On Death, Dying, and Faith in YA Fiction, a guest post by Tara K. Ross
When I was in high school, I wanted to be a doctor. It was an obsession. I voluntarily chose to study over going to parties, ditched shopping with friends to save for tuition and even broke off more than a few relationships. It became an all-encompassing mission.
Surprise, surprise, the doctor thing never happened. It wasn’t until I sat down to answer the essay questions on the med school application forms that I realized my desire for the Dr. title was only a small part benevolent and a rather large part selfish and fearful.
I thought if I could learn everything there was to know about death and dying, I could live longer, cheat death…at least for a little while, and pretend to be a tiny bit like God. I was petrified of dying and was willing to do anything to keep it from happening. But, those motivations were not going to make me a very good doctor. I needed a different way to tame my fears.
We’re only here on earth for a flash of time. No one truly knows what happens after the lights go out or the bright light appears. And that’s freaky! It’s a coming of age question that most of us brush against – whether it’s a loved one dying, a global tragedy, or reaching a place in our own life where death seems more appealing than living. When this happens, we begin to ask more questions. When will it happen? Will I still exist somehow? Will the afterlife be better than this? Does any of this matter if we will all be forgotten?
For me, those questions began haunting me in high school. While many teens grappled with bullying, self-esteem, racism, abuse, or betrayal, I only really had to mull over death. My teen years were, from the outside, rather ideal. But somehow, I still managed to create a fear monster out of nothing. That monster became an all-encompassing ticking time bomb that halted my ability to make every day decisions. I never shared my internal woes with anyone. What did I have to feel scared about? Wasn’t my life perfect? No one would care.
Here is the part that really sucked about being in this existential crisis as a teen: no one talked about it. Myself included. Everyone presented their best selfie side, and distracted themselves with their choice of self-medication: sports, academics, social media, video games, binge eating or puking, substance use, addiction, self-harm. Some took the high road and got professional help, but they never shared about it publicly. Only as slightly-more-adjusted adults have we managed to open up about how overwhelmed and afraid we were and honestly, continue to be.
As teens and young adults, we didn’t know what a messed up mental state could look like. We didn’t know that it could lead to generalized anxiety, panic attacks, depression or even suicidal thoughts. It wasn’t part of our health units or a frequent feature in magazines (yup, this was before blog culture or YouTube channels).
So, I handled it the best way I could through my aforementioned obsession with academic perfection. As a break from cram sessions, also came a passion for escaping into books. When I found stories that tackled the same questions I couldn’t silence, I found company in the confusion.
I read widely. From nonfiction philosophers, like Robert Fulgum and The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff, to The Diary of Ann Frank and C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain. Knowing that literary greats struggled with these same questions was comforting, but in many ways, it made me feel even more pathetic. These were people who had lived through extreme hardship. They had a right to question life and death. I was just an average suburbanite teen from a nuclear family, who shouldn’t need to waste her life in worry.
I kept searching. I wanted to read about someone living through these questions who was like me. Average.
This is when I turned to fiction and young adult stories. Stories written for me and my qualms. I didn’t understand completely in the moment, but it really was like hitting a psychological jackpot—ordinary people asking extraordinary questions within their ordinary lives. It was me on the page. In a way, I found my own personalized self-help group. But each teen’s self-help group will look different from my own.
The questions we ask will vary and the answers we seek will require diverse literary experiences. Some readers resonate with characters who share their culture or race, for others it’s the journey toward identity and acceptance. Sometimes, it’s a personal hardship or diagnosis they connect with, or a quest for purpose and meaning beyond themselves. For me, I went searching for stories of death, dying and faith in the great unknown. I know, a little depressing. But the outcome was life-changing. I found that I wasn’t alone. The books themselves, helped me to live beyond the stories on the page. I began to feel less afraid.
I continued to read and my search for stories changed from “what if” questions to “now what?” This second set of questions made me look beyond the physical and psychological and consider my spiritual health and beliefs as well. I went looking for stories of faith and hope and belonging. Surprisingly, they were more challenging to find.
In recent years, YA fiction has trended toward tackling more diverse and riskier topics. It provides a voice about racism, sexual orientation, gender, abuse, sexism, death, and dying. But less often about the great spiritual unknowns. Why not? Are we afraid to explore these questions of faith? Are we worried we will share too strong an opinion or come across as preachy? Perhaps, but are the readers not worth that risk? Are they not searching for purpose beyond our flash of time on earth?
I think they are. I know first-hand from working in public schools and youth centers for over ten year that teens are searching for purpose. They want to matter beyond their flash of time on earth and they are desperate for narratives to ground themselves within. If we don’t give them characters in fiction, they will look for it elsewhere.
My dream would be for writers of all faiths to be welcomed and encouraged to include their spiritual beliefs within their stories. We know that greater than half of all Canadians and Americans consider faith to be an important part of their identity (PEW Research Center, 2019). So why do we shy away from offering this aspect of diversity in our libraries and general book store shelves?
In my debut novel, I tried to share one of these viewpoints, one that impacted my own coming of age journey. Interestingly, the story was too Christian for the general market, but not Christian enough for some faith-based presses. I was fortunate to find people who believed in the story and worked in love to bring it to where it is today. But there are many other writers, who don’t fit into a publishing bubble and even more readers who are searching for characters like them, who have not yet made of their mind on what they believe.
This is what makes fiction so powerful. Stories give us an opportunity to journey with someone through life, to ask the tough questions. To challenge us beyond “what if’s” and present stories that tackle the “now what’s”. They change who we are, and how we see the world. Whether we choose to take our own life in the same direction as those characters is up to us. But at the very least, let’s give teens diverse stories so they will not feel alone in those choices.
Meet Tara K. Ross
Tara K. Ross lives with her husband, two daughters and rescued fur-baby in a field of cookie-cutter homes near Toronto, Canada. She works as a school speech-language pathologist and mentors with local youth programs. When Tara is not writing or reading all things young adult fiction, you can find her rock climbing the Ontario escarpment, planning her family’s next jungle trek or podcasting/blogging at www.tarakross.com.
FADE TO WHITE is her debut novel.
About Fade to White by Tara K. Ross
Thea Fenton’s life looks picture-perfect, but inside, she is falling apart. Wracked by anxiety no one seems to understand or care about, she resorts to self-harm to deflect the pain inside.
When a local teen commits suicide, Thea’s anxiety skyrockets. Unexplainable things happen, leaving her feeling trapped within her own chaotic mind. The lines between reality and another world start to blur, and her previously mundane issues seem more daunting and insurmountable than ever.
Then she meets Khi, a mysterious new boy from the coffee shop who seems to know her better than she knows herself-and doesn’t think she’s crazy. His quiet confidence and unfounded familiarity draw her into an unconventional friendship.
Khi journeys with her through grief, fear, and confusion to arrive at compassion for the one person Thea never thought she could love.
A deeply transformational novel from an authentic new voice in Christian young adult fiction.
Publisher: Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas
Publication date: 05/30/2020
Age Range: 13 – 18 Years
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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