Everyone should know the joy and comfort reading brings. Everyone should know how transformative being submerged in another's life, alternate realities, and varied solutions to conflict can be. But even more than these pleasures, I think everyone should know about the love of Jesus Christ, God's only son, who gave his perfect life in exchange for our flaws, our shortcomings, our sins. Have you ever noticed how there's a disconnect between these three wishes, hopes, and prayers in the real world? Disconnect may not be the right word, for there are many opportunities for young and old readers to read fictional work based in solidly biblical principles often with quoted scriptures. However, as the mother of 5 beautiful, Black daughters, I have had a much more difficult time finding these stories centered around African American character. Personally, I have several Christian fiction author favorites, and the subject matter, character profiles, and settings are just as diverse as those in other fiction categories. Likewise, there were numerous options for us to read together when my girls were younger and their world was viewed less as black and white. We would read books about girls, boys, and animals; the wealthy or poor; sweet or stinky; and Black, White, Hispanic, and many other identifications. However, The well of words, works, and wisdom just about dried up when they hit those early teen years. Sadly, the authors, characters, and even series of Christian fiction they enjoyed—and I felt comfortable encouraging—were no more. Yes, these still existed on our shelves and e-readers, but they were no longer dealing with the relevant or relatable topics, issues, struggles, or situations for the girls from about 12 to 17.
Statistically these years can be some of the most defining yet challenging of girls lives. Gaining responsibilities, showing Independence, and creating the person you want to be are the cornerstones of the teen years. The Just Say Yes foundation’s research indicates “Teen girls are more afraid of gaining weight than they are of cancer, nuclear war, or losing a parent.
Teens are barraged with a constant stream of media and peer pressures related to body image. The media tells them their value is based on their outward appearance.” All of this is counter to what I want my girls to believe about themselves and others. Unfortunately, the only voices I knew they heard sharing Jesus message and its importance were from me, the helicopter, Jesus Freak of a parent; their youth leaders, often men who were fun and full of energy but lacked the closeness to truly influence their self-image or decisions; and the playlist of empowering Christian & Gospel artists who melodically favored living out your faith in your home, at your school, and throughout your community. From Jamie Grace to V. Rose, 1GN to Mary Mary, Lecrae to Tedashii, and Andy Mineo to TobyMac, we’ve loved musicians who are as unashamed of Jesus Christ as they were of heavy bass lines, love and Christ-filled lyrics, and their confidence in youth’s ability to make His name known. But something was still missing.
It dawned on me that my girls were getting older and the world would be looking at them based more on their race, but they remained active readers. This season brought other authors, series, conflicts, and topics to our bookshelf. GG and Stephanie Perry Moore’s Morgan and Carmen were replaced with vampires, werewolves, assassins, kids left after an apocalyptic event, cliques, conspicuous consumption, and promiscuous teens. And these are not the characters I wanted my girls to emulate. Gone, it seemed, were the silly and innocent antics of children. These characters and conflicts were new. Unfortunately, their assessments and resolutions are not. Deceit, dishonesty, sex, drugs, and aggression are the most common choices. These are not, however, the options I want celebrated. Where is the patience, the kindness, the understanding, the prayer? Where are the positive adult role models, the peaceful alternatives, the standards? Most of these books did not have any. A new question formed within me: Where is the Christian fiction written to and for African American teen girls? I am sure that I am not the only Black Christian mother of Black Christian daughters who has this question.
Children of today have access to so much more information, entertainment, and influence than those of yesteryear. This is particularly true of young girls between ages 13 and 18. Looking at and comparing oneself to the hottest models, entertainers, and celebrities was once limited to the day new monthly publications are displayed in the grocery or drug store, watching the entertainment news, or cheering and jeering the fashions on the red carpet of awards shows. But now the prevalence of smartphones, tablets, and data streaming over free Wi-Fi servers makes waiting a minute, hour, day, and definitely or entire month obsolete. One of the foremost research centers, Pew, has reported that 91% of teens go online from mobile devices at least occasionally, and 94% of these teens go online daily or more often. African-American and Hispanic youth report more frequent internet use than white teens. Among African-American teens, 34% report going online “almost constantly” as do 32% of Hispanic teens, while 19% of white teens go online that often. And honestly, I have some of these “mobile teens” living under my roof.
