This is not a love story

thisisnotalovestoryI’m not sure what I expected when I started reading Judy Brown‘s memoir, This is Not a Love Story.  Probably an expose on the level of her novel, Hush, which was about sexual abuse in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community.  Certainly I figured it would be some kind of tell-all since Brown has now left the ultra-orthodox community. What I found in the book was not either of those things.

It was a family story.  A sibling story. An autism story.  It was perhaps a love story after all, even if the title claims otherwise.  It certainly explores the love between mother and child as seen through the eyes of eight-year-old Judy.  Her mother refused to send Nachum away, no matter how difficult he was.  Even if that’s what ultra-Orthodox families usually did with special needs children.  She would not give up on one of her children.

The ultra-Orthodox community is always in the background of Brown’s story with Nachum’s autism diagnosis taking the leading role.  Young Judy worries that her brother’s issues will ruin her marriage prospects. She makes deals with God to make her brother normal.  The background details might be different for her, but the story is one that many families can relate to.  She said in an interview with Salon:

“When it came to autism, there were superstitions and things that God knows how many other mothers had to deal with. There are universal things that just go through it. What may be surprising to readers is to see so much of what they empathize with, the parts [in which] you can see a little bit of a reflection of yourself. You don’t expect that in this weird place. That’s the way it is.”

I think that’s the strength of the book. It brings you into the ultra-Orthodox world so completely that you stop thinking about the religious details, and you see the real story, the real people who live that life. For whom that life is normal.  The empathy you feel for each person in this book may surprise you, and that’s exactly why I am recommending this book to you.

I look forward to what Judy Brown writes next, no matter what it is about. I have a feeling she can make it real.

Read excerpts of This is Not a Love Story here and here.

You can also read more about Judy Brown’s experiences inside and outside the ultra-Orthodox world in this series of essays for the Forward.

The Great Good Summer

greatgoodsummerThe Great Good Summer by Liz Garton Scanlon begins with God and ends with wonder, which may or may not be the same thing, I suppose, depending on how you decide to read this story.  In the middle, though, is a story of family, faith, and questions that will pull you in no matter where you stand on the God/not-God continuum.  At least it did for me.

For some people, religion means having answers and Truth with a capital T.  For others, that’s what science is for.  Most, I’d venture to say, are somewhere in the middle of those two poles.  I have long held that it’s the questions that are the interesting part, but everyone is different. For Ivy and the rest of her community in Loomer, Texas, church is a way of life.  Ivy has never thought of it any differently or questioned her faith at all until this summer.  Her mother has left with a preacher named Hallelujah Dave.

Her mother was as constant in Ivy’s life as God was, and her absence calls everything into question.  As Ivy starts looking at the world with questions rather than answers, she finds that not everything is as she thought.  Her favorite teacher, Mrs. Murray, has statues of Buddha in her home.  Ivy wonders as she looks at the statue, “Is there something holy or magic here that might help me find my mama, or even help me know if what I’m about to do is right or wrong?”  And she makes a new friend.  Paul Dobbs is the local “science kid,” and he makes it clear that he doesn’t believe in God.  At first he and Ivy butt heads over their differences, but he turns out to be one of the few people who will really listen to Ivy and try to help her.

One thing leads to another, and Ivy and Paul are off to find her mom and bring her back.  They are on the same side through thick and thin (despite some squabbles along the way).  When they set their sights on what was ahead, it didn’t seem to matter that they believed different things.  It wasn’t about that.

You might think that a book that begins with God and spends so much time talking about faith would be preachy, and with most books, I would say you’d be right.  But there’s something about Ivy that keeps the preachiness at bay in this story.  Maybe it’s her questions.  Or maybe it’s her sincerity.  I don’t really know.  Whatever the case, the story didn’t feel, to me, like it was trying to change my mind, and I appreciated that.

This story is not about changing minds.  It’s more about considering why people believe the things they do, why they sometimes question long-held beliefs, and what it means to listen to yourself.

In the end, Ivy seems to find a place where it’s okay if truth doesn’t have a capital T.  At one point she says, “My fingers find the little cross I wear on a chain around my neck.  It was Mama’s when she was a little girl, and it’s been mine since Daddy got her a new one.  I love it, even though the gold has worn off in places and you can see a sort of unshiny silver underneath.  Which I guess means it’s fake, but that doesn’t really matter much to me.”

I spent most of my life with a capital T Truth, so I related to a lot of Ivy’s experience of faith and questioning.  These days I identify as a Unitarian-Universalist, a religion in which truth is never capitalized and sometimes it’s in quotation marks.  So I appreciated Ivy’s feeling that it was what you do with ideas that mattered more so than what one believes or doesn’t.  That resonated with me a lot.

