Religion is making a comeback in young adult literature. While secular books with a spiritual aspect may have previously been frowned upon, books about the spiritual journeys of teenagers are becoming easier and easier to find. The religious experiences of these characters are mixed: some have experienced abuse or assault in the name of religion and have been driven away from their beliefs. Others are more at home and at ease with their faith. Many of these characters are in the in-between, trying to figure out how to reconcile what they’ve been taught by their religious communities with their personal convictions, identities, and reactions to the world. The truth is that religious belief can often be a complicated thing for an individual, and most people of faith experience doubt, questioning, and disillusionment at one time or another. These books take that complex nature of spirituality and intertwine it with the everyday experiences of regular teens.
A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi
This story takes place the year after 9/11. Shirin is a Muslim teen trying to survive high school. Her hijab makes her a target for jeers, stereotypes, and even physical violence. Shirin keeps her head down at school, doesn’t make friends, and definitely doesn’t date boys. But when a boy named Ocean wants to hang out with her, Shirin finds herself drawn to him, and eventually starts dating him. Ocean quickly finds out the cost of being with a Muslim girl. After he and Shirin are victims of racist discrimination and pranks, Shirin suddenly becomes popular after she nails a breakdancing routine at the school talent show. But Shirin feels confused rather than comforted; after all, these are the same people who hated her before. Mafi’s writing shines in this sweeping story about what it means to be a Muslim teen in America.
The Dangerous Art of Blending In by Angelo Surmelis
Evan Panos is gay, but he has to keep it a secret, especially from his Mom. His traditional Greek mother believes that Evan is a deviant and regularly subjects him to physical and verbal abuse. Evan and his best friend Henry begin to fall for each other, which gives Evan a respite from the constant abuse. But when Evan’s mother forces him to go confess to their priest, and Evan tells his priest about the abuse he’s endured, Evan finds out that no one is going to protect him. This book is about the courage of a tortured young man, and it’s not for the faint of heart.
Heretics Anonymous by Katie Henry
An unlikely group of misfits comes together in this book to create their own secret society called Heretics Anonymous. There’s an atheist, a Catholic girl who wants to be a priest, a pagan, a gay Jew, and a guy who just wants to wear capes. They find a place to belong in each other, despite their differences, and the group finds unity in a cause: to make their Catholic high school more progressive and less legalistic. But when their plans backfire, can the group survive? Heretics Anonymous is a story about interfaith relationships and mutual respect for others’ beliefs, but it’s also a story about a group of teens who have big dreams and hopes for a better world.
That Thing We Call a Heart by Sheba Karim
Shabnam and Farah are best friends. Shabnam is Pakistani American, and though her mother is a Muslim, Shabnam has not really been raised in the faith. She is a little unsure of herself and afraid to speak her mind. Farah is her opposite: confident, punk, and a practicing Muslim. But after winter break of their senior year, Farah returns to school wearing a hijab. Shabnam is hurt that Farah wouldn’t tell her about her decision to wear a hijab, and her resentment puts up a wall between the two girls. When a student calls Farah a terrorist and Shabnam doesn’t defend her, the friendship is ruined. They go their separate ways until after they’ve graduated, when Shabnam has fallen in love only to find out her boyfriend just wanted a summer fling and was drawn to her “exoticness.” Finally, Farah and Shabnam talk about the hurt between them and forge a path toward healing. This is a story of friendship, love, and the perils of religious discrimination.
Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens
Billie is the preacher’s daughter, and everyone knows it. They also know she’s a tomboy. Though Billie identifies as a girl, she likes to dress and act like a boy, and that doesn’t sit well with some of the church people. Billie pushes against fitting into any box while simultaneously feeling the pressure of being the preacher’s kid. Billie realizes that she’s developed feelings for two of her friends—one, Woods, a boy, and the other, Janie Lee, a girl. At first, she keeps quiet, not wanting to upset her group of friends or the community. Plus, Billie’s trying to figure out her sexuality for herself. I really connected with this because I’m a preacher’s daughter, and there was always this idea that people were watching me and expecting me to perfect. This was a great read about a young woman navigating the tenacious teen years while trying to understand her own identity.
