Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Religion in Middle Grade Fiction

Since I’ve become more interested in writing historical fiction and sci fi/fantasy, I’ve realized I need to think a bit more about the role religion would play in these stories. Much contemporary middle grade fiction leaves out religion, for a variety of reasons. For many, it’s not as important a part of life as it used to be, and we are certainly an ever increasing diverse society of many different religions. Other times, it just doesn't have a place in the plot.

As I’ve been reading historical fiction and sci fi/fantasy, I’ve been thinking about the world building aspects of stories, and pondering when and how much religion needs to be included as part of the world building. It seems clear that for much of historical fiction, it needs to be there, because for most of human history, some sort of religion was considered a vital part of daily life. I recently reread A WRINKLE IN TIME, and was so surprised to find religion a major part of that book. I hadn’t remembered that at all, but I’m sure when I read it as a child, I thought nothing of it, because it would just be a part of the characters’ beliefs.


To add religion in can give a story a much greater richness, and for historical fiction in particular, show young readers how very different life used to be. I’ll never forget my son’s reaction when I read him FARMER BOY by Laura Ingalls Wilder. He was absolutely horrified at Almanzo’s description of life on Sunday:

"Boys must not run or laugh or talk loudly on Sunday….Almanzo just sat. He had to. He was not allowed to do anything else, for Sunday was not a day for working or playing. It was a day for going to church and for sitting still."

At seven years old, my son could imagine nothing worse than sitting still all day. It gave him a new appreciation for the idea that not everyone is the same nor lives in the same way, and that is a terrific realization to take away from a book.



So I have two questions for everyone. Can you think of any contemporary middle grade fiction with a religion as part of the world building of the story? And, how do you deal with religion in your own stories?

~Dee Garretson

23 comments:

  1. Some of my favorite stories use religion as a major element, which makes them ring true for me since God is a major part of my life, and was when I was growing up. Most recently, I loved Heart of a Shepherd, by Rosanne Parry--a contemporary mg story published in 2009 (I think).

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    1. Oh, thanks for mentioning that book. I hadn't thought of that one.

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  2. I was thinking Heart of a Shepherd too, Faith. But truthfully it's hard to come up with contemporary novels that even mention religion. Here's hoping some of you cleverer commenters can come up with some so I can expand my horizons.

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  3. While not MG, I've really enjoyed Rae Carson's GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS, a fantasy series where the main character is the chosen one for her generation. It's truly compelling.

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    1. That's the book that partly triggered this blog post. While I was reading it, I was thinking how the worldbuilding included a whole religion and mention of the MC studying the religious book in the story. You are right-It is very compelling

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  4. I always enjoyed Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret for it's religious content. I'd love to see a Richard Dawkins Atheism for Young Minds book:)

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    1. That would be interesting. Again, something that there is almost no mention of in middle grade. I remember talking to a friend who sent her daughter to a Catholic school even though the family was not religious at all, and how tough that was for her daughter, who felt on the outside.

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  6. I've just thought of one! The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare. It's about a boy who interacts with Jesus during his last year of ministry. It won the 1962 Newbery.

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    1. That's a good one. So well written too.

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    2. I read The Bronze Bow eons ago, but I remember how powerful and compelling it was, and how I loved the interaction with Jesus, something I'd never seen before in children's fiction.

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  7. That part in Farmer Boy horrified my siblings and me, too! It was difficult enough having to sit still and silent through an hour mass every Sunday, LoL. We couldn't imagine having to sit still and quiet for an entire day!

    Happy reading and writing! from Laura Marcella @ Wavy Lines

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    1. Isn't it funny to remember how hard it was to sit still? Now there are days when I wish I could sit still for hours!

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  8. The House on the Corner deals with religion and faith.

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    1. I'm not familiar with that book. I will definitely check it out.

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  9. Whittington has religious connotations. I love how it's handled.

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    1. Another one I don't know! Thanks!

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  10. I was also thinking of Heart of a Shepherd, and how much I loved Elizabeth George Speare's books. I think religion is underrepresented in children's books, that it's a part of real kids' lives more than it is fictional kids' lives.

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    1. I live in a neighborhood where most families are Catholic, and I'm not, and it's always been interesting to me to see how much not just religion, but being part of the community of their church is a major part of their lives.

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  11. It does seem that religion mostly plays into historical fiction rather than contemporary stories. I write historical fiction and religion definitely found its way into my book, THE BALLAD OF JESSIE PEARL. Clay Carmichael's WILD THINGS is a contemporary story that touches on religion, (a character dies and there's a Christian funeral). Another contemporary that comes to mind is THE LOST SONGS by Caroline B. Cooney, a minister is one of the supporting characters in that one.

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  12. Yes. John Ritter's baseball book CHOOSING UP SIDES revolves around religion and baseball, as the MC is a boy with a gifted left arm, but his pastor father KNOWS left-handedness is the devil at play. It is a GREAT book. Highly recommended.

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  13. Melody Carlson has a Color Me series that deals with various problems (anorexia, cutting, suicide) that have long digressions into religion. I've actually had students complain about that- not on philosophical grounds, but because it's BORING. And I have to admit that I can't get anyone to read The Bronze Bow. Religion is not something students ever ask for, except for my Muslim girls, who are VERY interested to see how other girls their age deal with issues like wearing the hijab.

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    1. Very late to this conversation. Sorry. Thanks for the mentions everybody. I didn't set out to write about religion with Heart of a Shepherd but because I set it in a rural county settled almost entirely by Irish and Basques, it would have been a lie to leave religion out. And the role of religion grew quite a bit as I got to know my character better. I'll have a blog of my own soon. Perhaps I'll write a post about how that developed some day.

      As for other books, Katherine Patterson's A Bridge to Terebithia comes to mind. Madeleine L'Engle wrote many books with a distinctly Christian world view. Ursula LeGuin is more Buddhist in her leanings and often puts philosophical and ritual elements in her stories that play the role of religion in her fantasy or sci-fi setting. If you are willing to think of religion more broadly as the things people do to make meaning in their particular circumstances, then many books have religious content. For example, in the Cit of Ember, the people underground gather every year and sing together. This is a liturgical celebration even if it's not tied to a specific religion.

      Great conversation! thanks!

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Thanks for adding to the mayhem!