#FSYALit: Orthodox Representation in YA Lit
Over the past year, I have seen an increase of representation of Protestant Christians in YA lit that isn’t published by a Christian publisher. Maybe it’s just because I have been looking for it more for this discussion, but it does in fact seem like there has been a genuine increase in authors recognizing and mentioning that teens can have a spiritual life even in a book that isn’t published to promote said spiritual life. But in the discussion of diversity, we want to be looking for and discussing other religious viewpoints as well. So I went out and asked people I knew and respected to help me because when it comes to faiths different then my own, I want to know from practitioners of that faith whether or not the representation of their faith in YA is in fact a good one. Today Maureen Eichner is sharing her thoughts about the representation of the Orthodox Christian in YA lit.
When I was a kid, I loved Patricia Polacco’s books. For a lot of reasons: they’re funny, they’re sweet, they have beautiful art. But partly because the people in them were like me. They ate kulichi and decorated pysanky eggs; they had icons on the walls and in the corners of their rooms. And yet, they were also American, with thunderstorms and fried chicken. It wasn’t until quite recently, re-reading Chicken Sunday, that I realized just how rare and how powerful that representation was.
According to the Pew Forum, there are 260 million Orthodox Christians worldwide. Although most Orthodox churches recognize each other and there are common core beliefs, Orthodoxy is not centralized in the way that the Catholic church is and each country or region has its own autonomous church headed by a patriarch. Many Americans think of Greece or Russia when they think of Orthodoxy, but there are historical Orthodox churches in many countries throughout the Balkans, Middle East, and Africa.
Here in the US, most Orthodox believers are immigrants or descendants of immigrants who come from historically Orthodox countries. However, there is a growing number of people who are converts from other Christian denominations or other religions.
I am one of the latter. My parents began their journey to Orthodoxy when I was a baby and I grew up in the church. The parish that I attended when I was young and attend now is primarily American, but also has significant numbers of Ukrainians and Russians, as well as Eritreans and Chinese and Filipino converts. I’ve also attended Serbian and Russian parishes which have been predominantly culturally Orthodox and Americans have been in the minority.
And, let me just be quite blunt here: there is no one like me in any story I’ve ever read. There are very, very few books with Orthodox characters at all, especially in YA.* And in the few instances where Orthodoxy features, it tends to be portrayed as an exotic, mysterious religion, stuck in the past. Priests are often described as ravens or crows, or as being scary and creepy.
The thing is, throughout my life, my faith and experiences in the Orthodox Church have been not only important but life-saving. I doubt I would have gotten through my teen years without the strength and support it gave me. For me, both American and Orthodox, navigating my way between those two identities, I’ve often felt the pressure to explain all the weird things I believe and live, to make sense of who I am in the fact of well-meaning but sometimes exhausting questions. So when in YA I see at best a depiction of my faith written from the outside, that gets everything wrong, it really hurts. This was my experience reading Shadow & Bone and The Family Romanov, both of which are highly acclaimed and both of which I found painful.
Now, I will say that Trish Doller’s Where the Stars Still Shine shows a Greek Orthodox family, several members of which are religious and attend church. The main character is not one of them because of plot-related reasons, but I appreciated this tiny mention. And in Gregory Maguire’s Egg & Spoon, I felt that the characters, especially Elena, demonstrated a reasonably authentic relationship to the church and faith.
However, considering the range and breadth of YA, and the harm that inaccurate and stereotyped portrayals cause, I don’t find two books to be adequate. I want to see immigrant kids who have to grapple with their identity, and I want to see convert kids who feel like they both are and aren’t American. I want kids who have left their faith and kids who cling to it. I want historical fiction that shows the actual nuances and struggles of people in the past, and I want recognition that readers may hope to find their own beliefs accurately and respectfully rendered. I want all of our stories, because they’re already here.
* There are some small Orthodox publishers and self-published authors who have put out Orthodox YA books, or at least books about teens. I will admit that the few I tried when I was younger seemed preachy and didactic, and not at all reflective of the actual issues that my friends and I were facing. I have heard good things about a few recent releases but haven’t tried them yet.
Meet Our Guest Blogger
Maureen Eichner is a public librarian and book blogger who lives in Indiana with her cat.
A fantasy set in Tsarist Russia.
Elena Rudina lives in the impoverished Russian countryside. Her father has been dead for years. One of her brothers has been conscripted into the Tsar’s army, the other taken as a servant in the house of the local landowner. Her mother is dying, slowly, in their tiny cabin. And there is no food. But then a train arrives in the village, a train carrying untold wealth, a cornucopia of food, and a noble family destined to visit the Tsar in Saint Petersburg — a family that includes Ekaterina, a girl of Elena’s age. When the two girls’ lives collide, an adventure is set in motion, an escapade that includes mistaken identity, a monk locked in a tower, a prince traveling incognito, and — in a starring role only Gregory Maguire could have conjured — Baba Yaga, witch of Russian folklore, in her ambulatory house perched on chicken legs
Stolen as a child from her large and loving family, and on the run with her mom for more than ten years, Callie has only the barest idea of what normal life might be like. She’s never had a home, never gone to school, and has gotten most of her meals from laundromat vending machines. Her dreams are haunted by memories she’d like to forget completely. But when Callie’s mom is finally arrested for kidnapping her, and Callie’s real dad whisks her back to what would have been her life, in a small town in Florida, Callie must find a way to leave the past behind. She must learn to be part of a family. And she must believe that love–even with someone who seems an improbable choice–is more than just a possibility.
Trish Doller writes incredibly real teens, and this searing story of love, betrayal, and how not to lose your mind will resonate with readers who want their stories gritty and utterly true.
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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