11 YA Authors Discuss the Role of Faith in Their Lives

Authors on religionWhen sweeping generalizations are made about faith communities, the human stories of those whose grew up in various religious traditions are erased. Today, we’re celebrating those stories.

The diversity of beliefs in the children’s lit community is vast, and we want to highlight not only novels that grapple with faith and spirituality, but also the role faith has played (or not played) in the lives of the authors themselves. Below, 11 authors share personal stories on the topic of their religion and what it has meant to them. Each story is accompanied by a photo, either of the authors themselves or of an object or place that holds significance to their spiritual life.

We have also asked authors whose books deal directly with themes of spirituality to discuss this in their stories. Authors whose novels aren’t as faith-based have instead included recommendations for awesome novels that in some way explore the topic of religion.

Aisha Saeed

Aisha Saeed, author of Written in the Stars

I was a huge Paula Abdul fan as a kid. One entire wall of my bedroom was a collage of Paula Abdul photos. I owned every song she ever recorded. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I think my devotion to Paula was less about her music and more about her last name—Abdul. A Muslim last name.

Growing up there were no Muslims in the books I read or the shows or movies I watched. The handful that might make an appearance were the “Unnamed Arab Bad Guy” in a suspense movie, which only served to make growing up harder, with mocking, derision, and bullying from my peers. I wrote stories all my life, but I never wrote about my own experiences or stories reflecting my own culture or faith until I was in college and first saw someone who reflected me in a book; until then, I thought stories about me, my experiences, my faith just wouldn’t matter.

When my novel Written in the Stars debuted last year, I was moved by the responses from South Asian and Muslim teens. My story was a mirror for them, many told me. While they didn’t deal with, thankfully, the issues surrounding the book such as forced marriage, they told me they saw glimpses of their own lives in Naila’s. I remembered Paula Abdul. I knew exactly what they meant.

Luckily there is more visibility for American Muslims now than there was when I was a child. Riz Khan, Dave Chapelle, and Willow Wilson are just a handful of Muslim actors, musicians, and authors who give today’s teens mirrors to see themselves reflected in. But today’s Muslim children are also growing up in a world of rising Islamaphobia, so visibility now carries even greater imperative. It has the potential to actually save lives. I hold out hope that, through literature and media, people who may never otherwise meet a Muslim can know we are more than the headlines, we are people, and like all people we are not a monolith.

Book recommendation: Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson, in which a teen boy explores the underground world of hacking and unravels a harrowing scheme that is greater than he could imagine.

Ella Lyons

Old Sukhotai Historical Park. Copyright Aredblush

Ella Lyons, author of Marian

Growing up in rural Georgia in the 80s meant growing up Baptist or Methodist, with very little space in between. For the first 14 years of my sheltered life, I was a Baptist. I didn’t have any particular feelings about my church. Most of my friends were there, and I liked the Fifth Sunday Singings, when our preacher would forgo the sermon and we’d spend the whole service singing hymns led by an enormously sweaty man named Ronnie, who was convinced he could sing the lowest note in the world, and would demonstrate this to anyone who stood still long enough.

We moved to the Methodist church when I was 14. My parents decided it was past time for me to be baptized, so I dutifully reported to the next altar call. That’s the first time I was saved. The second was four years later. I may have been saved another time or two. All I remember about my faith at that point was a growing sense of unease and discontent.

Here’s a thing about the south—if you aren’t going to believe in God, you better make darn sure you know why. I began studying everything I could get my hands on about every religion I could think of, and found that the thing that made sense to me—the only thing that made sense to me—was Buddhism.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said of Buddhism, “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.”

Some say that all religions are simply different hands pointing at the same truth. I don’t know if that’s true. I’m still countless miles away from Enlightenment. But the thing I do know is that “Life is so very difficult. How can we be anything but kind?”

Book recommendation: The Miseducation of Cameron Post, by Emily M. Danforth, in which a teen is sent to a Christian “gay conversion” camp when her aunt finds out about her crush on another girl.

Elissa Sussman

Author (center) with siblings at her Bat Mitzvah

Elissa Sussman, author of Stray and its sequel, Burn

Atheist Jew sounds a bit like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? Yet, like jumbo shrimp, here I am.