I could quibble with parts of the the story that I didn’t agree with, but I will leave those things be.  We won’t always agree with everyone or everything around us, and that’s okay.

When Ivy finally finds her mom and speaks her piece about feeling like her mother abandoned her, they are in a car.  Ivy listened to her mother’s explanation and apology. “I still don’t turn to look at her, but I listen.  I think Paul’s listening too.  I mean, really, what choice do we have?”

We’re all in this together.  If I can teach my daughter any one value, it is that.  We are all in this together.  We have to learn to listen to one another, to connect, and to move past our differences.  What choice do we have?


Talking about religion…

I have been eagerly following the discussion of Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit going on at Teen Librarian Toolbox.  I haven’t been talking about religion very much anymore on this blog.  It is one of those awkward topics after all, like politics, that people tend to avoid.  But I am still reading about it a lot, and I am very glad that others are talking about it.   After all,  I spent most of my life (including all of my teen years) as a person of faith in a non-mainstream religion, and I seem to always be drawn to stories that reflect the feelings that I remember from my religious experience, including the feeling of not wanting to be part of the religious identity I had always known.

starbirdHere are just a few of the teen fiction titles that resonated with me, and my admittedly unusual experience, on the subject of faith:

  • Hush by Eishes Chayil – This story addresses issues of sex abuse in a minority religious community in which reporting to the outside authorities is discouraged.  It affected me deeply since it was an issue for my former religion as well.
  • Like No Other by Una LaMarche – While there has been some discussion of the problematic portrayal of Hasidic Judaism in this book, I thought that Devorah’s emotional experience struggling with her faith and strict religious community was beautifully written.  I think that is an important story to tell, and I saw this story as a way of sharing parts of my own.
  • Starbird Murphy and the World Outside by Karen Finneyfrock – Starbird’s situation in this book is even more different from mine than the previous two on this list–she lives in a cult–but, again, it is the emotional experience that resonated with me.  When she leaves her home and interacts with the Outside for the first time, she learns that Outsiders are not all bad and that her ideas about the world might not be completely accurate.  This is, perhaps, one of my favorite de-conversion stories that I’ve read for its grace in capturing a nuanced experience.
  • Eden West by Pete Hautman – While I’m on the subject of cults*, I’ll throw this book into the discussion even though it won’t be published until April.  There are already too many cults in teen fiction, but I’ll allow this one.  Yes, the cult has some weird beliefs, but Hautman lets his character figure it out slowly and reluctantly.  No matter how weird one’s beliefs are, the process of leaving them is slow and reluctant.  Too many teen novels don’t get that.  This one does.  Watch for it.

A few other titles that make the list: A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life by Dana Reinhardt (atheism/agnosticism & Orthodox Judaism), Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu (Quiverful Christianity; Publishes in June 2015), A World Away by Nancy Grossman (Amish). On the nonfiction shelves: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson or Rapture Practice by Aaron Hartzler.  I have a running list going on my book list wiki.

None of these books is an exact match to my experience of religion or of separating from it, but each of them offers some glimpse into the world of making your own way in the world that is different from the way you were raised (or considering the possibility of doing that).  That is not an easy thing to do, and it is not easy to capture.  I am looking forward to the continued discussion on TLT, and I applaud them for taking up a topic that people often avoid discussing in mixed company.

Curious about my current religious identity? I shared that story here.

* When you are part of a minority group that isn’t often reflected in fiction, you tend to find similarities where you can.  There is an emotional resonance for me with these stories about cults because they are also a minority belief group. My discussion of these books should not constitute a commentary on religion in general or in specific.

On Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown_Girl_Dreaming-200If you are a regular reader of this blog or you landed here searching for information about Brown Girl Dreaming, I probably don’t need to explain to you how stories can change lives.  Maybe you are a reader who has long been drawn to the power of story.  Maybe you’re a parent looking for books to instill that appreciation in your kids.  Or maybe you’re a librarian who has made connecting people with books into a career.  Whatever the case, I think you know what stories can do.

Brown Girl Dreaming was a story I had to read twice to really appreciate.  The first time I flew through the pages looking for familiar elements that I so rarely see in books.  You see, I spent my childhood learning the days of the week by their religious obligation, standing quietly during the Pledge of Allegiance, and sitting out of school holiday celebrations just like Jacqueline Woodson did.  Like other minority experiences, it is one that is not often reflected in books, especially books for kids.

