Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Why Aren’t There More Teens Reading YA Christian Fiction, & How Can Authors Change That?

It seems as if every time I go to a bookstore it’s always such a struggle for me to find the YA Christian fiction section. And once I do find it, there are only a few shelves holding books from this genre. I then look at the YAF section and notice rows and rows of books, the covers of these novels filled with filthy images. For teens. And most of them contain all of the same storylines: teen drama, love stories, summer, and change. And vampires, of course. But most of these books are doing nothing but infecting the minds of teenagers. The authors are providing teens with the stories that we adore because it’s what we dream of or can relate to. If YAF is so popular now, then why isn’t YACF? Many teens have told me it’s because the books they have read in this genre have been cheesy, preachy, or boring. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Most of the time, a teen's view of Christianity and God is going to be based on the Christians around them, including the YA Christian fiction books that they read. And if they're boring and preachy, then they'll want nothing to do with Christianity. They'd rather read the YA fiction that doesn't preach to them, that reaches them on their level, that satisfies their desires accordingly. If they read even just one book in YACF that is cheesy/preachy/boring, they're not going to give this genre another try. Think about it. If you were a nonbeliever and knew someone who was a Christian who always tried preaching to you, shoving religion down your throat, and whose life is so boring because all that she/he does is read the Bible - would that attract you to God? No. That would only leave you with a bad impression of Christianity. And you’re going to want nothing to do with that religion.

I believe one of the reasons that YACF isn't as popular as YAF is because of these types of books. We have to keep in mind that it's not just Christians reading this genre, it is often non-Christians who pick up the book not realizing that it is Christian—or pick it up because of great reviews, a cool cover with an interesting back cover blurb, a recommendation from a friend, etc.

You don't want to preach to them. You want to offer them a story that believers and nonbelievers alike can both enjoy. But how can authors do this? How can we present Christianity in YA fiction without sounding cheesy, boring, or preachy?

  1. Provide the same elements that teens love, except offer a clean alternative with a Christian perspective.
I'm not saying that Christian YA fiction books should be nothing but teen drama and vampire stories with the mention of God every now and then, but that we need to reach the teen culture on its level.
  • Reach out to the hurting.
  • There are many teens who have grown up in a broken family, teens who are barely getting through in life because they don’t know Christ. They may want to find encouragement by reading a book where the character is going through some of the same struggles as they are, because readers like to read stories that they can relate to. And they want to see how the character coped with the struggle and also to feel as if they’re not alone. So they pick up the book, and they find that the character deals with this situation by turning to God. Also keep in mind that not every teen is rebellious and against Christianity. There are some out there who are lost, confused, and hurting. Our books can offer the hope and encouragement they may be looking for.
  • Craft role-model characters.
  • Notice that I did not say craft perfect-Christian-unflawed-characters, but role-models that teens can look up to. This can be a very useful tool since we already tend to follow the lifestyle of those in movies and in books subconsciously. The character Christy from The Christy Miller Series by Robin Jones Gunn is a great example of a Christian role model that a teen may want to follow the footsteps of.
  • Don’t write YACF for the sole purpose of teaching youth how to handle situations in a Christian way.
  • As a teen,we can tell when an adult is trying to preach through fiction. And because of this, we’re reminded that it’s a made-up-story that we’re reading that was written by an adult. Instead, pretend that you’re a teen. Write because you want to write, not because you want to preach. Talk to a few teenagers and read other YA books to get a deeper understanding of the youth culture and teen struggles that are current to this time period—please don’t just go by your own view of the reputation that teenagers have. It annoys me so much when I read a book that I can tell is written by an adult, simply because it’s the perspective of the high school life from someone who hasn't been a teenager in years. It’s one of the things that makes YACF cheesy. However, I'm not saying that it's cheesy for any adult to write from a teen's perspective - just don't assume that you already know everything about the teen life based on the reputation we have.
  • Plant the seeds, but allow God to do the growing.
  • Although someone may not get saved just by reading your book, they probably will return to the genre and check out a few more books because of the fact that the story-lines are cool and they closed the book feeling inspired. The more one reads this genre, the more seeds that are planted. And the more seeds that are planted, the more God can work in them. Also, think of the new movie “Soul Surfer.” It reaches nonbelievers and believers. Why? Because it's an inspiring story with elements that people love. And even though a nonbeliever may not ask Jesus into their heart because of watching this movie, a seed was planted. The purpose of writing in this genre shouldn’t be only to get teens saved, but rather to plant a seed which can minister to them. It’s God’s job to do the rest.
    The decisions teens make during these crucial years can affect us for years to come. It’s during this time of our life that decisions are made to set the course of our future. This is why I believe YA Christian fiction could be such a powerful ministry—if only authors knew which elements to include in their stories and how to use fiction to reach all of our youth culture in a subtle, yet profound way.


