Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Religious Authors and Children's Fiction

In response to yesterday's post about Stephenie Meyer and Mormonism, Pooja Makhijani asked an interesting question:
Don't you agree that an author's religious worldview MAY somehow shape his or her fiction and this is worth a critical--but non-offensive--discussion?
An author's religious worldview definitely shapes his or her fiction, but I worry about assumptions that drive such a discussion in the realm of children's literature. A story has always been a dialectic between a storyteller and the one who hears or reads it. When it comes to life-changing influence, I'd even make the case that the person on the receiving end has more power than the one who tells it -- even when the teller is an adult and the receiver is a child.

In the world of children's literature, a critical discussion about an author's faith tends to devalue the role of the child or teen reader. This can lead to talk of censorship. But a human being old enough for story is no tabula rasa. Even if a storyteller is trying to be powerful and didactic, the receiver of the story retains the right to interpret and synthesize it.

Does that mean I'd let my eleven-year-old (hypothetical) daughter read the Clique novels or Gossip Girls (which also reveal the authors' religious world views)? Or Stephenie Meyers' Twilight for that matter? If my darling, grazing here and there during her weekly library visit, ends up clutching those novels, so be it. She might hate them. Or find them boring. But if she re-reads a story or craves the next book from a particular author, I'd definitely hope to engage her in a conversation about the themes, issues, and world views possibly driving the stories and shaping the author. A reading of Twilight, for example, sounds like good material for a long car-ride discussion about femininity, masculinity, romantic relationships, and even religion.

Let's face it -- in the parent-child dialectic, or even between teacher and student, the power swings to the adult end of the relationship. Children love stories because for once they sense equality in a relationship with a grownup. It's rare to seek therapy because an author forced a world view on us through fiction.

8 comments:

Kelly said...

Plus, children and teens are not stupid. They can see worldview and religion in fiction. I read right through C.S. Lewis's Christianity (supposedly disguised in story) at age eleven. Granted his world view DID ruin the story for me then because of my own background. (I felt it was pushy, in the same way my evangelist grandfather was pushy. And I was deathly afraid of my grandfather and his "you'll rot in hell" talks.) I've seen plenty of teen discussions of Meyer's books and they realize her agenda and like the books anyway.

Pooja said...

Thanks for responding, Mitali. I suppose I should clarify my previous comment (lest your readers think I am some horrible censor!). Currently, I do not hold a position of authority over a teen or child; however, if that were one day to happen, I too would let her "[graze] here and there during her weekly library visit" and see what she came up with. My parents NEVER said a word about the books I read and I figured out what worked for me and what didn't. I wouldn't go out of my way to recommend books that rubbed me the wrong way and would likely "engage her in a conversation about the themes, issues, and world views possibly driving the stories and shaping the author."

That all being said, I still think it's valid for adults--such as those on YALSA-BK--to discuss an author's "world view" (religious or not) in the context of literary criticism.

Anyhow, I am going off to actually read the YALSA-BK discussion; I may come back out on the Fire Escape again for more.

TadMack said...

I read a little bit of the List-Serv conversation. I admire all of you for saying you'd let your child "graze." My parents did not -- in the name of love, of course, and thinking with great literal-mindedness that fiction was not truth (Philippians states, after all, that "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is pure, ..." that one is to think on these things.), and believing that there can be no truth found in story. It made me -- sneaky, to be flat out honest, which is never a good result. With my younger sibs, they've done a complete 180, and I'm glad, otherwise having a fiction writer for a child would be more uncomfortable for them than it might already be!

I do agree that Meyers' religious belief about pre-marital intimacy may be what's keeping her Bella suggesting stupid things (forgive me) like marriage to deal with her feelings for him. I almost think she's written herself into a corner, and as much as I loathe the novels, I'll be interested in seeing how she gets herself out of this!

Three cheers for new worldviews forced upon us through books! I'd rather find out about new things when I have time to consider them on my own terms than have to deal with annoyingly controlling vampires in real time.

Liz B said...

What has bothered me about the yalsabk/stepheniemeyer/mormonism/twilight discussion is that its not so much a critical discussion of faith, religious worldview, and fiction, but rather a "negative things are in this book because of the negative things about the religion."

For example, there is/was no corresponding "oh my goodness, lets talk about why the books of Shannon Hale are infused with her religion (also mormon), and how that makes those books so wonderful."

I point to David Almond and his recent SBBT interview to show how it can be productive to discuss faith, religious upbringing, worldview, and art.

Interesting dicussion. But sadly also a bit disturbing, in terms of how it opened the door to bashing.

Mitali Perkins said...

Kelly: I, on the other hand, with absolutely no Christian background whatsoever, read the Chronicles as pure fairy tales and loved them intensely. Read them over and over again. See how one author and different child readers can take the same story in divergent directions?

Pooja and Liz: Yes, critical discussion is imperative, but the conversation over at YALSA-BK had taken the turn that you so aptly describe, Liz, and that's why I added this post to the conversation on the listserv.

Tanita: Wow. You offer such grace to your parents. And they CHANGED, which is amazing. And now you write fiction. I'd love to do an informal poll about children's book writers and parental censorship or guidance.

My Dad made it a point to take me to the library every Saturday, sat outside smoking his cigar, and NEVER checked what I was reading. I was fabulously free, and the choices I made looking back were so interesting. Lots of old-fashioned stuff and fantasy when I was a child and then adding romance to the mix as I became a teen. Much of the joy, though, came from the liberty to pick my own stories.

Cloudscome said...

You make an excellent point about the power of the child to interprete the story. Another great thing about readers/writers connections. My parents were pretty strict evengelicals but they never cared what we read. We read everything. I never tried to keep up with what my oldest son Buster read- he was too fast, for one thing, and I truested him to be able to sift the chaff from the wheat.

Pooja said...

So, I finally read the YALSA-BK discussion and understand where your initial concern came from, Mitali. I agree with you and Liz B. that the parts of the discussion aren't very constructive; I had assumed the discussion you mentioned in your earlier post was done within the context of literary criticism. My bad.

Anyhow, THIS has been a great online discussion. What are we talking about next?

Libby said...

(I keep trying and somehow failing to post this comment, which seems to grow every time! If it duplicates, please feel free to delete...)

Thanks for this conversation, and for alerting me to the YALSA-BK discussion, which I hadn't seen. I agree with others above who think it's veered a bit off topic, but your comments above on the dialectic are spot-on. (Though I will say I never felt C.S. Lewis was engaging me in dialectic--his tone was a little too controlling for that, though I still loved the books as a kid.)

The thing is, I think Meyer is still trying to work some stuff out about femininity, masculinity, and--especially--female desire. After all, Bella does NOT want to marry Edward. She wants HIM, but not marriage, and a central conflict in the books is her own conflicted desire for him and for freedom. (He's the one who pushes marriage, throughout, as well as abstinence.) If he really does turn out to be the be-all and end-all of her existence, I'll be disappointed, because I think actually the books are pretty smart about how desire can sometimes make you stupid. I'm less a fan of the abusive werewolves--but again, so is Bella, who is (at least at first) appalled at what werewolf-human relationships mean for those human women/girls.