For readers who have never had the experience, let me tell you how it feels to read a book about a person who shares something that sets you apart from most people: it is thrilling. I tore through Brown Girl Dreaming looking for what we shared.  There was much we didn’t share–Woodson is African-American and grew up in the 1960s; I am Caucasian and grew up in the 1980s–but so many of her words and feelings might have been mine when it referenced our shared childhood religion.

In the world of children’s books, we have been talking a lot about the need for books to reflect the diverse experiences, cultures, ethnicities, abilities, etc. of young readers.  I have always believed that, but Brown Girl Dreaming made me feel it.

My second time through the book was slower.  I wanted to read it again to see what others who don’t share my religious background were seeing.  In that reading, I saw an exquisite coming-of-age memoir that was about so much more than religion.  It was about the power of stories to shape who we are. Woodson wrote about the stories her family told, the stories she read, and the stories she wrote as a child, and how they all became part of her.  She concludes her memoir by describing herself as a person who believes in many things, who carries many worlds inside of her because of those experiences of listening, reading, and observing the stories around her.

If there is one idea I can share with others, it is the one expressed in the final poem: “When there are many worlds, love can wrap itself around you, say, Don’t cry.”  Seek many worlds for yourself.  Listen, read, observe.

Links of interest:


June Book Pick: Rapture Practice by Aaron Hartzler

rapturepracticeI wanted to read Rapture Practice by Aaron Hartzler as soon as I saw it.  I was also raised in a strict religion, and I figured I would relate to Hartzler’s memoir of his childhood in an evangelical family.  I imagined bonding with him over not being allowed to watch The Smurfs or read fantasy novels.  But Hartzler’s religious childhood put mine to shame.

For example, in the religious community of my childhood R rated movies were taboo (even for adults) and PG-13 movies were subject to debate (for adults and definitely for teens).  For Hartzler?  No secular movies or television at all.  Movies, it turns out, were one of his first Big Rebellions.  There were many more rebellions along the way, as you might imagine.   Music.  Drinking.  Girls.

But here is what really stood out to me about Rapture Practice: I didn’t finish the book hating Hartzler’s parents.   Yes, they made him destroy his secret collection of secular music, and they punished him for really ridiculous things.  But you can tell that Hartzler doesn’t hate them.  Actually, he said in this Kirkus article that the book is a love note to his parents.  It says, “To date, he’s unsure if his parents have read his book or ever will.”

I started reading expecting to compare notes on what we weren’t allowed to do as teens.  Instead I found a thoughtful memoir about growing up and away from your family’s way of looking at the world.  I think most people will be able to relate to that.

If I have anything bad to say about the book, it’s that it ended too soon.  It ends as Hartzler is just beginning to question his faith and confront his sexuality (spoiler: he’s gay).  I want that story too.

The Kirkus review says, “A hilarious first-of-its-kind story that will surely inspire more.”

I agree.  I feel inspired.  Perhaps I’ll share bits of my own story, which is odd by many standards though not quite as odd as Hartzler’s turned out to be.  I only hope I can do it with the tact and balance that Hartzler did.


Miss last month’s Book Pick?  Check it out: Formerly Shark Girl by Kelly Bingham

Looking beyond labels


Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns by Hena Khan is a beautiful book that provides a child’s eye view of Muslim culture.  The book has received several positive reviews and honors, but it still managed to spark a social media controversy when children’s book author and former educator Kate Messner recommended it to her Twitter followers.

The School Library Journal article about the incident quotes Messner as saying that the Twitter user who took issue with her recommendation, then using the handle “atheistactuary,” seemed to have “set up a search for  Islam, and made it their mission to seek out anyone that had something positive to say about the religion.”  Messner, for her part, maintained a diplomatic tone throughout the exchange.  She promoted diversity and openness in her original post, and she didn’t back down from that in a multi-day back and forth with this Twitter user who seemed intent on painting all Muslims as terrorists, misogynists, or otherwise dangerous.

I can’t be alone in thinking that this controversy shows why books like Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns are important.  We need to humanize people who are different if we want to raise kids who are willing to see beyond their own experiences to make the world a better place.  To see people as individuals rather than as a label full of our preconceived notions.

While I have made no secret of my non-belief–thus making me an atheist or agnostic depending on your definitions of the words–I do believe in people.  I prefer to wear “Humanist” over “atheist” most of the time since that puts people first.  It emphasizes values over beliefs, and that’s important to me.  The specifics of my beliefs about the universe are less important than my values of openness and diversity.

I suppose I am still glowing with a cooperative spirit after reading Chris Stedman’s Faitheist, which encourages non-religious people to get involved in interfaith activism.  It was hugely inspiring, and it has motivated to me to share this specific message: not all atheists are like the Twitter user in this incident.  Please don’t use this as a reason to add to the already strong prejudice against the non-religious.   We are people beyond our label just like Muslims, Christians, and others.  We are as committed to the common good as anyone else.

