After an infamous 2011 Wall Street Journal article about the pervasive dark themes in young adult books, this year a few books have broken the mold. The post-apocalyptic and fight-against-the-man themes are still alive and well, but some YA novels have also added concepts of a higher power into the stories.
Although the "higher power" might not necessarily be an agent of good, it is a subtle shift that may open teens to the idea of spirituality and faith.
A few notable 2012 releases that incorporated religion were Grave Mercy, Sweet Evil and The Crown of Embers. The Crown of Embers is part of The Girl of Fire and Thorns series by Rae Carson and tells the tale of Elisa, "a seventeen-year-old princess turned war queen faces sorcery, adventure, untold power, and romance as she fulfills her epic destiny."
The book is not only a stand out for its strong writing and world-building but for its very positive portrayal of God and faith. I asked Carson a few questions about faith, her books and young adults:
Q: Several times in The Crown of Embers, verses from the fictional scriptures seem to closely resemble verses from the Bible. A few examples are:
• TCoE:"...And no one has greater love than he who gives his own life for a friend."
• The Bible: "Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends." (John 15:13)
• TCoE: "Yea, though he pass through the shadows of darkness he shall not fear, for God's righteousness..."
• The Bible: "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me." (Psalm 23:4)
Is this by accident or design?
RC: This is by design. I posit an Earth-origin/lost colony scenario for a group of religious refugees. If so, then over the course of several millennia, any surviving scriptures would morph significantly, while at the same time maintain some basic tenets and even a certain rhythm of language. We've seen this happen over and over on our world with the progressive revelation of major religions. For instance, Mormonism is an offshoot of Christianity, which is an offshoot of Judaism. With each new religion, more holy texts are added to the cannon of scripture, and existing texts get altered to accommodate the newer brand of faith.
Q: If it is by design, why did you model the Scripture Sancta after the Bible? Is the intention for your readers to make the connection between the two?
RC: Yes, I wanted the Scripture Sancta to feel familiar to readers. One of the great challenges of writing fantasy or science fiction is finding that balance between the wondrous-new and the familiar. Readers need something they recognize in order to ground themselves quickly in the story and assure them that all the differences will make sense soon enough. I chose religion as one of my grounding, familiar elements.
Q: The Crown of Embers stands out as being one of a few young adult books that involves strong faith in a god or higher power. What inspired you to include it in your books?
RC: I include it because religion exists, and because I think it's tragic when teenagers can't find themselves in fiction.
It's important to not marginalize any people group in fiction. A complete, authentic-feeling world should include many different elements of life and culture. For this reason my books will almost always contain people of faith.
Q: The Fire and Thorns series is one of the only young adult fantasy books that has any type of faith in it (without being shelved in the Christian fiction section). Why do you think religion and spirituality aren't featured more in other YA books out there right now?
RC: Because it's a huge risk. When you write about faith, people will be upset with you no matter what. I've heard from readers who were disgusted with the depiction of monotheistic religion. I've also heard from readers who were upset because my portrayal of faith did not adhere to their specific doctrines.
Fortunately, I have high risk tolerance. Or maybe I'm just relentless about writing something that I find fascinating and true to life.
Q: Being an integral part in Elisa's journey as a leader and a woman, what do you hope the faith displayed in The Crown of Embers will spark in your readers?
RC: I'm an atheist and a humanist, so I have no desire to evangelize anyone. But I do hope that Elisa's journey of truth seeking and self discovery resonates with religious teens who struggle with cognitive dissonance and the fact that while there is a church on every corner, each one preaches something different.
I have tremendous respect for teens who navigate the quagmire that is modern religion. If there is any message in my books, I want it to be that it's okay to ask questions, and it's okay to come up with a belief system all your own. Teens who change their worldviews in the face of tremendous social pressure are heroes to me. Whether it's deconverting entirely, switching churches, or even modifying the views they grew up with, they deserve affirmation for their courage.
Q: Another way The Fire and Thorns series stands out is in the fantasy genre. Many fantasy books do not portray religion in a positive way - it's typically used as a means to garner power or to control the masses. How do you think The Crown of Embers is similar and/or different from those books?
RC: While I do agree that religious is often used for ill, I also agree that respectful, empathetic portrayals of religion in fantasy fiction are rare. Most people I know who practice faith are not villains seeking to control others and judge their neighbors. They're just trying to do what's right and find meaning in a random world. The experience of religion is very intimate and personal for many people, and writing it that way gives me the opportunity to be intimate and personal with my characters.
Q: Is spirituality something you plan on incorporating into your future novels?
RC: Absolutely. Spirituality won't always be a central theme--not all stories demand the same treatment--but so long as religion exists in the world, it will exist in my books.
Q: What can readers look forward to in final book in the series, The Bitter Kingdom? How will Elisa's faith continue to be tested?
RC: In The Bitter Kingdom, Elisa ventures deep into enemy territory and makes decisions that will change her world forever. "God's will" remains as inscrutable to her as ever, but she will develop the courage to live without knowing all the answers.
What YA books have you read that had spiritual or religious elements? What did you think about them?