I didn’t know “Hell Houses” existed before picking up an ARC of Melissa Walker’s Small Town Sinners. I’m still kind of in shock about them, to be honest. The “you gotta shake ’em to wake ’em” philosophy has never sat well with me no matter what the cause. Walker, a former features editor for ELLEgirl, was inspired to write Small Town Sinners after writing this article about Hell Houses. The book explores questions of faith and doubt (more in the church than in God), and I have to admit that I am pleased to see this in teen lit.
Don’t get me wrong. Religion is a popular theme in teen fiction. (See my list for just a few of the titles.) But such nuanced examinations of doubt are less common, I think. Some recent books that stand out to me:
- Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande – After Mena stands up against the bullying of a gay classmate by some of her fellow church members, she is ostracized. The situation becomes even worse when a controversy about evolution in their science class embroils the community. Mena is an appealing character who learns that she can think for herself.
- Hush by Eishes Chayil – This book is set in the very insular community of Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Gittel must decide whether she will speak up about the reason her friend committed suicide. Only she knows the truth, but when she tries to speak up, she is slienced by her church leaders. I found this to be a really powerful novel about reconciling what is right with what your community wants you to do.
Both of these books, along with Small Town Sinners, have young people exploring their own sense of right and wrong. I think they have the potential to be very empowering to teens whether they are religious or not. For religious readers, the books remain respectful to belief in a higher power and to liberal religion.
For nonreligious teens, the books offer an intimate look at life with belief. It is an opportunity to see what their religious peers may experience, to empathize with them in a way that they may not have been able to before. Besides, whether or not we agree with what any of the characters in these books decide at the end of the story, the books are real celebrations of stepping outside of boundaries and thinking critically. This is something I’d love to see more of in teen lit.
More book recommendations on the For Secular Families page.