No matter what your religious affiliation (or none at all), do check out Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns as a way to open a conversation about another culture with young children.  The lush illustrations portray every day life in a Muslim family.  It builds understanding without preaching, and I recommend it highly.  Teen readers might find Growing Up Muslim by Sumbul Ali-Karamali or Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah provide a similar glimpse into Muslim culture.

Check out my For Secular Families page for more posts about children’s books related to religion to promote a people-first perspective in your family no matter what you believe.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.  A portion of purchases made from these links may benefit Proper Noun Blog.  Thanks for your support! :)

When myths become stories

Comparing the two editions

In 1996 Sacred Myths: Stories of World Religions was published to mostly positive reviews.  None of the professional reviews that I was able to find seemed to take issue with the inclusion of Judeo-Christian stories next to those associated with Paganism, Native Traditions, or other religions.  A couple of reviews mentioned the reteller’s introduction in which she defines the way she is using the word “myth” but none seemed upset by its use.

Fast forward to the present.  Sacred Myths has been out of print for a few years, and people have been debating the use of the word “myth” to refer to religious stories thanks to Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality.  So I guess it makes sense that when a new publisher decided to bring McFarlane’s book back in print, they didn’t just update the design.  They changed the title to Sacred Stories: Wisdom from World Religions.

The message of tolerance and understanding between faiths remains the same, and the introductory remarks contain the same wording regarding myths vs. stories.

“To say a story is a myth does not mean it is a lie.  It may not be literal fact, but it tells a story that is deeper than fact because it holds an important truth about life.  We put the truth into story form because humans use stories and pictures to understand what cannot be seen and touched.”

No matter what one believes about their historicity, these stories have value.  For children, they can be a way of talking about big topics that can be hard to bring up, or they can be a lesson on other cultures–there is a  teaching guide, after all.  Story–true and false–is more than escape.  It can provide meaning, cultivate empathy, and encourage creativity.  I have yet to read more than the excerpt available on the author’s web site, but The Storytelling Animal looks to be a fascinating examination of the ways that stories shape our lives. He writes:

“Tens of thousands of years ago, when the human mind was young and our numbers were few, we were telling one another stories. And now, tens of thousands of years later, when our species teems across the globe, most of us still hew strongly to myths about the origins of things, and we still thrill to an astonishing multitude of fictions on pages, on stages, and on screens—murder stories, sex stories, war stories, conspiracy stories, true stories and false. We are, as a species, addicted to story.”

Here are those words in animated form:

I obviously value stories of all sorts, and I hope to encourage my daughter to do the same.  We’ll save Sacred Stories for when she’s older, but we’ll keep  Bible stories, folk tales, and fairy tales in picture book form for all that they have to offer.

For more about religions and science, see my Secular Thursday page.

Disclosure: links are affiliate links.   A portion of purchases made via these links earns a commission for this blog.  Thanks for your support!  Books reviewed from library copies.

The Teenage Quest for Meaning

My Teenage Quest for Meaning was prescribed by my family’s religion.  One by one my friends and I got baptized–symbolized our dedication to the faith–as teens (or some left the faith, as I eventually did).  That was only the beginning of my Quest.  From there we did hours of service and study.  I took it all very seriously.  I eagerly sought answers through my church, and I was very active in the ministry.

I’ve read enough teen fiction to know that this is a pretty typical experience.  Religion has always had a strong place in teen fiction.  Remember Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret?  Girls might remember it as the book that de-mystified puberty, but Margaret’s search for spiritual answers was a strong sub-plot that often gets forgotten.

I was thinking of this now-classic titles as I read Marc Aronson’s post on his School Library Journal blog in which he wonders about the epiphany (religious or otherwise) in teen fiction among the recent popularity of genre fiction (fantasy and dystopian, in particular).  He wonders,

“What happened to that sense of adolescence as a time of spiritual yearning, seeking big answers, asking big questions, seeing the universe in a grain of sand, feeling that there were deep truths in a smile, in a tree, a sunset, a touch, a force beyond us?”

It’s there.  The teens who are searching for a religious epiphany (or those looking to experience it vicariously via fiction) can read The Glory Wind by Valerie Sherrard or Irises by Fransisco X. Stork.

You can find epiphany through science like Mina in Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature, travel like Colby in The Disenchantments, or music like Troy in Fat Kid Rules the World.

Perhaps I am biased to Troy’s version of transcendence since live music has become my own version of church these days, but I list Troy’s first show in Fat Kid Rules the World as one of my favorite moments in all of teen fiction.