I grew up a Reformed Jew. We celebrated Shabbat every Friday night, lighting candles and saying prayers. We went to Temple for the High Holidays. My siblings and I went to Hebrew School. When I was 13, I got Bat Mitzvah’ed.

Ironically, that’s when I started to question everything.

A Bat/Bar Mitzvah is when a child joins the Jewish community as an adult. They stand before their congregation and read from the Torah, which has been passed down—literally—from previous generations.

My more religious grandparents refused to participate. Because I was a girl.

As I got older, I found that my growing identity as a feminist was clashing with some of the things my other religious family members tended to believe. My achievements were minimized because I didn’t have a Jewish boyfriend and I wasn’t working toward having a lot of Jewish babies.

Yet, there were things I loved (and continue to love) about being Jewish. I love the sense of community and solidarity. I love traditions and rituals, all rooted in childhood memories. And I love the food. Latkes, yum.

Eventually, I came to realize I could embrace the parts of Judaism I loved—things that were more cultural than religious—and still develop my own set of beliefs. A set of beliefs that might not include god.

But just like Judaism, there are aspects of Atheism that make me uncomfortable. It certainly doesn’t lack for extremism (there’s nothing worse than a “rabid atheist” making us all look like anti-religion assholes) or sexism (thanks, Christopher Hitchens).

But the thing I like most about my belief system is that it continues to evolve. And I hope that never changes.

Book recommendation: Briar Rose, by Jane Yolen, a retelling that weaves the story of Sleeping Beauty through the historical context of the Holocaust.

Neesha Meminger_option2

From a Back to Our Roots trip to India the author’s mom took her on out of fear she was becoming “dangerously westernized.” Author is 17.

Neesha Meminger, author of Shine, Coconut Moon

Faith is this intimate thing. It’s magic and miracles…whispers and things you can’t see, and things you can see that aren’t there. It’s visions and messages and myths and tales.

The stories I grew up with around faith were about punishment and rules. About honor and duty and sacrifice and martyrs. Good girls were pious. They followed rules and spoke softly. They cooked for everyone and ate last. If you looked closely, you could see the eversoslight curve of their backs, straining under the weight of the entire family’s honor.

I clung to the letters—squiggly forms on large, revered pages. You couldn’t touch the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, if your hands weren’t clean. There was power in there, in those words. The words told me Sikhism was about equality. Social justice. That god was formless, genderless, casteless, omniscient, omnipresent, within and without. I felt the truth of that resonate throughout my body.

All of my books are about faith. My first YA novel, Shine, Coconut Moon, was about this journey—about discovering your own faith, not as it’s defined by your culture, or your religion, or your mom. Your faith.

Is it men officiating in temples, synagogues, mosques, churches? Or something else, something ancient and intelligent? A heartbeat pulsing all around you, breathed into your lungs, energizing your neurons and the cells of your brain, and spoken directly to you? Faith, to me, has always been more of a quest—a conversation with the Universe to create a reality. It’s active, it’s alive. Your body knows it, your heart opens to it. It’s that distinct and persistent tugging at the edges of your awareness, that faint voice that repeats, The sacred is within you. You already hold all of the answers and all of the keys. You know the truth…You are the truth.

NH Senzai

N.H. Senzai, author of Shooting Kabul and Ticket to India

Growing up in the seventies, my sister and I felt like foreigners as the only Muslim kids at our San Francisco Bay Area school. No one knew what a Muslim really was, and since our parents were from India, it was hard enough explaining that we were not the kind of Indian Columbus had encountered in the Americas (Native Americans), but the kind he was actually looking for, in his search for a new route to India.

