Young adult Christian literature gets the nod from Slate

Christian-themed novels for teens are seen as "a surprisingly empowering guide to adolescence."

"She's cute, she's fun, and she's following God," reads the promotional copy for this novel about Sierra Jensen, protagonist of a series aimed at Christian teens.

In general, Christian-themed literature doesn't draw a lot of ink from the mainstream media. I'm a book editor, for instance – for a paper that has "Christian" in the title – and this morning is the first time I ever heard of the Christy Miller and Sierra Jensen Christian young adult novels aimed at Christian teens.

It's not as if these books are obscure – they have sold more than 2 million copies between them. (Modest, perhaps, compared with predictions for "The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner," but sizable nonetheless.)

But recognition for such books could now be on the rise. In "Are You There, God?," a recent piece in Slate, Ruth Graham calls these young Christian titles "a surprisingly empowering guide to adolescence."

What impresses Graham in certain of the books aimed at young Christian teens are what she finds to be "explicitly positive – even feminist – messages" on topics like "positive body image, hard work, and the importance of not settling for just any guy." Overall, she finds many of these titles "present a grounded alternative to the 'Gossip Girl' landscape."

That's not to say that the genre doesn't have its critics. Graham notes that many Christian YA novels are not what she would call "literary efforts." And she quotes Daniel Radosh, author of "Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture" who cautions that, "When you start with the premise that the original form [young adult fiction] is inherently corrupt, you end up going overboard trying to demonstrate the acceptability of your version."

Graham points out that today Christian fiction is on the upswing, with publishers like Abingdon, Hendrickson, Revell, the Baker Publishing House, and Zondervan all either entering or expanding their presence in the field.

But what makes a novel a "Christian" work? Do books need explicit labels? "The Christian Guide to Fantasy" website includes many mainstream classics among its recommended titles – books by authors like Lloyd Alexander, Lewis Carroll, J.M. Barrie, P.L. Travers, M.M. Kaye, and Norton Juster – noting that these titles offer healthy levels of "Christian morality," even though they do not necessarily include explicitly Christian themes.

And what about YA books with spiritual messages drawn from non-Christian sources? The Alan Review focuses on titles that offer spiritual guidance to young readers taken from Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, and native American traditions. All these titles, the site's editors suggest, offer a source for "spiritual things: ceremonies, faith, a sense of transcendence, and spiritual connection" that might be useful to young teens struggling to define themselves.

Will books like these ever sell at the same numbers as "The Carrie Diaries"? Perhaps not. But thoughtful parents may want to take note. As Graham points out, when it comes to "girlish escapism," putting such titles in the hands of young readers has got to be "better than holding out for a Prada purse."

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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