The Good Books: Writing Religion for Young Adults

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Micol Ostow, author of So Punk Rock (And Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother), is guest-blogging all week with MyJewishLearning and Jewish Book Council.

If you had told me when I first began my career as a writer of teen fiction that I would in time gravitate from the pop-sugar of early projects like 30 Guys in 30 Days over toward books with a decidedly…Semitic bent, I would have laughed.

jewish authors blogThirteen years of Jewish day school, I thought, could really sap the Jew right out of a girl.

Having graduated from Solomon Schechter only to then willingly submerge myself in the equally homogeneous environment of a small, New England liberal arts college, it seemed to me that Judaism was a facet of myself that didn’t need exploration or understanding—unlike my experiences as a Latina, or a feminist, or even a journalist, being Jewish was nothing new. It simply was.

But a curious thing happened after I’d churned out a few installments of lighthearted chick lit: when it came time to write a more personal story that was rooted in my own reality, out came Emily Goldberg Learns to Salsa. “Emily” followed a Jewish Puerto Rican teen as she reconnected with her Latina roots over one summer of bonding with her borriqua family.

Though I was getting closer to events of my own life, the story still took the stance that Emily’s Judaism and religious beliefs were fully intrinsic to her, fully integrated. Again, it was the experience of other that my character sought more proactively.

Several years later, my brother David approached me with the idea of co-creating an “illustrated novel” that featured yeshiva boys turned wanna-be rock stars. After hearing his pitch, I was hooked. And this past July, So Punk Rock (and Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother) released to a lovely response, in particular from the Jewish reviewer set.

so punk rock and other ways to disappoint your motherPunk Rock deals more directly with questions of religious and cultural identity, and my protagonist, Ari, comes to many of the same conclusions that I have about my own faith. I had no idea, sitting down at the computer, that I had so much to say about my own spirituality, but “Punk Rock” is by far my favorite of my own creations.

The best reviews I’ve read have talked about the book taking Judaism and relating it to teens in a contemporary way, as opposed to the canon of didacticism that permeates classic Jewish kid-lit. Sure, I was raised on the All of a Kind Family, but it’s nice for today’s readers to have modern options. And I’m proud of myself and my brother for having provided that to teens.

Of course, we’re far from the only ones writing accessible, realistic fiction. Here are a few of my own favorites from the past few years. These are the writers who influenced me as an author, editor, teacher, and student—I’m thrilled to recommend them and excited to be joining their ranks on the bookshelves.

Never Mind the Goldbergs, Matthue Roth

This one’s a no-brainer. Matthue’s book was the first one I read when beginning to shape my narrative for So Punk Rock. And it’s proof positive that authors can share a sensibility and still create very vivid and unique stories. Matthue’s story follows an Orthodox teen as she cuts a fantastic path to show biz. What I love about it most is that Hava’s religious observance is a done deal, and handled very matter-of-factly, but that certainty doesn’t shield her from the moral conundrums that evolve as her celebrity dreams take form.

You Are So Not Invited to my Bat Mitzvah!, Fiona Rosenbloom

Technically “tween,” this is a story that makes no bones about its ethnic groundings, and trusts its readership to be savvy enough to be able to relate to the central event regardless of cultural background or religion. Bat Mitzvah Stacy’s d’var Torah takes on the concept of Tikkun Olam, perhaps the most accessible of the principles of Judaism. The book is also hilariously funny and rife with of-the-minute pop-culture references. Mazel tov, Stacy!

How to Ruin A Summer Vacation, Simone Elkeles

Simone’s books are also put out by my most punk rock publisher, Flux, and if they aren’t the only full-on Jewish “chick lit” books out they’re, they’re for sure some of the very best. Poor Amy is sent to stay on a moshav in Israel with her estranged father over the course of one ill-fated summer, despite the fact that she doesn’t even consider herself to be Jewish. It’s rare to read a story set in modern-day Israel that takes such a lighthearted, teen-friendly approach to the setting without whitewashing the scenery and the reality of life there at all.

Goy Crazy, Melissa Schorr

This one also falls squarely into the “commercial” camp, but I really enjoy that it tackles a serious topic — inter-dating — with a light touch. When David and I have had the opportunity to present Punk Rock to teens, dating outside of the religion is one topic that seems to spark a lot of interest. Rachel does question the consequences of dating a non-Jew, and realizes that there may, in fact, be ripple effects beyond her bubbe’s personal reaction.

Head Case, Sarah Aronson

A cautionary tale that lends real-life relevance to the notion of t’shuva. I’m a sucker for dark fiction, and though released in ’07, this one meshes nicely with the latest trend toward big-time gravity in young adult fiction. Sarah is a former Vermont College classmate of mine, and I do want to also give props to an institution that concerns itself with the intersection of readability and “importance.” Punk Rock might never have come to be if it weren’t for the encouragement and enthusiasm of my advisors.

Micol Ostow is a young adult writer living and working in New York City. If she were any more kosher, she’d be totally traif. Or so they say. Visit Micol at www.micolostow.com, and come back all week to see her and her brother David’s blogs.

Posted on November 2, 2009

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