Are You There, God?
How Christian YA novels are offering a surprisingly empowering guide to adolescence.
The new popular source of girl power isn't a hyper-sexed Miley Cyrus video or Candace Bushnell's recently published Sex and the City prequel about Carrie Bradshaw's teen years. If you look past the Bible-study scenes, young-adult novels from evangelical authors and publishers are offering their young Christian readers a surprisingly empowering guide to adolescence. Created as a "safe" alternative to mainstream fiction, books for Christian girls include wholesome heroines, lots of praying, and absolutely no cursing. And they're a big business. The Christy Miller and Sierra Jensen series—now Christian YA classics—have sold more than 2 million copies between them, and the Diary of a Teenage Girl books have sold more than 600,000 copies since 2008. Most Christian publishers have guidelines for taboo words and situations, and some also have in-house theologians vet content to make sure it adheres to "Biblical principles." Amid all of this piety, however, are explicitly positive—even feminist—messages like positive body image, hard work, and the importance of not settling for just any guy—that present a grounded alternative to the Gossip Girl landscape. Though American Christians have had a sometimes wary relationship with fiction, the genre has a long history, starting with Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan's 17th-century allegory about a man named Christian making his way to the Celestial City. Series for Christian women and girls became widespread in the 19th century, and some from that era, including the Miranda trilogy by the prolific romance writer Grace Livingston Hill and Martha Finley's Elsie Dinsmore series about a pious preteen, are still kicking around. The 20th century brought mainstream best-sellers with Christian themes, including Ben Hur, the Newbery Award-winner The Bronze Bow, A Wrinkle in Time, and C.S. Lewis'Narnia series. But backlash to loosening social mores also caused a resurgence of interest in more explicitly religious fiction with a stronger moralist vein. Catherine Marshall's best-seller Christy—published in 1967, the same year as the gritty, secular YA hit The Outsiders –became the new prototype for Christian-girl lit. The sweeping tale of a pious young woman teaching school in rural Tennessee sold millions of copies, inspired a hit miniseries, and remains the gold standard in Christian fiction for women—one of the most prestigious awards in the Christian fiction industry is the Christy. The awards added a Young Adult category in 2007. In recent years, fiction for both Christian adults and teens has been expanding again. Methodist publisher Abingdon entered the fiction market in 2009, and the Christian academic publisher Hendrickson plans to launch a fiction line next year. Revell, founded by 19th-century evangelist Dwight L. Moody and now owned by the large evangelical Baker Publishing House, says it has recently increased its presence in YA fiction. Zondervan, the evangelical publisher of Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life, launched a YA arm in 2008. Some titles are sold in mainstream outlets, including Wal-Mart, but most are sold in Christian bookstores and at events like Thomas Nelson's touring Revolve conferences —"Helping girls learn about life, love, and God since 2005."In the newest books, old-fashioned values are embraced for newfangled reasons. Modesty is endorsed, not because of shame, but because of self-respect and practicality: Protagonist DJ in Spring Breakdown opts for a one-piece swimsuit over a teensy bikini because, "I like to swim. And I like to move around." Besides, another character reflects later, "Sometimes subtle is sexy." The verse in Genesis that says humans are made "in the image of God" is frequently employed to reinforce positive body image. And where mainstream novels can be relentlessly brand-driven —even incorporating product placement —the most fashionable character in the best-selling Carter House Girls series is the one who rejects brand names in favor of thrift stores. Author Melody Carlson told me she created the Carter House Girls in direct response to the Gossip Girl series, because she feared that the latter shows realistic behavior but unrealistic or nonexistent consequences. Carlson says she doesn't like the word feminist, but that nonetheless she was raised to be one, which comes through in her work: "It never occurred to me that a woman should be less than her best."Work matters, too. The best-selling Christy, often billed as a simple love story, is framed around a career adventure—Christy sets out from her posh hometown to teach school in a poverty-stricken rural area—and contemporary protagonists often have serious career goals, too. The star of the new Tyndale series London Confidential dreams of becoming a big-time reporter: "You know my dream is to be a journalist," she prays before bed. Protagonists spend a lot of time contemplating "God's plan" in their lives, a message that reinforces long-term goals. Cindy Martinusen-Coloma's sensitively written 2009 novel, Beautiful, features a high-schooler who hopes to go into international law. When her father tells her that her parents worry about seeing her head off to a war zone someday, she replies, "I'll tell Mom it's what God wants me to do."
Even in matters of the heart, these Christian books are encouraging girls to have personal agency. Take Candace Thompson, the protagonist of Debbie Viguié's 2008 novel The Summer of Cotton Candy. "We're not kids forever," she tells her summer fling, discouraged by his aimlessness. "I may not know what I want to do with my life yet, but I know I want to do something. ... Sooner or later you have to take responsibility for your own life, and I'm trying. What are you doing?" When he asks what this means, her answer is "I want a guy who values the same things I do"—a pretty excellent guideline for teens of any religious background.
Make no mistake: Christian novels written for young people are still primarily developmental tools rather than literary efforts. They're often didactic and formulaic, and a secular parent should think twice before buying them for his or her child. Evangelical publishers and authors say that what sets their books apart is how they show "natural consequences" of vice, which, in effect, means that no young person has sex without life-altering regrets or worse, and no one has a sip of beer without becoming a full-blown alcoholic. As Daniel Radosh, whose excellent Rapture Ready!: Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture is just out in paperback, explains it, "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." More disturbingly, the books' positive messages are muddled by a concurrent strain of self-abnegation. The 13-year-old heroine of Ann Tatlock's A Room of My Own, for example, learns that a life of sacrifice and service is more important than having her own room. (Presumably the sequel finds Virginia Woolf rolling over in her grave.) The aspiring journalist in the first London Confidential book swallows her ambition and keeps a big scoop to herself because of what she reads in Luke 6:31, a Bible verse more commonly known as the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
There's some evidence that the messages of these uptight, Christian books are bleeding into the mainstream. Critics have pointed out that mainstream teen novels, including Twilight, are already quite conservative, pushing girls toward marrying young and bland wholesomeness. "The novels for teens nowadays, it's as if they all have a therapist in the back corner pushing them toward a happy and healthy ending," Lizzie Skurnick, the author of the teen-fiction memoir Shelf Discovery, says. "We are in a very moral era." Christian novels embrace the current mood without reservation, encouraging teens to groom themselves for a mature, if conventional, life.
Though evangelical books have had a hand in creating this more moral era, the larger takeaway from the Christian books is not that girls should imagine themselves as subservient wives, but that they should prepare themselves for adulthood. Certainly heroine Candace Thompson sees marriage as her ultimate goal when she is choosing a boyfriend. But she also wants someone "who valued what she did, would take her seriously, would help her grow as a person, and would love and respect her." That's not a girl preparing for a life as a doormat; it's a girl learning about the importance of emotional strength. It's a girl who refuses to settle for a so-so boy who is not on track to be a good man. As far as girlish escapism goes, it's better than holding out for a Prada purse.
Ruth Graham is a writer in New Hampshire.