But little did I know that the first country to recognize America’s independence, and to congratulate George Washington, was a Muslim one—Morocco. President Thomas Jefferson hosted an Iftar dinner at the White House for Muslim dignitaries, and he owned a copy of the Quran, Islam’s holy book. Founding father John Adams published Thoughts on Government, in which he mentions the Islamic prophet Muhammad as a “sober inquirer after truth” alongside Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates, and other thinkers. And in “The Star-Spangled Banner,” when rockets are mentioned, they pay tribute to Tipu Sultan, the Muslim ruler from India who invented them. And of the 12.5 million Africans shipped to the Americas as slaves, up to 30% of them were Muslim, known for their “resistance, determination, and education.” So perhaps Muslims and Islam are not that foreign after all.
As a kid, the first American Muslim I saw on television was Muhammad Ali, and he was the greatest. Not only for his prowess as a boxer in the ring, but his eloquence when he spoke his mind, and stood up for his beliefs, all the while unapologetically black and Muslim. And for a kid, he just made being a Muslim cool. At his recent passing, I and millions of Muslims across America mourned, for he had put the question of whether a person can be a Muslim and an American to rest.
Book recommendation: Muhammad Ali’s autobiography Soul of a Butterflyby Muhammad Ali and Hana Yasmeen Ali.
Dahlia Adler
Dahlia Adler, author of Under the Lights and Out on Good Behavior

I’d never experienced a culture shock like college orientation. I was born into Modern Orthodox Judaism, had Modern Orthodox schooling from K–12, capped it off with a year in a Jerusalem seminary, and spent 13 summers at a Modern Orthodox summer camp. You might think that because I definitely placed stronger emphasis on the “Modern” part when it came to dress, socializing, etc. it wouldn’t be that striking, but I just didn’t know how to talk to people. I’d never really had to explain that I couldn’t go out on Friday night or eat non-kosher things; I’d always been surrounded by people who, even if they didn’t observe all the same things, certainly knew what it meant to. I felt different, yeah, but most of all, I felt annoying, because my insecurity led to three days of me babbling about why I didn’t fit in with the rest of them, even while I desperately wanted to.

It was…not a great start, and as soon as the year began, I let myself float back into my old current and let “Jewish geography” carry me wherever I needed to go.

I grew into it eventually, and being in the YA world has helped with that a lot. But somewhere between my brain and my tongue, “I can’t do that because of my religion” turns into “I’m sorry I’m an inconvenience,” still. Always. Being Modern Orthodox is sort of like being Waldo—the goal is to blend in and yet always be separate from the crowd and hold tight to what has made you you for generations. It’s a constant dance, and lemme tell you, we do not grow up learning how to dance well.

Unless it’s Israeli folk dance. I can rock that with the best of ’em.

Book recommendation: Playing with Matches, by Suri Rosen, about a Modern Orthodox girl who plays romantic matchmaker for the sister who resents her.

 Sona Charaipotra copy

Sona Charaipotra, author of Tiny Pretty Things and Shiny Broken Pieces

When people ask (rather than presume!), I always tell them I grew up pseudo-Hindu. This of course, elicits more questions—and I’ve been asking a lot of them myself lately, too. See, I come from a Punjabi family, but grew up in the heart of the Northeast United States, so my accent’s Jersey, not Desi. We had a little shrine devoted to Ram, Sita, Ganesh, and other gods tucked away in the closet of the house (and eventually in its own tiny temple), and we celebrated Diwali and Holi right on schedule. But we also had a (white plastic) Christmas tree (it was meant to represent snow, I think) and painted eggs on Easter. So I spent a lot of time questioning, and getting vague answers—until I stopped asking. Hence: pseudo-Hindu. I’ve never quite seen my experience on the page. The closest I’ve come to this day, is Dimple Lala in Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Born Confused. Hers is more a cultural discovery than a religious one—and I think that’s how I’d define myself, too. I grew up strongly rooted in Indian culture, but not so much in the religion. I can’t wait to see more characters like myself, even if I have to write them myself.

Linda Jackson

Linda Jackson, author of Midnight Without a Moon

“You wanna be a center?” my nine-year-old brother Willie asked me.

“What’s a center?” seven-year-old me answered.

“A center is the tallest person on the basketball team. A center makes all the shots.”

“Oh, yeah!” cried basketball-loving me. “I wanna be a center!”

“You wanna be a sinner!” Willie said. “You’re going to hell!”

“Wait. You said a center was the tallest person on the basketball team.”

A sly grin spread across Willie’s face. “I said ‘sinner.’ And you just said you wanna be one.”

