Friday, July 11, 2014

On religion and children's books

There's a scene in More All-of-a-Kind Family, the third book in Sydney Taylor's wonderful series based on her own childhood, when Henny begs her older sister Ella to check the nearly new Anne of Avonlea out of the library. Henny can't do it herself because the book is in the adult section, but that's a subject for another post. Today, what I have on the brain is religion, specifically religion in mainstream children's fiction.

If you've read L.M. Montgomery's work, you know that religion comes up pretty often, usually in a way that's irreverent toward minutiae but respectful overall. Most of her characters are Presbyterian, and characters' hangups over their differences with Methodists are played for comic effect, as are some anxieties about what is or isn't okay to think about on Sunday. But in serious moments, Christianity is taken seriously, and all this is just part of the fabric of life for the ridgepole-walking redhead. It doesn't seem to bother Sabbath-observing, kosher-keeping Henny. Fast-forward about eighty years, and much as I loved seeing my family's religious practices in the All of a Kind Family books, the Anne books felt just as much my own.

These days, there are religious publishers of religious books for religious kids, but there are fewer mainstream books that acknowledge religion. And just like books with characters of a particular ethnicity shouldn't just be for readers of that ethnicity, there's value in giving kids a chance to see what they have in common with kids from other religions. I would guess there's been some hesitation on this front because religion is so personal and sometimes so fractious, and mainstream publishers may be afraid to be seen as endorsing a particular set of beliefs. I wonder if it's actually easier to get a book like Bestest. Ramadan. Ever. or My Basmati Bat Mitzvah published than it is to include a more prevalent religion in a kids' book. (I'm speaking here of American publishers and American demographics.)

This is on my mind now because of two recent reads that I thought did this well: Julie T. Lamana's Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere and Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming (yes, I finally got my hands on an ARC). Upside Down follows a family from the Ninth Ward through Hurricane Katrina. Religion is not a major focus, but the Curtises are devout Christians, and it makes complete sense that in very difficult moments, they automatically take comfort in their faith. I'm pretty sure that if I had read this as a middle-grader (obviously an anachronistic hypothetical), I would've understood the emotions being expressed through religious language. Brown Girl Dreaming does something perhaps even more interesting, and being based on the author's life, it sort of had to. It portrays a variety of religious beliefs within one family - Jacqueline's grandmother is a Jehovah's Witness, and various members of the family embrace or reject her faith and practices to varying degrees, even evolving as time passes. An uncle adopts Islam, and young Jackie prays with him without abandoning her earlier beliefs. There's some push-and-pull over religion in the book, but it's not cataclysmic.

Religious differences don't have to be cataclysmic. That's all I'm saying.

No comments:

Post a Comment