Why do we write middle grade and young adult books? Perhaps we love to play with words. Or we admire the honesty and realness of kids—and never quite grew up ourselves.
These reasons also apply to those of religious faith, but we have an added motive—to inspire children, deepen their faith, or help them live a better life. These ideas can be part of both religious and mainstream market books.
Writing faith themes in children’s literature can be fulfilling and fun. My first middle grade novel—Picture Imperfect, published by Ashberry Lane—came out in 2015.
Writing this book (and prior failed attempts) taught me a few things about writing middle grade fiction from a faith perspective.
1. Choose an appropriate theme.
People of faith believe life has meaning and God speaks through our circumstances. Naturally, we want to express the truth, as we see it, through our stories. But keep it kid-appropriate. (Forgiveness and loving others are great, fire and brimstone not so much.)
As a child, I loved reading books that inspired me and gave me hope. Now I love writing those books. In Picture Imperfect, my young protagonist, JJ, faces many challenges, including an annoying live-in aunt, a runaway cat, and her great-grandmother’s death. But she grows and finds God through the challenges.
2. Put story first.
Concepts of faith and moral values should emerge organically from the story. Nobody—least of all a child—wants to have a message hammered into them. And forcing a theme onto a story rarely works. I’ve tried it—that book never sold.
Picture Imperfect started out being about a girl discovering faith through her beloved great-grandmother. As I wrote, that element remained, but the focus shifted to JJ finding her place in the family.
|Susan & middle grade author Angela Ruth Strong, 2015 Oregon Christian Writers’ summer coaching conference|
3. Don’t preach.
Show, don’t tell is the Golden Rule of writing, and it applies equally to faith-based writing. Let the characters’ experiences and interactions demonstrate the underlying concept. While hints of it may appear in conversation, keep it light. Children would rather discover meaning for themselves than have some wise character explain it.
Picture Imperfect does have a “mentor” character with the occasional pithy saying, but the character’s life, more than her words, helps JJ discover the importance of faith.
|Susan’s book launch with critique partner Sandy Zaugg|
4. Use symbolism and metaphor.
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (1949-1954) is a clearly Christian series, yet never mentions God. In Picture Imperfect, the stained-glass windows of a small church illustrate the protagonist’s longing for God. These tools must be used carefully, of course. An allegory heavy with symbolism may turn off readers. But a gentle touch can add depth.
|Not Back to School Day (Portland)*|
5. Portray all faiths positively.
Faith themes can work in both the religious and general markets, although emphasis will differ. Even nonreligious books can add diversity by including children of different faiths, whose religion is a normal part of their lives.
A final thought
Believers, there’s no need to force spiritual themes into your stories. Your faith will naturally come out in whatever you write.
Susan Thogerson Maas grew up on five green Oregon acres, coming to love the plants, birds, and wild critters of the woods—who often find their way into her writing. She has written part-time for 30 years, selling devotionals, homeschooling and personal experience articles, Sunday school curriculum, and children’s stories.
Picture Imperfect is her first published middle grade novel. She is currently working on another middle grade novel, along with a nature-based homeschool unit study.
Susan chose to publish with Ashberry Lane, a small Christian publisher, due to the supportive, caring environment it offers. The mother-daughter publishing team works closely with the authors, and the authors work together to promote each other’s writing. In today’s publishing world, most authors end up doing much of their own marketing, but Ashberry Lane’s family atmosphere provides both physical help and spiritual encouragement.
*with Christian Tarabochia, Sherrie Ashcraft.
|Ashberry Lane family (Aug. 2014): from left: Sherrie Ashcraft
(publisher), authors Sam Hall, Angela & Jim Strong, Bonnie Leon,
Susan Maas, Camille Eide; cover designer-board member Nicole Miller
& editor Christina Tarabochia