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I’m not sure what inspired this current crop of realistic stories about teens wrapped up in isolated communities of unbridled religious fanaticism or roped in by charismatic leaders convinced they speak for God, but it’s the perfect premise for a YA novel. After all, what’s more resonant for teens than asserting independence from society’s rules? Of course, the societies these teens are escaping are much more restrictive, not to mention punitive, but each of these authors captures a crucial element of coming-of-age: choosing what to believe.
Down from the Mountain. By Elizabeth Fixmer. 2015. Albert Whitman, $16.99 (9780807583708). Gr. 7–10.
Righteous Path, where Eva has lived for most of her life, is an isolated religious compound led by Ezekiel, a man who claims to speak directly with God. When Ezekiel orders 14-year-old Eva to stop attending school with the other children and devote her energy to making jewelry to sell at the market, she is excited about the chance to see the wider world. Once she witnesses the kindness and generosity of the “heathens” in the city, however, as well as Ezekiel’s growing egomania and paranoid, misogynistic behavior, she starts to question whether he’s as holy as he claims.
Eden West. By Pete Hautman. 2015. Candlewick, $17.99 (9780763674182). Gr. 8–11.
Jacob lives in Nodd, a fenced-in compound in Montana run by Father Grace, who demands faith, loyalty, and a total rejection of the outside world and metes out severe punishments for disobedience. In Jacob’s matter-of-fact voice, laced with old-fashioned turns of phrase and a parochial vocabulary, he narrates the story of Nodd’s downfall. While projecting a unique and expressive voice in Jacob, Hautman sensitively and gracefully keeps a deft balance between criticism of religious fervor and deep respect for faith and belief.
No Parking at the End Times. By Bryan Bliss. 2015. Greenwillow, $17.99 (9780062275417). Gr. 9–12.
The parents of twins Abby and Aaron sell all their belongings and drive across the country to the San Francisco storefront church of charming huckster Brother John to await the end of the world. But the end times never come, and since her father gave all their money to Brother John, Abby and her family are left living on the streets of the city and sleeping in their van. The stark tone in Abby’s first-person narrative effectively captures the uncertainty and danger of street-kid life as well as her anger about Brother John’s destructively self-righteous religious conviction.
Seed. By Lisa Heathfield. 2015. Running Press, $16.95 (9780762456345). Gr. 8–11.
Pearl has lived all her life in Seed, a closed farm community consisting of only a selected few. She believes the words of Papa S and what Nature tells him. When a family from the Outside moves into Seed, Pearl befriends Ellis and has forbidden feelings for him. She starts to listen to what Ellis tells her of the Outside and questions whether Seed is really the haven she’s always thought it to be. As tragic accidents begin to occur, Pearl plots her escape.
Starbird Murphy and the World Outside. By Karen Finneyfrock. 2014. Viking, $17.99 (9780670012763). Gr. 7–10.
Growing up in an isolated farm commune, Starbird is certain of three things: EARTH, the leader of the Free Family, will return one day; she is a true believer awaiting her Calling; and she is in love with Indus Stone. Despite jealous feelings running counter to the Family’s belief in free love, seeing Indus with another girl affirms her decision to accept a Calling as a waitress at a Family restaurant in Seattle. Starbird’s math skills prove useful in the office, where she uncovers financial problems that are just the tip of the Family’s iceberg.
The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly. By Stephanie Oakes. 2015. Dial, $17.99 (9780803740709). Gr. 9–12.
Minnow has spent 12 of her 17 years living with the Kevinians, a fanatical doomsday cult in the Montana mountains that follows the teachings of their prophet, Kevin. He demands unquestioning loyalty, which is not a good match for clever, curious Minnow. But her disillusionment with Kevin comes to a horrific end when she willfully refuses to marry him, and he forces her father to cut off her hands with a hatchet. Minnow tells her harrowing story while locked up in a juvenile detention center, and finds comforting solidarity and, ironically, freedom to be herself among her fellow inmates.
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