#FSYALit: Author Tessa Gratton Explores Faith in YA Fantasy
Today as part of Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit: a Discussion, we are very honored to host author Tessa Gratton who joins us to share some of her own teen faith journey and to discuss faith and spirituality in YA fantasy literature.
One of the most definitive moments of my teenaged years was the moment I realized I didn’t know how to believe in God anymore.
I wanted to, but had lost that easy, innocent, simple faith I knew as a child. My family, friends, and teachers were all Catholic because I went to a small Catholic elementary school from kindergarten through seventh grade, in the middle of a very Catholic neighborhood and never truly thought about there being an entire world full of people who didn’t know what I knew: Jesus loves you.
But when I was thirteen we picked up everything and moved to Yokosuka, Japan, where my father was to be stationed for three years. Though we lived at first off-base, everything else – school, entertainment, church – was on-base. Suddenly ripped (or so melodramatic thirteen-year-old me felt) from my entire world to be surrounded by people not remotely like me in culture and faith, I started questioning everything about my assumptions, my beliefs, my understanding of how the world worked.
It was books I turned to with those questions. In part because they were all I had unless I wanted to ask my parents (I did not). The Catholic church on-base was a building shared with other faiths, and never felt like safe or sacred space to me. But mostly it was because books were the things I trusted: books were always there; they traveled with me.
I remember standing in the courtyard of the Department of Defense high school at the end of a particularly trying day, staring up at the pale moon barely visible against the bright blue afternoon, thinking I didn’t want to pray because what would praying accomplish?
And I remember wondering what the characters in my favorite novels would do if they were in my position.
Though it worked out for me – my favorite characters tended to be adventurous, brave, and smart – I had to parse their actions as if religion weren’t part of my crisis, because it wasn’t part of their crises. I read fantasy novels primarily, and although fantasy novels are full of grand religions and gods-on-earth, most of them weren’t about faith or struggles with faith. At least not the ones I was reading in the early nineties. (I’ve found a bunch since then.)
It’s a strange hole, especially in young adult lit. But then again, maybe not so strange, because we’re told again and again not to talk about religion and politics if we want to make friends and keep them. That’s too bad for me, because religion and politics are my favorite things to talk about, even if it makes me enemies at bars and dinner parties. It’s hard, though, because people feel so passionately and deeply about religion – maybe even more so than politics.
Every novel I’ve written has had some element of faith or religiosity in it, from casual mentions of the characters attending church to building entire worlds around the interplay between religion and every day life. When I think of writing for teenagers, I think of writing for me-the-teenager, and I can’t imagine not including at least some awareness of the complicated role of religion. Not only because I rely heavily on world building, and religion is part of every world – even in its absence.
In the Blood Journals, the magic is overtly a metaphor for faith, working hand in hand with religion, or opposing it, depending on the character. The United States of Asgard is a series I wrote specifically because I wanted to talk about religion in American culture. I created an alternet USA that was founded by Vikings and their gods, so I could play with stories about how God/religion influences every single aspect of American life, whether a person identifies as religious or not. The series deals directly with faith in every single book, using different narrators to examine different issues I see in my own very political, very religion world.
The first book, The Lost Sun, is about teens who suddenly are forced to grapple with crises faith because in the United States of Asgard there’s been no need for faith: the gods are literally there, are proof you can see and touch. I wanted to write a book for 14 year old me, who didn’t see teens in the fantasy books she was reading struggle at all with faith.
After a drawn-out breath, she asks, “Do you love the gods, Soren?”
“You don’t wear Odin’s symbols, or a hammer charm for Thor. You don’t light candles in the chapel.”
“What does that have to do with love?”
A quick smile appears and vanishes on her mouth. But her upset is so clear in the rigid posture of her hands. “Faith, then. Do you believe in them? My mom used to tell me all I needed was faith. ‘Believe in them, little cat.’ It was the last thing she said to me, you know.” Astrid’s eyes are big, as though if she holds them wide open enough she will only see me, not her memories. “But I thought having faith in our gods was like having faith that the grass will be green or that gravity will hold me to the ground. There isn’t anything to have faith in. They simply are. They’re real. Their power is real, even if they choose not to use it sometimes.” Her voice lowers and I’m not certain she’s talking to me anymore. “And then one morning, the sun doesn’t rise. Baldur the Beautiful does not do what he’s done for a thousand years! I feel it like a hollow wound right here.” Astrid jabs her fingers against her diaphragm.
The story is about these teenagers exploring what they do need faith for, on a road trip across a Norse-inspired USA. It is about their literal, personal relationship with a god who interacts with them. There’s adventure and kissing and creepy little trolls, but at the center, it’s about personal faith, and faith in oneself.
And I can do all that at once because I write fantasy.
Fantasy as a genre allows me to play with any aspect of religion I want, and use concrete examples or massive, obvious metaphors. I can write that this god of hunger is a teenaged girl because teen girls in our culture are reviled for their desires, or that this dying god proves your faith is about you, not the object of it. There is so much room in fantasy – YA fantasy especially – for stories that explore all aspects of religion and faith, the good, bad, and ugly.
Here are some of my favorite YA Fantasies that have overt religious/faith explorations:
- The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson
- The Girl of Fire and Thorns series by Rae Carson
- His Fair Assassin series by Robin LaFevers
- The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff
Born in Okinawa, Japan, while her Dad was on duty with the US Navy, Tessa Gratton moved around throughout her childhood and traveled even more. She’s lived in Japan, California, Kansas, and England, and visited 4 continents.
After graduating from the University of Kansas in 2003 with a degree in Gender Studies, she went on to graduate school for a Master’s in the same. Halfway through, she ditched the program in favor of the blood, violence, and drama of Anglo-Saxon and Germanic epic poetry and to focus on her writing. Tessa doesn’t have a graduate degree, but she did translate her own version of Beowulf!
Welcome to the United States of Asgard! Please watch for troll sign!
The United States of Asgard is a nation of poets and warriors, of rock bands and evangelical preachers, of gods and their children. The media tracks troll sightings and reality TV is about dragon slaying and teen prophets. The president rules the country alongside a council of Valkyrie, and the military has a special battalion dedicated to eradicating the threat of Greater Mountain Trolls.
The Blood Journals is a young adult gothic romance duology about teens in Missouri and Kansas who discover their families have long practiced American magic that requires blood.
Random House Children’s Books
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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