Although I was only seven, the fact that my brother felt the need to trick me into saying I wanted to be a sinner made me determined not to be one. Unlike my protagonist Rose in Midnight Without a Moon, I didn’t come from a churchgoing family. So until the summer I turned 10, I had never been to church. In third grade, a classmate showed me how to “pray for salvation.” I went home and told my mom I wanted to get baptized. She told me it didn’t work that way. I had to go to the mourners’ bench and “get religion.”

I had heard of the mourners’ bench—a weeklong ordeal where the “sinners” had to sit at the front of the church, be prayed over, then wait for a sign from heaven that they had been saved. But hey, for the sake of not being a sinner, I was willing to suffer through that.

The next summer as my niece and I passed a church along our country road, a deacon called out to us, “Hey girls, y’all coming to revival next week?”

I raced home, told my mom, then I begged her to let me go. She agreed.

Guess who else went to the mourners’ bench that summer? My brother Willie.

Midnight Without a Moon, a story with African American characters set in 1955 Mississippi, would not be complete without an old-fashioned mourners’ bench experience. And that’s how my protagonist Rose Lee Carter ends up there. But unlike me, she had to be forced.

Of course, we both eventually learn that we will always be sinners. We’re just sinners saved by grace.

Chelsea Pitcher

Author with her faerie wall, a collection of art relating to her favorite part of Paganism: faeries.

Chelsea Pitcher, author of The Last Changeling and The Last Faerie Queen

I spent my formative years terrified of the devil. It started at Bible camp, where they told us Satan liked to scratch on the windows of children, and the only way to stay safe was to invite Jesus into our hearts. I cried myself to sleep at night, listening for the sound of fingernails on the glass. It wasn’t until middle school, when I discovered the book Sati, by Christopher Pike, that my fears started to unravel. In the book, Sati claimed to be god, but she didn’t want to torture people for all eternity. She said, “Enjoy your life. No curse hangs over you, nor did it ever. No devil chases after your soul.” To 12-year-old me, this was a revelation. The fear left me, and I was free.

In high school, I discovered the earth-based religions. The girl who grew up fearing witches started practicing Wicca. The idea that magic is all around us felt familiar in a way that nothing had before, and the Wiccan Rede (“As ye harm none, do what ye will”) made perfect sense to me. Still, after years of studying Wicca and Paganism, worshipping nature (okay, I still do that), and devouring everything I could find about faeries, I decided it was time to expand my reading. I became fascinated with quantum physics, which supports the Pagan concept of everything being connected. In fact, many religions teach that energy expelled comes back to you (like the Wiccan Rule of Three). I found my spirituality lies in the place where magic and science overlap, like in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials or Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy. So now, if someone asks about my beliefs, I can say they’re like His Dark Materials: a strong basis in quantum physics, but also there are witches and magic.

Book recommendation: Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor, the perfect read for anyone equally fascinated by science and spirituality. The magic transcends space and time, and the characters have their own creation myths.

Author’s cousin dancing Bharatanatyam, with a picture of Nataraja in the background

Padma Venkatraman, author of A Time to Dance and Climbing the Stars

You might think my third novel, A Time To Dance, was inspired by dance. It was. It was also inspired by a snake.

I’m American, but I was born in India. When I was 19, I went back to visit and was bitten by one of the deadliest venomous snakes: a viper.

At the hospital, a doctor said, “You’re so cheerful, you give me hope.” I thought, ‘Hey, shouldn’t you be giving me the hope?’

Later, doctors said something peculiar—if I’d been terrified of dying, I probably would’ve. But because I thought, “Ah well, if I’m going I may as well laugh instead of cry—they both sort of sound the same,” I ended up living.

It was awfully painful, though, and I almost lost my leg. Rainbow colors look gorgeous in the sky, but it’s horrific if your skin turns all the colors of the spectrum after a snake bite. Miraculously, my leg healed.

That experience—of nearly losing life and limb—stayed with me. And it crystallized a deep sense of spirituality—not limited by the boundaries of any religion, although probably informed by Hinduism.

Hinduism is, I think, the most misunderstood religion—sometimes even by Hindus themselves! I’m tired and saddened by the widely perpetuated misconceptions rife in today’s media. Books for children and adults, young and old, are rife with false stereotypes, such as that Hindus are polytheistic.

