volume 48: Issue 2 (Winter 2021)
Submissions due: July 1st, 2020
The publication of Robert Cormier’s classic YA novel, The Chocolate War, in 1974 not only put young adult literature (YAL) on the literary map, but also sparked long-held conversations and controversies in our field. For starters, what counts as YA? We know Cormier didn’t set out to write a YA novel with The Chocolate War, but through marketing and sales it became a hit with teen readers. Former ALAN president Jennifer Buehler says in her (2016) book, Teaching Reading with YA Literature: Complex Texts, Complex Lives, that the definition of YAL depends on who you’re talking to—publishers, young adult readers, literary critics, and teachers all define it differently. In addition, while teachers and parents wondered if Cormier’s novel was “too dark” for teens (an argument recirculated with the publication of Meghan Cox Gurdon’s Wall Street Journal article in 2011), Cormier’s novel also silenced critics of the genre—YAL could indeed be sophisticated, beautifully written, and thought-provoking, and prove as timeless as canonical literature. Almost 50 years later, however, advocates for the genre continue to have to prove its sophistication and worth to critics who deem YAL okay for pleasure reading, but not for serious classroom study.
These are but just a few conversations and controversies that continue in the field of YAL. We see others play out almost daily in social media—again, long-standing debates about who can write for whom; whose voices and lived experiences get represented in the genre and whose don’t; and why the number of books by and about people of color in the genre remain low, as reported annually by the Cooperative Childrens’ Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In this issue, we are interested in where you and the adolescent readers in your lives might be positioned within these conversations and controversies—how do they play out in your advocacy for the genre and in your reading lives? What are some other conversations and controversies you see playing out in the field? We invite correspondence about ideas for articles, and submission of completed manuscripts. Here’s a partial list of topics, meant only to suggest the range of our interests for this issue:
- In the wake of the #metoo movement, we wonder: how do you negotiate your use of and advocacy for YA books by authors accused/convicted of sexual harassment? In his article “Magnificent Things and Terrible Men: Teaching Sherman Alexie in the Age of #MeToo,” published in English Education in 2018, college instructor Jeff Spanke writes, “…maybe I’m not really in a position to say whether or not we should teach these books …. Maybe I should leave that to someone a little more qualified, who was actually once touched by Alexie’s words in some way other than intellectual. Maybe it’s not my fight, and I should just teach the stuff I want and think is good and damn the rest of the mess of it… And maybe that’s just an excuse. Cognitive laziness to avoid cognitive dissonance. That nagging sense of privilege that nullifies the process of negotiating discomfort so I can sleep when I get home… And maybe that’s how I should teach this book in the future, with an eye toward the cracks in the lens, as opposed to simply through it.” We also like the questions Spanke poses in his English Education article, so we’ll include them here: “How can we interrogate the works of the world’s Alexies without supporting the Alexies themselves? What does support mean anyway? Can we read Alexie without supporting him? Should we? Do the immoral/unlawful actions of artists preclude such work, or as teachers, can we find space to honor the integrity of creations while still acknowledging the flaws of the creators? What do we risk when we can’t or don’t even try? Where do we draw the line between creating safe spaces in our classrooms and pretending the outside world isn’t dangerous?”
- Last year, debut YA author Kosoko Jackson withdrew his debut novel, A Place for Wolves, from publication due to excoriating criticism on Twitter and Goodreads. Two years prior, in 2017, Laurie Forest’s Y.A. fantasy début, The Black Witch, became the object of intense scrutiny, weeks ahead of its publication, after detractors slammed it as a white-savior tale. The writer Kat Rosenfield’s New York magazine piece “The Toxic Drama of YA Twitter,” which centered on the “Black Witch” outcry, revealed that many of Forest’s fiercest critics had not read her novel, and others conflated the perspectives of racist characters with that of the author herself. In a 2019 New Yorker article, Katy Waldman defines the “call-out-and-cancel culture” of YAL on social media and wonders, “What is the difference between a marketplace of ideas and a Twitter mob?” We wonder, too, what roles do social media (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, blog comments) play in creating conversations and controversies in our field? How has social media changed the ways we think and talk about the genre and issues in our field?
- A long-standing tension in the field of YAL is the homogeneity of the publishing world, which remains, on the editorial side, 82% white and less than 2% Black, according to a 2015 survey by Lee & Low Books. In a recent post on the “Reading While White” blog, Megan Schliesman problematizes whiteness in Newbery and Caldecott award selection processes. She argues for greater transparency—who are committee members and how do they make award decisions? Schliesman says,”Committee members’ work is informed by their individual identities and opinions and insights and experiences as they participate in a process that is far from empirical, although it sometimes seems as if we’re expected to believe that it is. The award criteria they consider to arrive at a decision doesn’t make the definition of “most distinguished” a fixed, objective target. Nor does the fact that it’s an effort shared among 15 people working toward numerical consensus. It is a process deeply informed and shaped by who is participating. And when award committees have been majority white, there is added danger in not acknowledging this subjectivity when it comes to thinking about how we do what we do.” How are you working to name, confront, and disrupt racism and the normalization of whiteness in the publishing industry and book award selection processes? What insights or perspectives can you share from working with publishers and/or serving on awards committees?
- Reader identification and textual relevance continue to be under-researched areas in our field. Literacy researcher Katie Sciurba pushes back on the dichotomous “mirrors and windows” concept of textual relevance and says adolescent readers’ identities are complex, multidimensional, and flexible and thus require new understandings, especially about the personal and dynamic nature of reader response. Also, drawing on the work of Django Paris, Scuirba says teachers and researchers tend to “assume unidirectional correspondence between race, ethnicity, language and cultural ways of being, which impacts common ideas about what texts are or will become relevant to students, especially students of color.” We wonder: what do we mean when we say YA books are “relevant” to teens? What do teens mean when they say something is “relevant”? What role does relevance play in reading motivation and engagement?
- Youth lens theory presents the idea that adolescence is a construct, and draws on the work of Nancy Lesko to posit that developmental and biological beliefs about adolescents/ce are rooted in racist, classist, and sexist beliefs about youth and society. What then do we make of YAL, a genre written for and about adolescents, if our foundational understandings of adolescence/ts are suspect?
- The word “empathy” gets thrown around a lot by YAL advocates—many in our field suggest reading adolescent fiction makes readers empathetic. How do we know? How do we define empathy? Vygotsky described symbols in texts that provoke readers’ imaginations. Rosenblatt also described cues and codes in texts that provoke response. Are there symbols or cues and codes in YA fiction that provoke empathy? Is it character identification? Text features? Does empathy lead to social action?
- Ruth Graham, in a 2014 article published in Slate Magazine, shamed adults for reading YAL because the genre “consistently indulges too-simple and satisfying endings” and “lacks the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world.” According to recent statistics, however, 55% of today’s YA readers are adults. This adds to the complexity of defining the genre and who it’s for. We’d love to hear from you—adult readers of YAL—on why you read the genre and what it does for you! What would you have to say back to Ruth Graham and other YA-naysayers?
- Other ideas? Would love to hear them!
All submissions may be sent to email@example.com. Please see the ALAN website (http://www.alan-ya.org/page/alan-review-author-guidelines) for submission guidelines.