If you ask observant Jewish teens here in the U.S. whether they overall prefer Jewish books or secular ones, most of them will tell you secular books (trust me, I write for teens, so I’ve asked). Sad, but true.
Why most Orthodox teens prefer secular books
Interestingly, some of these teens will tell you that they wish there were more Jewish books for teens that suited them. Others will tell you they don’t like either Jewish or secular novels — the former don’t engage them, and latter conflict with their religious beliefs.
Thursday, I caught an excellent article on CNN about the history of YA novels in the U.S. You can read it here. There was little that was news to me in the article, but it did make me think about something that’s troubled me for a while — namely why so many Jewish teens are enthralled by secular books that don’t necessarily reflect the values of their families.
Let’s consider why secular YA books are currently selling like hotcakes. First of all, their hallmarks — identified (I think accurately) in the slideshow accompanying the article — are as follows:
- dystopian fantasies or dark sci-fi adventures
- the supernatural
- good vs. evil, often with who is who being very obvious
- independence from parental guidance and influence
- a perfectly normal tween or teen wakes up one morning and discovers a hidden and heretofore dormant talent
- love triangles.
These characteristics are clearly motivated by the psychology of teens.
What teens experience
Remember, even a teen living in New Square or Kiryas Yoel still has to deal with:
- waking up almost daily to find their body and mind changing
- expanding knowledge of the more disappointing, frightening, and ambiguous aspects of life on earth
- growing independence from their parents
- the intellectual and moral brain centers turning on slowly throughout their teen years.
Notice the overlap?
Moreover, the escapist tendencies of the current secular YA crop — which often incorporate science fiction and fantasy elements — allow teens to explore their feelings about these issues in a more roundabout way. The black and white in many of these novels can also be comforting for kids just coming to grips with a world full of grayscale. They can fantasize about striking out on their own when they themselves are not quite yet ready to cut the apron strings. Teen heroes can inspire them to change the world even though they still doubt their ability to “fly.”
While we can’t do anything about the YA predilection for love triangles in a 100% kosher book, it is worth incorporating the other characteristics of secular YA books into Jewish ones.
My personal effort to rectify the problem
The novel I wrote a couple years ago (and keep complaining needs revision) bridges the gap between these the Jewish and secular YA genres. Reading the CNN online article (as well as two separate colleagues emailing me this week about finishing that novel and getting it out there) has nudged me into the following decision: revise that novel ASAP. After consulting with my nicer, better half, we’ve made a plan, and it will hopefully get done soon.