My novel, A Time To Dance, is one of the few books that looks at a Hindu character’s spiritual growth.

Veda, the protagonist of A Time To Dance, is a dancer who loses her leg. As she fights to dance again, her love of dance deepens, and she discovers how to evoke inner stillness through movement. She learns to love her body again, becomes more compassionate, and grows spiritually.

She understands the Hindu concept that God is the limitless power of goodness—one formless entity that can assume any form, that exists within and outside us. She also refers to a poem that captures the essence of Hinduism: just as every river follows its own course but ultimately reaches the one global ocean, each soul follows its own path, but ultimately reaches the one supreme entity.

Tanuja Hidier

Tanuja Desai Hidier, author of Born Confused and Bombay Blues

I write this in London. From a room—perhaps my temple, as it’s often where I make my own leap of faith (writing)—abrim with paper, pens, laptop. NYC toy taxis. Blessed Mumbadevi Temple coconut (from a Bombay Blues research trip). Black Lanzarote lava. Purple Rain vinyl. Patti Smith poetry. My daughters’ little love Post-Its. Snoopy. God A’a. Arrow-firing Arjuna. Blue Mary. Silver Buddha.

And seven—I’m just realizing—Ganeshas. Hinduism’s elephant-headed God of New Beginnings.

I’ve lived in London 16 years, with my French husband and now our IndoFrancoBelgoAmericana Blighty-born girls. Me: Boston-born; my brother, mother: Bombay. My father, Johannesburg-birthed, grew up in the village of Varad, Gujarat. My parents were raised Hindu—but as the first from both sides to pilgrimmigrate to the USA (and the first “brown” in our town), they swiftly became artists of adaptation.

Brahma, Buddha. Allah, Jesus: All rivers join the sea, they taught us. Chicopee River included.

As believers, they were (and are) weavers, elements of Hinduism lovingly, gracefully intertwined into the fabric of our everyday life: a Krishna in our kitchen; Christmas tree in the den. Like the father in my novels, my Bapuji murmured morning bhajans, gliding room to room, deity to deity, in prayer. He’d hum with equal pleasure to my brother playing Elton John on piano, our Madonna, Bowie, Prince albums (my mother—who Om’d upon a rosary—loved Purple Rain).

They huge-heartedly embraced their new start in this new world. And thus, I grew a deep affection for their old one. A respect for the revision, adaptation, integration of traditions. And a love for new beginnings.

In my first novel, Born Confused, protagonist Dimple Lala and her Bombayite cousin hold a housewarming pooja in Kavita’s NYC apartment, to reincarnate her sad recently jilted state into a positive new-start singledom one. Unsure how to proceed, they improvise: No coconut to crack? They offer Ganesha a Bounty bar. Low on rice to throw in the fire? Toss in some penne.

We’ve espoused this feather-in and wing-it approach off the page, too. A favorite new-beginning example? Seventeen years ago, I found the most suitable boy for me in a French (small-town white technically Catholic) man…whom I met at a Muslim Pakistani friend’s NYC Christmas-tree-lighting dance party.

Bernard’s family welcomed me from go. And mine, him. We married a little over a year after meeting.

For the ceremony, we had only immediate family present in the sacred space of…the house in the town where I grew up! We’d recorded a music mix—French (Nougaro); Indian (traditional and diasporic); Moloko; Stardust. Soundtracked thus, my beloved father walked me down the stairs from my bedroom to the living room hearth, above which hung a tableau of Lord Vishnu’s incarnations (where he prayed for me and my brother).

When we departed my hometown, en route to our new UK start, my mother—as the mother in my novels does—stood before our kitchen Krishna and pressed the bindi powder her own mother had pressed between her brows the morning she left for America upon my forehead, and Bernard’s.

What a journey that golden vial had made. That we all had made. And continue to make. Composed of myriad maps—geographical, emotional, experiential.

Endless new beginnings.

For life is a series of these. It takes a leap of faith to start again. And treating transitions with care—as something to celebrate rather than fear—can transform your once upon a time into your happily ever after.

As Dimple Lala says in Bombay Blues:

Everything that can be celebrated must be celebrated.

So mix. Remix. And: Rejoice.

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