Rapture Practice: a true story by Aaron Hartzler

“Something you should know up front about my family: we believe that Jesus is coming back…I don’t mean metaphorically, like someday in the distant future…I mean literally, like glance out the car window and, ‘Oh hey, there’s Jesus in the sky.’”

Young Aaron Hartzler accepted his parents’ literal belief in the Bible and their strict rules about what pop culture he could consume without question. But when his parents talked about the Rapture, that moment when Jesus would return to Earth and take all the Christians up to Heaven, Aaron couldn’t help but hope that Jesus would hold off until he had a chance to live a little. “There are so many things I want to do before I go to heaven, like drive a car, and act in another play, and go to the movies.” And as Aaron grew older, tasted freedom at summer camp and started to see how other people interpreted the Bible, he began to wonder if he could continue along the path his parents set him on, especially when it came to his future. “The problem is, I don’t want to surrender my talents to God. What if he makes me use them as a missionary or Christian schoolteacher? That isn’t the life I want for myself.” Soon, Aaron is questioning everything, and though he deeply loves his parents, he is beginning to find their narrow view on religion stifling. “There are all sorts of Christians with all sorts of different rules, not to mention other people who believe in other religions. What about all of the people on the other side of the world who believe as strongly in their God as we believe in our God? Are they going to hell because they were unlucky enough to be born in the wrong place?” How Aaron resolves his dual life, comes to terms with his sexual identity and manages his parents’ expectations forms the basis of this simply told true story that rings true whether you believe in the Rapture or not. Aaron Hartzler’s moving memoir about growing up in a conservative Baptist home where Jesus was considered a member of the family hit me hard in the heart muscle. Although the evangelical Christian lifestyle may seem peculiar to some, Hartzler’s physical and psychological struggles to make his family happy while still trying to follow his own dreams are universal and will be completely understood by anyone who’s ever tried to figure out where their family role ends and their individuality begins.

Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang

There are two sides to every story, and stupendously talented author/artist Gene Luen Yang elevates that saying to a whole new level with Boxers & Saints. In this double volume, graphic novel masterpiece, two teenagers become caught up in the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1898 on opposite sides, fighting to retain their identity and hold on to their hard won religious values.

Boxers tells the story of Little Bao, the youngest son in a motherless family of farmers from a poor village. When a Catholic missionary priest smashes the statue of one of his village’s gods in front of him, he is devastated, especially since the opera stories he sees during the spring fairs make him feel as though the ancient gods are his close friends and allies. As he grows into adulthood, he begins training with a kung fu master in order to join the rebellion against these foreigners who have their own army and refuse to respect the native Chinese ways. Soon he is heading up his own small army, each member fueled by the angry spirits of the old gods. But as the “Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fist” marches closer and closer to the capital of Peking to “eradicate the foreign devils” once and for all, Little Bao begins to question his rock solid faith as the number of bodies of innocent people build in his violent wake.

Saints tells the story of Four-Girl, a lonely child who is considered a bad luck devil by her family no matter how much she tries to win their approval. The only person who shows her kindness is the village acupuncturist, who is also a Christian. He tells her Bible stories that fire up her imagination, and she begins having recurring visions of Joan of Arc. Soon she decides to become baptized and join the church. She gets a new name, Vibiana, and leaves home to work at a Catholic orphanage, followed by her visions of Joan. When Little Bao’s army comes to her village’s doorstep, Vibiana decides that God is calling on her to be His warrior maiden like Joan of Arc. The tragic, unpredictable result of Little Bao and Vibiana’s final meeting will haunt you long after you close the covers on Saints.

The earthy/monotone palate of both volumes perfectly conveys the rural landscape and hardscrabble life of the peasants, only exploding into vibrant color when Little Bao’s pantheon of Chinese gods arrive on the scene, with their rainbow robes and elaborate masks, or Four-Girl’s golden vision of Joan of Arc shimmers between the trees outside her home. While this exceptional work will no doubt help gazillions of readers understand the complexity behind religious wars and personal freedoms, it can also be appreciated as a swiftly paced adventure peopled with men, women and gods who bring this fascinating period of Chinese history to bloody life. I was blown away by both the richly illustrated package and the timeless message. Read them in the order the title suggests, (first Boxers, then Saints) and then pass them along to everyone you know.

Cairo by G. Willow Wilson, illustrated by M.K. Perker

What do a smart-aleck drug smuggler, a female Special Forces Israeli solider, an idealistic American college student, a disenchanted Lebanese teenager, and a cynical op-ed columnist in the modern day city of Cairo have in common? Easy! They are all searching for (whether they know it or not) an enchanted hookah pipe that contains a benevolent genie who has the power (“We don’t pull things out of thin air, we manipulate probability.”) to make all of their dreams come true. The only obstacles in their way? A drug king-pin-turned-magician (who bears a striking resemble to Mike Myers’ Dr. Evil), the horned cousin of the benevolent genie who may or may not be Satan, and their own inability to work together as a team. If they can figure out how to do THAT, well, there just might be hope for peace in the Middle East. Funny, busy, and endlessly inventive, this stunning GN mixes faith, politics and fantasy in a way I’ve never seen before. The only thing I can think of that comes close is one of my favorite fantasies from ’08, The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick, which would make a nice companion prose read to this stellar graphic effort. And I’m not the only one to sing Cairo’s praises. It was also named one of the 2009 Top Ten Great Graphic Novels for Teens by the Young Adult Library Services Association of the American Library Association. So what are you waiting for? Take a magic carpet ride to Cairo today!