    Why do you think this genre is small and not so popular?
    If you’re teen, do you read YA Christian fiction?
    Why or why not?
    What other elements should YACF authors include
    in their stories—
    or perhaps leave out?


    1. Hi, Tessa! It seems Christian Sci Fi is growing, so I'm assuming you mean just straight Fiction. I agree with your points.

      I think it takes writers who are really in tune with teens to be able to write on their level. While part of me still feels young and I remember a lot of things I went through (couldn't possibly forget), I think it would be difficult to get into that mindset. However, if I weren't in the thick of major revisions and trying to get my first book published, I'd be opening Word right now to see if I can give it a shot. It is a much needed market.

      I also wonder if a lot of writer's think teens aren't really interested in reading since there's so much media out there. It is a huge need, though. My boys have to do a lot of reading in high school and it concerns me that they don't have a lot of "good" books to choose from. This is definitely a genre that needs attention.

      Thanks for the great post!

    2. Wow - this is an amazing post! Makes me want to rise to the challenge and write a book for teens. Excellent tips. I agree with all of them!

    3. Planting the seed is an admirable reason to write YACF. This is a great post Tessa. The story I am currently working on is a YA inspirational short. I know it can be so much better and your post has helped me.

    4. I love this post and the passion that radiates from it. Also, I couldn't agree with you more, having read some *awful* YACF...We can and we should do better, let's raise the bar :)

    5. Very thoughtful and well-written post, Tessa. Besides great YACF, I think we can write general market YA that is clean, compelling, and full of truth. Just another way to plant seeds.


    6. I don't think I've ever read any Christian YA fiction, but now I'm really curious. I think you make a lot of good points––and they don't just apply to YACF, they also apply to adult CF, which I read a lot of. I think there's been a lot of progress recently to publish Christian novels with real literary merit which plant seeds or share the gospel without being preachy. But there's still a lot of sub-par books to wade through before finding the rare gem in Christian publishing!

      I hope that authors of CF and YACF take note and start to write better books, and I also hope that publishers will start to think outside the box more and actually publish it!

    7. Media has far more of an impact in peoples lives then they think it does. It's amazing how much things like books, tv shows, and movies affect us. Even if YA books had simply some good morals they would be far more acceptable then what's out there.

      Great post!

    8. I'm all for hybrids. I don't (and haven't ever read much Christian Fiction. Many of the ones I've seen have GOD as a theme, setting, hook, MC, ...
      The only people who live that way are nuns and monks. Regular people serve God in everyday ways.

      Also Christian fiction has a way of extolling perfection that can make anyone who's less than perfect (=all of us) feel guilty about having slipped up. Feeling like you're going to burn in hell for who you were or what you did, despite the fac that you've repented and are a different person, is just as likely to drive you away from Christianity as make you a better Christian.

    9. I love your blog. You are such an amazing writer. Keep up the good work!

    10. I think your post is absolutely on target.

      Like someone mentioned, media has a lot to do with it. Not just that there is so much to consume, but also that its focus is on what sells, which is not always in line with Christian values. Publishers are in business. They are interested in what sells.

