Is religion in children's literature a new taboo?

Today in the children’s book industry, it seems that everyone is calling for diversity: it’s clear that we need more disabled, LGBTQ and racial minority characters. One thing we hear less about, however, is the issue of religious diversity. In other words, the representation of a wide range of beliefs, religious and secular. At a time when political responses to terror attacks are feeding hatred and confusion about Islam, and sex abuse scandals and discussions about marriage equality are dividing the broader Christian community, religion is seen by many as a threat to Western lives, values and society as a whole. Rising secularism in Europe means that for many religion has become merely cultural, present in traditions such as Christmas and Easter but seldom practiced. Has religion in children’s literature become taboo?

In 2016, Muslim teenage blogger Safah described how, when writing stories as a child, she would never use the word ‘Muslim’ or ‘Bangladeshi’ because they were never present in the books she read. She said: “We need books where ethnic and religious minorities appear in all genres and books where differences are quietly embraced, rather than being made a show of or carefully elided.” She noted that most Muslim female characters in YA are either portrayed as forced into their practices or have their piety “glossed over”. Both religion and characters’ experience with religion are neglected in modern children’s books.

Children’s fiction can be a form of escapism and provide a way to explain difficult topics, from death to divorce to the refugee crisis. In Through the Eyes of a Child (Pearson), Norton and Norton argue that literature allows children to appreciate “their own cultural heritage as well as those of others”. It’s important, then, that the books children read reflect the experiences of people from all walks of life and faiths. Modern children’s literature is largely secular and often fails to portray any religious belief systems, not just the ones that are minorities in the UK.

Yet authors have not stopped writing about religion - Philip Pullman, Na'ima B. Robert and David Almond are well worth reading in this regard. For instance, Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is a deliberate criticism of organised religion, but his portrayal of the human soul in the form of an animal companion called a “daemon” is one of the most persuasive in literature.

The fact remains modern literature does not give incontrovertible answers to questions of a religious nature, as was done in the past. Instead, contemporary authors encourage children to come to their own conclusions and beliefs.

During research for my undergraduate thesis, I found that most of the non-religious parents I spoke to would not object to their children reading fiction of a religious nature, and all religious parents were open to their children reading secular literature. While mainstream publishing houses such as HarperCollins have acknowledged that “there is still a huge hunger for knowledge and spirituality”, they focus on publishing religious non-fiction. The publishing of religious fiction for children is left to independent, faith-based publishing houses, such as Lion Hudson and Kube Publishing.

In the 20th century, as authors of children’s literature sought to entertain instead of morally improve, mainstream publishing for children flourished and religion became a very small part of the industry. Fuchs suggests that publishers fear that discussion of religion may offend the non-religious, and a sympathetic portrayal of any particular religious group may be seen as attempting to convert readers. Of course, stories can be a tool for conversion, so why isn't religious diversity a danger best avoided in fiction for kids? Because a body of literature that avoids religion is unrealistic: void of many of the belief systems that shape how we perceive and navigate life, how can literature as an art make any claim to reflect human experience?

Religious diversity in books enables children to understand the world in its entirety and not merely the small part of it they happen to find themselves in. For instance, award-winning author Tariq Mehmood wrote You’re Not Proper (HopeRoad Publishing) when he realised there was a lack of religious fiction for children like his British Pakistani daughter, who felt stranded between cultures. He maintains that religious diversity in literature is paramount in giving children a sense of belonging.

All this begs the question whether the publication of religious non-fiction - the solution big publishers are currently pursuing - is enough. It’s only through fiction that a reader can truly experience the world through another person’s eyes. According to scientists at Emory University and Carnegie Mellon University in the US, when you read about characters doing active things, the parts of your brain that are involved in movement in real life are stimulated. Another study found that Harry Potter improved attitudes of children, and secondary school and university students, towards stigmatised groups. It’s the attitudes of these children that will go on to shape the world so, if we’re going to encourage the world to embrace religious diversity, we need to harness the power of fiction to increase children’s empathy and understanding.

The book industry determines the values children are exposed to through literature, which means it has a duty to publish at least some fiction that promotes religious tolerance; this will also ensure that everyone can identify with what they read. We need to celebrate religious children’s fiction instead of treating it as taboo.

Stephanie Williamson is a freelance writer and translator and blogs about MG, YA and translated literature at Typewritered.com. She has just finished her BA degree in French, Italian and European Studies at the University of Bath and will begin a Master’s in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University in October. She is a writer of children’s fiction, a bullet-journaller, an advocate of diversity in children’s literature and recognition for translators, a Ravenclaw, and a believer in the power of stories. She splits her time between Bath, UK and Northern France.

Stephanie, an intern with YA Shot, researched, conceptualised, wrote and redrafted this article as part of her first year internship with YA Shot, with detailed advice, input and two stages of in-depth edits from her second-year peer-mentor, Rachel Lee.