 “I thrash forward, staking my ground, letting the body heat soak into my skin. For once I enjoy sweating. I lap it up.  My sweat is the salt water left over from the tidal wave.  I’m short of breath from yelling so loud.  Each song builds on the first, never letting the energy subside.  The second song is about sex and I can feel my head ready to explode. A woman in black leather winks at me across the room and suddenly I’m a fucking sex god.  My body swells until I fill the room.  I’m not fat.  I’m  enormous.  I look out over the crowd and think for the first time, I could be bigger.  I could be even bigger…”

Sounds like transcendence to me.  :)

It’s been a long time since I was a teenager, but my Quest for Meaning continues even now.  I’m no longer religious, which just means that my path has opened up to include more possibilities for big questions, big answers, and whatever else might come my way.

I am grateful for all that I’ve experienced along the way.  I hope my daughter has many of the same opportunities as I have had.  As for books, I’ll have plenty of coming-of-age novels for her to choose from in our home library.  The Teenage Quest for Meaning lives on.


Disclosure: links are affiliate links.   A portion of purchases made via these links earns a commission for this blog.  Thanks for your support!

For more about religion & science, see my Secular Thursday page.

Friday Finds: Mormons & Fairy Tales

I actually haven’t been online much this week, which is kind of a nice break from my usual.  But it wouldn’t be Friday if I didn’t share what I’ve found for the week, so here goes:

  • Everybody already knows I’m an MPR geek, so I won’t hide the fact that I’ve been excitedly listening to The Daily Circuit all week.  I’ve been loving the new show!  In particular, I thought the discussion of Mormonism was very interesting “(and eye-opening for me).  The show’s blog also linked to some controversial topics they didn’t really get into on the show.
  • I also happened to read a couple of related blog posts.  First, Sellabit Mum‘s post Mormons Exposed, which isn’t nearly as scandalous as the title makes it seem, has a really great conversation about what matters (kindness, love, peace) between mother and daughter. Then, Wendy Thomas Russell takes on bigotry and how that relates to religion in a very interesting post on her blog Relax It’s Just God.
  • Are fairy tales really too scary?!  This study says that parents think so.  Book people on the internet (like the librarian who blogs at Waking Brain Cells) say no.  I’ve written before about the power of fairy tales, and incidentally, that post is easily the most popular post on this blog. So people are interested at least, right?


For more of what’s caught my eye this week, find me on Facebook,  Twitter, and Google+.  Don’t forget, there’s still time to support the local Kickstarter projects I highlighted in this post.   Support Minnesota music!


Disclosure: links are affiliate links.  A portion of purchases made via these links earns a commission for this blog.  Thanks for your support! :)

The Fictional Religions of Teen Fiction

Move over Chutengodianism.  It’s time to make room in the world of made-up religions of teen fiction for Bluedaism.

Pete Hautman started the trend (are two books a trend? We’ll say yes.) with Godless in 2004, which won the National Book Award for Young People.  His satirical story was filled with critiques on religion with some over-the-top moments that kept the pages turning.  It’s a pretty fun read for those who find this sort of thing amsuing.  Not as fun for those who don’t.

In Sparks by S.J. Adams, Bluedaism doesn’t seem to be about critiquing religion so much as understanding what religion does for people.  For Debbie, religion has always been a way of staying close to her best friend.  She has been pretending to be a believer for years just top stay close to Lisa.  In an even more complicated twist, Debbie is secretly in love with Lisa.  Lisa, of course, believes homosexuality is a sin.  What sounds melodramatic (well, okay… it probably is a little melodramatic, but stick with me) is actually pretty funny no matter what you believe.

Where does Bluedaism come in? Debbie finds herself on a Holy Quest with a couple of new friends she met in detention who charge her $5 for membership to the Church of Blue (They are not a cult. They swear.) Bluedaism might be a wacky made-up religion. but Emma and Tom say it’s helped them give up bad habits and live better lives.  Eventually, we learn that things aren’t quite what they seem with Emma and Tom–not in a teen-fiction-is-dark-and-depressing sort of way. More like why-isn’t-this-a-teen-rom-com-flick-yet?  Well, I suppose it hasn’t been out for long.  There’s time yet. Incidentally, that is exactly what Debbie learns about religion in the book.  No need to have everything figured out right now.  Time will tell.

If Chutengodianism is the Flying Spaghetti Monster of teen fiction, where does Bluedaism fit in?  I’m not sure, but it’s good to have options. :)


More about science and religion on my Secular Thursday page.

Disclosure: links are affiliate links.  Purchases made from the links support this blog!