Discussing Diversity

Last night, I went to a panel event at the lovely One More Page Books. Authors in attendance were Marieke Nijkamp (one of the founders of We Need Diverse Books), Robin Talley, Kat Spears, and Miranda Kenneally. The conversation centered, of course, around their books–broaching the topics of poverty, school shootings, sibling relationships, gender identity, publishing woes, and the many-faceted issues that young people face daily.

I am not the kind of person who would normally ask a question at the end of this kind of event, but I felt my hand going up as if it had a mind of its own. Lelia, our moderator, called on me, and my mouth started moving, as much to my surprise as anyone else’s. I said, more or less,

“I know that gender diversity and racial diversity are a big deal right now, but I was wondering if you had any thoughts on religious diversity in YA–whether it exists, and whether it needs to move in a particular direction.”

The ladies were all diplomatic in their responses. Spears said that she has known many people for whom religion was not a defining factor, and that she prefers to focus on what makes us similar, rather than what makes us different. She mentioned that message-driven literature often seems preachy, and that can be boring or dangerous, depending on how it’s done. Talley and Kenneally were both surprised by how their childhood church attendance has bled through into their writing. Nijkamp’s response was inclusive, saying that it doesn’t matter what kind of diversity is trendy; she simply wants to see more diversity in books, period. She would like religious characters to be seen as “normal,” just as much as she wants to see characters of color or LGBT characters.

I’m going to tell you what I think now, and I want to make one thing very clear: I respect all of these women and their opinions. They were not unkind when they answered my question, and I do not intend to be unkind in my response to what they said. I am not being critical of them as human beings; I’m simply taking the conversation one step further than we were able to last night.

Religion is one of those topics that you don’t talk about at cocktail parties or at family holiday dinners. It can be divisive, cause conflict. But there’s a reason for that: religion is all-encompassing. To steal words from a friend of mine, it “majorly contributes to your sense of right and wrong, shapes your principles and morals, and governs the way you live your life.” This is true of any religion, not just Christianity.

You can imagine, then, my surprise at the idea that religion is somehow considered a smaller part of one’s identity than race or sexual orientation, socio-economic status or family situation. In many cases, religion is the trump card, defining how one deals with all of those things.

I’m not saying that I want every book I read to have a Christian protagonist. Quite the contrary: Life would be incredibly dull if that were the case. I’m also not saying that I want message-driven novels; those are what you’d call “vomitrocious.” What I’m saying is that I want books that start conversations about what it’s like to be religious in high school right now, books that I could have related to in high school. I want to see characters who grapple with how their religion fits into their everyday life–and I don’t just mean Christian characters. If we’re going to fight for diversity, we should be fair; I can’t say “I want more religion in books” when I mean “I want to see more Jesus in books”.

I want a story about an immigrant girl figuring out how to interact in American culture, and the role her native religion plays in that transition. I want a book about a boy who loves Jesus and happens to be part of the in-crowd. I want stories with characters of faith to be normal, not niche. I want teenagers to have outlets that begin conversations about faith in locations that are not sanctioned by their churches or places of worship–because we grow more when we are challenged.

I want to live in a world where faith is discussed as often as gender identity or race. Is anybody with me?

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