On a recent afternoon, British author Philip Pullman was writing a letter to a 16-year-old Christian girl outraged that he had killed God in his latest book.
It was an unusual exchange, given that God is usually off-limits in novels for teens.
Mr. Pullman's fantasy "The Amber Spyglass" and works by well-known authors C.S. Lewis and Louisa May Alcott are but a few on bookstore shelves that address head on what is now called the last taboo in stories for young people: religion.
Reviewers, authors, and teens themselves say the pickings are slim when it comes to fiction that explores faith and God.
"The whole spiritual thing has not appeared in young adult fiction. By and large, it's been taboo to talk about religion or God," says Patty Campbell (no relation), a critic and editor in Fallbrook, Calif.
Of concern to critics is that a significant aspect of many people's daily lives - and a subject teens are often grappling with - is not being reflected in a key art form. The absence sends a message, they say, that such topics aren't important. It's an especially obvious omission when AIDS, suicide, terrorism, and incest are fair play in teen novels.
Of the thousands of books published for young adults (ages 10 to 16) in the past six years, maybe two dozen novels have acknowledged questions of faith, says Ms. Campbell, who writes a column for The Horn Book, a children's book review magazine.
The list grows longer if you consider the past century - adding classics like "Heidi," "Little Women," and "A Wrinkle in Time." Many novels offer morality and value lessons, but contemporary fiction is still well behind in portraying the prominence of religion in US society.
About 95 percent of Americans routinely tell pollsters that they believe in God, and 35 percent of teens told Gallup in 1998 that religious faith was the most important influence in their lives, with 42 percent having attended a religious service in the past week.
Teen readers like the idea of more books that address faith, which they say would help bring the topic into the mainstream.
"I do wish that religion would be discussed more in teen novels. Maybe then religion wouldn't be such a touchy subject, because people would be used to reading and talking about it," says ninth-grader Jared Bovinet, a reviewer for the Teen People Book Club, in an e-mail interview.
While religious publishers have found success with novels for teens, mainstream publishers tend to stay away from the subject. Nonfiction offerings about spirituality and self-help, which are a big market, seem to present fewer pitfalls.
Novelists say publishers are often concerned that if they write about religion, their books will either alienate the public because they are too preachy, or anger the devout because they are not true enough to doctrine. It's not something all authors can pull off. But religion in general is being discussed more widely in society - both in the media and from tone-setting places like the White House. With the overall number of books in the young adult category also on the rise, it may mean more room for experimentation.
Different approaches to spirituality
Last fall, HarperCollins released "I Believe in Water: Twelve Brushes With Religion," a collection of short stories by authors who write for young adults.
Marilyn Singer, the editor of the collection and a contributor, says it was prompted by her own interest in the topic and the writings of Campbell and others, who have highlighted the absence of such works. "When I heard about that book, I thought, 'What a great idea,' " says Melanie Kroupa, who publishes her own line of children's and young-adult books for Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
She says it's a stellar group of authors, and the subject is broad enough "to allow for a lot of different kinds of things - not only different religions, but different approaches to spirituality. I wish I had thought of it."
Others in the industry are less enthusiastic. They say it can be hard to find high-quality work on the topic, if any at all.
"It's not a subject we're eager to tackle," says Joan Slattery, an editor and publishing director of children's books at Knopf. "As a rule, it's not an area we generally explore." One notable exception is Pullman's book, which has had reviewers and readers buzzing about its theology since it was published last fall.
"The Amber Spyglass" is the third installment in the trilogy that began with "The Golden Compass." It and the other installments are page-turners in which young people have adventures with animals and witches and live in a world where the church is not to be trusted, and God, among other things, is a liar.
"It's a very deep thing to say. I was pretty shocked to see that," says Sam Miller, an eighth grader at Jean Farb Middle School in San Diego, who says he reads the Bible but does not go to church. "Mainstream religion does not see God as corrupt."
Jamie Pittel, a librarian in Cambridge, Mass., says she and her 13-year-old sister talked at length about the book when it came out. They discussed the religious themes, including an allusion to the Adam and Eve story. Her sister even wondered if it would be banned since it is partially about a war with God.
"Your early adolescence is the time when you first begin to wonder, 'Is there really a God?' " said Pullman in an interview. "This is a time when these questions are very big, and a lot of young people are thinking about them."
"It's probably true that there was a certain part of the writing of 'The Amber Spyglass,' the whole trilogy, really, which is deliberately counter to [C.S.] Lewis's argument - that the world is a hideous place and growing up is a terrible thing and we must escape from it at all costs. I wanted to say clearly, this world is a wonderful place, it's beautiful, it's marvelous, and we should not run away from it. And furthermore, growing up is great as well."
Fantasy writers ask tough questions
It is in books like Pullman's - along with those by J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis, and even the Star Wars novels - where kids are being exposed to theology, says Phyllis Tickle, author of "God-Talk in America" and a contributing editor in religion at Publishers Weekly magazine. In general, she says, there is a "dearth of theologically evocative material" for young people, but fantasy is helping shape their views. It's there that tough topics can be dealt with because the stories take place in make-believe worlds - where good and evil often do battle.
Despite the contribution fantasy writers are making, the absence of religion is still felt by the industry. In the past few years, more authors have spoken out about it, and tried to tackle it themselves.
For example, prolific author Jane Yolen co-wrote "Armageddon Summer" an award-winning book about two teens who come to terms with what they believe when the world is about to end. Rather than exploring any one denomination's creed, one of the characters ends up in an exploration of the "spiritual dimension beyond him," explains Gary Schmidt, a professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. That's a good thing, he says. "Literature is not evangelism, not purposed specifically at religious conversion. But literature is an aesthetic expression of the human experience in all its facets - including the religious," he writes in the Nov./Dec. 2000 issue of The Five Owls, a children's lit publication.
He says one of the authors who has best captured this is Katherine Paterson, author of such books as "The Bridge to Terabithia" and "Jacob Have I Loved."
"Her work is intensely religious, but not overt in a way that is meant to be evangelical," he says in an interview.
Ms. Paterson herself says such topics can be tough for some of today's writers, who grew up in a more secular time.
"I think it's missing," she says of religion in teen fiction, "but I think you can't say we've got to have more of it, if we don't have the writers for that."
For now, Pullman is among those few who find themselves responding to letters about theology - like the one from the 16-year-old who liked his story, but tripped on the killing of God. He tells her that The Authority whose end he described is the God of the Spanish Inquisition and the persecutor of the Jews. He prefers the idea of something called Dust, which permeates the universe and exists when humans are wise, kind, and curious.
"So maybe," he tells her, "I'm upholding the same God that you believe in, but under a different name."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society