You Asked For Perfect by Laura Silverman
Ariel Stone is a senior trying to be the valedictorian and get into Harvard, and he just failed a Calculus test. Ariel asks a classmate named Amir to tutor him, and though Ariel’s Jewish and Amir’s Muslim, the boys fall for each other. But Ariel’s not sure he can handle the pressure of yet another thing in his life. Ariel’s rabbi encourages him to be gentle with himself, and over the course of the narrative, Ariel learns that imperfection is okay. Judaism plays largely in this book, with references to food, synagogue visits, and a family that practices Shabbat every Friday, and it was refreshing to see a teen with religious beliefs. However, all the diverse representation in this book was not simply for the purpose of representation. This was a lovely story about the struggle of academic pressure, new love, and learning to embrace imperfection.
The Names They Gave Us by Emery Lord
Lucy Hansson has a good life: loving parents, a great boyfriend, and a strong faith in God. Then her mom’s cancer comes back and everything Lucy knows unravels. Her boyfriend breaks up with her, God is distant, and instead of attending the Christian summer camp her parents run, Lucy ends up being a counselor at a camp for kids who have experienced trauma or difficult times. Lucy is a fish out of water at first and isn’t sure how to relate to the diverse group of camp counselors, including a trans kid and a pregnant teen. But soon Lucy discovers the beauty in this group of people, lets go of her judgment, and becomes friends with them. A boy named Jones in particular seems to deeply understand Lucy’s angst towards God in light of her mom’s illness. When a family secret is revealed, Lucy discovers that even the most devout of Christians aren’t perfect, and that’s okay.
Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali
Janna puts people into three categories: Saints, Misfits, and Monsters. She herself feels like a misfit: she doesn’t quite fit in with her Muslim community, but she doesn’t quite fit in with the kids at school, either. When a young man widely considered to be a Saint in the Muslim community turns out to be more of a Monster, Janna begins to question her Islamic beliefs. This story is about a teenager trying to figure out what she believes, and we learn that there’s not one right way to be a Muslim.
A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman
Set in India, this novel in verse is about a Veda, a teenager who has spent her life training to be classical Bharatanatyam dancer. Then tragedy hits: Veda is injured in an accident and her leg has to be amputated. Veda is devastated but determined: she is fitted with a prosthetic leg and returns to dance training, though dancing is nothing like it was before. Then she meets Govinda, a young man who approaches dancing as a spiritual practice, and he helps Veda rediscover her passion. This story is about a young woman dealing with a life-changing loss, with the drama of teenage relationships, and with her own growing spirituality.
Devoted: A Novel by Jennifer Mathieu
Rachel comes from a family of ten children. Her family are members of a strict fundamentalist Christian cult, and Rachel is homeschooled and sheltered from the world. Rachel is tired of the controlling rules and denigration of women in her family and church. One day she stumbles upon the website of Lauren Sullivan, a girl who left their church and struck out on her own. The two of them start emailing, and Rachel begins to realize that she has the power to choose her life. She must decide whether she will stay in an oppressive situation or abandon her family to discover her own freedom.
Rapture Practice by Aaron Hartzler
This book is a YA memoir about a boy who was raised in a strict fundamentalist Christian home. Aaron grows up looking forward to the rapture, when Jesus will return, and helping his mom teach the neighborhood kids about God. However, as Aaron enters his teen years, he begins to question his faith. His parents are constantly berating him for everything from buying a secular CD to watching TV, telling him that this is not how the Lord wants him to act. His parents enroll him in a very conservative private school to try to control him, but Aaron pushes back. When Aaron realizes that he’s gay, his internal struggle intensifies. This book was a little hard to read because I was so appalled by the way religious legalism led to what I would call verbal and spiritual abuse. However, Aaron holds to one tenet of his faith: grace. He ends the book by offering his parents mercy instead of hatred.
A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle
Vicky Austin and her family are staying at her grandfather’s island home for the summer to help take care of him. He is sick with cancer, and Vicky hates watching him deteriorate over the summer weeks. Her grandfather is a retired minister, and Vicky can’t understand why God would let him suffer. Amid her faith wrestling, Vicky finds comfort in a young man named Adam Eddington, a college student who’s studying marine biology on the island. Adam introduces Vicky to three dolphins he’s researching, and Vicky finds that she has a deep, almost spiritual connection with the creatures. In addition to Adam, two other boys vie for Vicky’s attention, leaving Vicky a bit confused. This novel deftly captures the experience of a teen dealing with confusing teenage relationships but also grappling with death and faith. This classic story still shines in 2019.