      My YA novella is not specifically CF, but it leans in that direction. Some of the comments I've received are interesting. My main characters are a 16 YO boy and girl. They have a platonic friendship and the boy goes to Mass, prays, etc. Both of these things were called out as unusual. That says a lot about the current state of YA.

    11. Very thoughtful - and thought-provoking - post. I read very little YA, but when I do pick one up, I'm invariably surprised to discover how much "edgier" it is than even most adult fiction. It's certainly not something I would want to share with a teenage daughter. But I fully understand the problem with Christian fiction, as well. The overwhelming sentimentality, preachiness, and - dare I say it? - poor writing caused me to stop reading the vast majority of Christian fiction. It's a crying shame too. As the light of the world, Christians should be producing literature that stands head and shoulders above the pack.

    12. Thanks for the tremendous response!

      Georgianna, I have to agree that media has a huge impact in people's lives. That's why I mostly read Christian fiction and have recently been very picky about which movies, TV shows and music I allow myself to watch/listen to. I like Nicolas Sparks' novels, because although they aren't Christian specifically, they do have good morals as you mentioned. At least some of them do.

      Claire, although I don't really read much "adult" Christian fiction, I think I know what you're talking about. That's why Christian authors need to really study the genre - what works and what doesn't work, because someone can very easily be turned off from Christianity just by the way an author presents it in their books.

      Christine, there are many Christians who write clean, good moral fiction. In the book "The Art & Craft Of Writing Christian Fiction" the author, Jeff Gerke, talks about how not every Christian is called to write Christian fiction - because even though it is a very powerful ministry, some Christians should write in the "secular" fiction just for the sake of reaching a different and more broader audience. God can plant the seeds, no matter what genre your book is listed under.

      K.M. Weiland, it is very frustrating to me how "edgy" YA fiction has become. I've had to stop reading a couple books simply because I couldn't handle all of the cussing and other trash. I think the main problem with CF is that authors aren't sure where their fiction should stand and who the audience is - perfect Christians? Lukewarm Christians? Nonchristians? There needs to be a line between secular fiction and Christian fiction. CF best-selling author Karen Kingsbury does a really good job at doing this.

    13. Great post.

      I want to mention a few things. First of all, the Market Makers (publishers, etc) don't think there IS a market for most YA Christian fiction. I'm an indie writer for this reason. Why don't we, the YA writers, work together to create this market? Support one another until there is a book shelf for us in the major retailers. With the Lord's help, we can be the Market Makers. Why not?

      Second of all, I think you hit the nail on the head with #4: don't write as if to teach. Write because the story is a part of you. Write because you can't imagine NOT writing it. If it doesn't end up being YA, that's okay. And if it does, awesome!

      Lastly, don't chase trends. Don't. Unless the story is like a fire within you, don't write what's trendy. Don't write it for the Market. Write it for the Lord. This whole vampire thing won't be as hot thirty years from now, but GOOD books will be. The Hunger Games doesn't have a single vampire. Although I don't like the trilogy, I appreciated that it was well written and shot out from Suzanne Collins' heart, not from the dreams of a bigger bank account.

      Tessa, I'd love to learn more about your book! I'm checking out your website, but you can find me as well. I write under the name Precarious Yates.

    14. I loved this post. I am a youth pastor and working with students you quickly find out what they like and don't like, including in books. Wanting them to have something that presents a Christian worldview without being cheesy was one of the things that pushed me to write the book I had been imagining for a couple years. I also wanted something non-Christians would pick up (you mentioned this too) and not feel preached at but get involved in a story and characters they could relate too while getting a glimpse of the gospel that will hopefully push them to conversations about Jesus. I think its so important for Christians to speak into culture and to do that we can't be preachy or cheesy. Genuine wins.


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