My girls, though, do not have a problem of access to great literature, choice, or technology. They are able to choose which works they want to read in hardback, paperback, or electronically. I’d just like for them to have choices that provide African American characters and have a Christian slant when dealing with timely and accurate situations, problems, and issues. Is that too much to ask? Well, now that I write it out it seems very specific. But I can’t apologize for this desire; it’s simply too important for children to identify with characters and to see themselves in media. Distinguished scholar of Children’s Literature Rudine Sims Bishop asserts that there is a difference between “writing to someone and writing about someone” and studied African American Children’s Literature in general to draw her conclusions. Representation is a hot topic issue for minorities of all kind—racial, gender, LGBTQ, religion, class—in all forms of media. We, as an African American community, have pushed for more accurate and diverse opportunities in film, television, and music. I realize that I am being even more specific in calling for more Black lead characters in Young Adult (YA) Literature, but these kids need to be represented, too. I have heard people say that we cannot let our racial identity come before our Christian identity. For example, saying that you are or attend a church that serves primarily “Black Christians” is divisive and frowned upon. However, I don’t feel this is a divisive issue. We have witnessed curvy girls revolutionizing the way they are depicted and cast in media with the success of artists like Meghan Trainor. I have even seen Mattel and other toy makers including more diverse characters in their lines as parents cried for more redheads or physically challenged representations. We seem to agree that seeing yourself on a screen or in a toy box matters. So why not ask to see yourself or your child on a page of literature?
The problem is not that this age group is not reading or that there are not stories for them to read. Young Adult Literature is a thriving genre. Time studied findings from the Association of American Publishers 2014 study as well as results from a Media Bistro study from the same time. The study noted that sales for books for young adults “increased by a whopping 22.4% from Jan.-Sept. 2013 to the same period in 2014.” It also noted that YA ebooks “increased a total of 52.7% in the first nine months this year” and found that only 20% of young adults buy ebooks, expressing a strong preference for print all while adult fiction and non-fiction sales were down 3.3%. There is not a problem finding YA Literature. There is not a problem of access, not for my girls or other girls, and this is very exciting. Kids are reading! Girls are reading! I celebrate that, for we educators feared that increased interest in and inexpensive access to more technology was going to be the slow death of literature—classic or contemporary, Children’s or Young Adult. I am looking for YA Literature that is a specific kind of diverse. This oxymoron, I feel, is necessary because there are so many works of fiction with African American leads and great storylines. Classics by Walter Dean Myers and Omar Tyree are still popular as are works by newer authors Kwame Alexander and Sharon Draper. Series like “The Bluford Series” and “Amigas” are grabbing readers’ attention in a big way. I venture to say these authors, series, and characters are getting and remaining so popular because kids are reading about themselves or people they know and can relate to in many ways. I’ve been part of conversations in social, educational, and religious groups where parents have commented that often we, minorities, read all types or literature and this promotes each kind. However, many works written about African American characters or storylines are not read by the masses. This can make this specific corner of the YA genre seem less successful when, in fact, these readers are propelling the entire genre through their own diverse reading lists.
When searching websites for authors and works my girls may be interested in, I ran across a great resource for finding books for Christian teens. The website is phenomenal! Jill Williamson, the creator of a site whose mantras include “stories that shine light in the darkness” and “where adventure comes to life,” has consolidated so much information into digestible categories and lists while still promoting her own writing. As a now published author, Jill says that she became an author because she remembers “wishing there were more cool books for teens to read that dealt with real-life topics but didn’t glorify bad choices.” That along with a God-centered message is what I want for my girls. We can even search Jill’s site for recommendations of books for Christian teens. I love that they have this divided into categories like historical, mystery, or even fantasy. Unfortunately, there is no African American, diversity, or multicultural option. The list of suggestions from her site and others are great inventories that still seem to be missing that specific category. A friend of mine suggested that I be the one to write for this super specific reading genre. I laughed at her; she shot back darted eyes. After all, even Jill Williamson said that she started her writing because she thought to herself, “I could do that,” and then reality set in, realizing it was harder than she thought. I’m honest enough with myself to know that I can craft some amazing stories, but even I may not be up to par. I can promise that I’ll try to create something interesting and publication worthy just as I promise to keep looking for African American centered Christian works written by others so that my girls and girls like them can get the benefit of seeing God, themselves, and their issues on the pages of their favorite books.
"Frequently Asked Questions | Jill Williamson". Jillwilliamson.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 27 July 2016.
Lenhart, Amanda. "Teens, Social Media & Technology Overview 2015". Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. N.p., 2015. Web. 27 July 2016.
Sims Bishop, Rudine. "Reflections On The Development Of African American Children's Literature". Journal of Children's Literature 38.8 (2012): 5-13. Print.
Stampler, Laura. "Adult Books Sales Are Down And Young Adult Soars In 2014". TIME.com. N.p., 2014. Web. 28 July 2016.
Strickland, Jennifer. "Self Image/Media Influences". Just Say Yes. N.p., 2016. Web. 27 July 2016.