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When people wonder what today’s kids are thinking about, religion usually isn’t at the top of the list. Yet the inclination to think about Big Things—life, death, one’s purpose in the world—isn’t restricted to those older than 21. Actually, adults—with families, mortgages, jobs, and other responsibilities—probably have less time to ponder the great what-ifs and why-nots of the cosmos, leaving that particular activity to a younger demographic, who have more time to think, worry, and wonder. These novels give readers a focus for their pondering as they treat religion as something central to a person’s life, not just flotsam on the periphery.
Bestest. Ramadan. Ever. by Medeia Sharif
Almira’s sixteenth birthday falls during the monthlong celebration of Ramadan, which will be the first time she joins the adults in her family to fast from sunup to sundown (she hopes not to slip up and cheat like last year). Along with the physical and social challenges of the fast comes pride in knowing she is being observant and the added benefit of losing some unwanted weight. Almira contemplates the meaning of, and balance between, being a typical American girl and an observant Muslim. This is upbeat and breezy, but keeps its focus on family, friends, and faith.
The Book of Trees, by Leanne Lieberman
Growing up in Toronto, Mia learned some Jewish traditions from her secular single mom, but in high school she grows increasingly interested in religious life, and after graduation, she accompanies an Orthodox friend to Jerusalem, where the girls will spend the summer studying at a yeshiva, or seminary. Once in Israel, though, Mia doesn’t find the sense of homecoming she’d hoped for. Instead, she feels increasingly alienated from her religious classmates and troubled by her growing understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Then she falls for Andrew, a non-Jewish, American busker, and meets Andrew’s friends, who volunteer in Arab villages. Her questions about statehood, human rights, and her own faith intensify.
Island’s End, by Padma Venkatraman
Uido, 15, wakes from a dream in which she has wandered in the Otherworld. Later that day, though, a boat with hairy strangers arrives on her island, bringing the modern world to Uido’s community. Venkatraman tells the story of a young woman destined to be her tribe’s spiritual leader. In this difficult time, her people are threatened with extinction not just because of the outsiders’ influence but also because the tribe itself is undergoing change. Juxtaposed against these challenges is Uido’s harrowing vision quest, directed by the group’s elderly shaman, which will ready her for her new role. Uido is a remarkable heroine—a girl who is involved with her family and hoping for love, yet also a strong presence, aware of her powers, and unwilling to compromise about where they might lead her.
The Opposite of Hallelujah, by Anna Jarzab
Big sister Hannah joined the Sisters of Grace convent when Caro was eight, so it seemed simpler to tell everyone at school that her sister was dead. Eight years later, Hannah is home, depressed, and anorexic, having left the convent in self-imposed disgrace. This time it is easier for Caro to announce Hannah’s return from the Peace Corps, but as the lies pile up, so does Caro’s own confusion and disgrace. Couched among the issues are truly likable people: intelligent teenagers supporting each other through good times and bad; loving, very human parents struggling with how to intervene in the life of a seriously ill adult child while nurturing their teenage daughter; and a science-nerd priest who is honest enough to admit that he doesn’t have all the answers.
Preacher’s Boy, by Katherine Paterson
In this story, Paterson takes a serious philosophical topic—what God wants from us and what we want from God—and shapes its profundity with irony and wit. It is the turn of the twentieth century, and Robbie, son of a preacher, is tired of trying to please God. Moreover, although Robbie’s father is kind and gentle, it’s not that easy to do what he wants, either. So when a fire-and-brimstone minister suggests that the world may be ending soon, Robbie decides that whatever time is left will be more fun without God in the equation—he’s willing to take his chances with eternity for the opportunity to do what he wants. Alas, much of it doesn’t go well. At every turn, Paterson splendidly balances Robbie’s moral choices with pure entertainment, especially as it twists the plot. Here’s a book that envelops readers with its principled reflections, instead of pounding them over their heads.
Send Me Down a Miracle, by Han Nolan
Charity, the daughter of an Alabama preacher, is as shocked as anyone when Adrienne, a local artist, says she has had a vision of Jesus. Charity, enamored of Adrienne as a “fellow” artist, also loves her father, who is responding with the fury of an Old Testament prophet. The plot is sharp and invigorating and Nolan offers a cast of intriguing offbeat characters to play it out: Charity’s best friend, who prays to Jesus to be Miss Peanut and binges on moon pies at night; bald little Boo, who sits on his step expecting the Rapture; and Mad Joe, the handyman, waiting for his twin daughters to die of sickle-cell anemia, praying for a miracle, and heading for disaster.
The War of Jenkins’ Ear, by Michael Morpurgo
What would happen if Jesus came back as a British schoolboy? It is 1952 at England’s Redlands Prep, and Toby Jenkins is back at a school he loathes. But Toby’s feelings change with the arrival of Christopher, who is not like other boys. It comes almost as no surprise to Toby when Christopher confesses that he hears voices and that those voices have told him he is Jesus incarnate. Toby asks for a sign, and signs are granted. But faith is difficult to sustain, especially in the face of the powers that be, and when Christopher is expelled by a furious headmaster, Toby, to his later desolation, betrays him. Morpurgo’s reach is long, but he succeeds at almost every level. God and the mystery of faith are at the center of the story, yet both are fully grounded in the affairs of adolescent boys: rivalries, sports, even first love.
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