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University by Kevin Roose

The Unlikely Disciple
When Brown University student Kevin Roose told his parents he wanted to attend Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University for a semester, they were obviously shaken. After all, they had raised him to be a good liberal with solid Democratic values—where had they gone wrong?! Then Kevin explained that he wanted to enroll undercover in order to write a book about what it was really like inside the cloistered world of Christian college, and they relaxed…a little. The result of Roose’s anti-secular semester sojourn is this enlightening, balanced and highly entertaining book, where he shares his experiences with dating Liberty girls (“Hand holding and hugging are the only official displays of physical affection allowed at Liberty…and hugging only for a three-second maximum”), taking Liberty science classes (one professor provides physical dimensions for Noah’s ark and explains how the animals were in a state of hibernation so they didn’t need as much food), and checking out Every Man’s Battle meetings, “Liberty’s on-campus support group for pornography addicts and chronic masturbators.” But while some aspects of Christian collage were exactly what he expected, Roose was also surprised by how honest, kind, and funny his dorm mates were, and how much they struggled with the strict rules of Christianity that they professed to completely agree with. Although he was deeply troubled by the rampant homophobia that existed on campus and the anti-evolutionary stance taken by the faculty (some of whom are highly respected and published scientists) he was also deeply touched by the sincerity of these same students and faculty when it came to praying and helping one another through difficult times. Roose also really loved singing in the church choir, waking up on Sunday mornings without a hangover, and the surprisingly lack of pressure when it came to asking out Liberty girls. As someone who graduated from a (slightly) less strict Christian college than Liberty, and who no longer follows that spiritual path but still has friends who do, I really appreciated Roose’s tone, which was always open-minded and respectful and never condescending or patronizing. You can read more about Roose’s evangelical experience on his blog and website.

Peace, Love, and Baby Ducks by Lauren Myracle

After a summer spent hiking and becoming one with nature in the mountains of Tennessee, fifteen-year-old Carly has discovered she’s more turned on by Neil Young and peasant skirts than Ne-Yo and Coach bags. So she tries to trade the materialistic trappings of her privileged life in the blinged-out Buckhead suburb of Atlanta for a hefty dose of sincere spirituality and altruistic activism. Easier said than done, especially when she returns home to discover that her sweet lil’ sis Anna has sprouted some serious breasts and a smokin’ hot bod. Suddenly, newly noble Carly finds herself in the painful position of being jealous of her own sister, an icky feeling that lingers no matter how much she tries to rationalize it away. It doesn’t help than Anna is also questioning Carly’s god-given big-sister authority and becoming a serious boy magnet while the boy Carly’s  crushing on doesn’t even know she’s alive. Meanwhile, Carly’s also struggling with how to get her ultra-slick dad to take her seriously, to assure her new BFF, who happens to be black, that she’s not just a part of Carly’s do-gooder, hippie make-over, and to convince herself that she’s definitely NOT in love with the boy next door who she’s known forever. Contrary to its’ super-cute cover and title, Baby Ducks has some serious meat on it’s pink-n-paisley bones. This surprisingly deep read covers everything from relationships and racism to socioeconomic class and spirituality, and contains lots of those interesting, uncomfortable moments that make you think. Fans of Sarah Dessen and Justina Chen Headley will want to snatch up this sister act asap. And just for fun, check out this video of Myracle chatting about friends, coffee, and Baby Ducks.

Madapple by Christina Meldrum

madappleAslaug, homeschooled and raised wild in the rural woods of Maine, never knew who her father was. She tried asking her mother, a strange woman obsessed with plant lore and pagan religions, but the muttering odd woman took that secret to her grave. After her mother’s death, Aslaug, desperate for answers, hunts down the rest of her family, an aunt and cousins who live in the neighboring town. She hopes they will be able to tell her where she came from, but to her dismay, Aslaug discovers that in many ways her aunt’s house is just as strange as the home she just left. The secrets multiply until Aslaug doesn’t know what’s real and what is only a dream. But even as she plans her escape from the safe haven that has become her prison, the two people closest to her leave first–by dropping dead. And Aslaug is accused of their murder. As she enters the confusing and terrifying world of the legal system, the only source of comfort she has left is the Divine. But not even God may be able to help Aslaug now. This brilliant, densely written amalgamation of botany, religion, murder mystery, courtroom drama and dark family secrets is the twisted brainchild of newbie author Christina Meldrum. Now, I read a LOT of YA fiction, and this one stopped me dead in my tracks with its utter bizarreness. So if you want a challenging read that’s so far off the beaten track it’s practically in the MILKY WAY, dig up Madapple at your local library or bookstore.

Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande

Mena can’t believe it. In one fell swoop, she’s lost all her friends, been banned for life from her church youth group, and forever grounded by her parents. Why? Because she dared to do the RIGHT THING (more on that later). Only two things are getting her through her miserable days at school: her new hot lab partner, Casey (he of the swoon-y eyes and curly dark hair) and her radical science teacher, Ms. Shepard (she of the rumpled suits and venti Starbucks). Ms. Shepard’s interesting lectures on evolution and Darwin have really got Mena’s brain cells blazing. There’s just one problem—her former church friends. Every time Ms. Shepard mentions the “e” word, they all turn their chairs in protest. Mena is miserable. Just because she believes in God, does that mean she can’t believe in evolution? And if her old friends are such good Christians, why can’t they forgive her for doing the RIGHT THING (sorry, you’re just going to have to read the book to find out what that was—but it involves Mena helping an LGBT kid who refuses to bow to Christian peer pressure to “reform”) In EM & OFN, Robin Brande explores what it means to have faith—in God, in nature, in friendship, but most of all, in yourself. This is one articulate, well-written debut. Bravo to Brande for writing such a balanced, timely tome that humorously and sensitively addresses the current debate between intelligent design and evolution. 4 stars!

Repossessed by A.M. Jenkins

RepossessedWhen minor demon Kiriel “borrows” the body of Shaun, a teenage boy who is supposed to die when he accidentally walks into the path of an oncoming truck, he becomes fascinated by all the mundane human acts we take for granted, like seeing, breathing, and eating. But Kiriel knows he has to cram in as many Earthly experiences as possible before the Creator calls him back to his demon-ly duties. So he revels in the taste of ketchup, enjoys kissing his first girl (although he would have liked to do more) and tries to plant a few seeds of caution among the high school bullies and power brokers, in hopes that he won’t have to make their acquaintances later…downstairs. A.M. Jenkins’ inspired portrayal of a sympathetic demon and his longing to stay human, so that he might actually be NOTICED by the all-powerful (an apparently, all-too-busy) Creator, is funny, thought provoking, and surprisingly deep. Not only will you come away with a new appreciation of ketchup, but also your radical, amazing adolescence, which only happens once and will be over and done before you know it…

Godless by Pete Hautman

Godless Sixteen year old Jason Bock is getting pretty sick of the Teen Power Outreach, or TPO sessions his father is making him attend at their Catholic church. So Jason decides to create his own religion called The Church of the Ten Legged God, based on the town’s ten legged water tower as his chosen object of worship. His disciples are called Chutengodians, and include his friends Shin, Dan, Magda and Henry. Together, they decide that Tuesday will be their Sabbath, and that Chutengodians discriminate against morons, terrorists and intelligent fish. Of course, their religion includes a pilgrimage to the top of the water tower, which is where they get nailed by police for defiling the town’s water supply by swimming in it! But Jason’s got even bigger problems. He learns that not only has Shin has been compiling a book of Chutengodian mythology, but he’s actually starting to believe in it! What started out as a lark is now getting out of hand, and Jason isn’t sure what or even if he can do anything about it. Jason is learning the hard way that when you create something, you’re also responsible for it, whether you like it or not. A short, somewhat silly spiritual novel with a serious message that you can probably finish in just one Sunday (or Tuesday!) afternoon.

Lamb: The Gospel according to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore

Lamb Forget WWJD–instead, think What Did Jesus Do when he was a rock and roll teen way back in the day? According to his best friend, Biff, J.C. was a happening guy. All the girls dug him, even though he couldn’t really date, seeing that he was the son of God and all. And he really did perform all those miracles–but Biff will be sure to fill you in on all the early ones that umm, backfired a little bit. Filling where the Bible leaves off (for those of you not in the know, the Word never gives any detail about Jesus as a teenager) author Christopher Moore has provided us with a highly irreverent and completely hilarious behind the scenes view of Jesus–the sort of guy who, according to the all-too-human Biff, is almost impossible to be best friends with, because he’s, well, perfect!

Asylum for Nightface by Bruce Brooks

Asylum for Nightface Fourteen year old Zimmerman is sort of different from other guys his age in that, well, he’s pretty on fire for God. But not in a sanitized- organized-religion-kind-of-way, more like a historical-philosophical-why-are-we-all-here-kind-of-way. Which strangely enough, gets him in trouble with his rich yuppie parents who keep wondering why he doesn’t cut loose and go completely crazy like a “normal” teenager. Then, Zim’s parents get “born again” into this kooky island religion that Zimmerman sees through instantly. Suddenly, they are proclaiming that he was right all along and want to cast him in the role of “teen Messiah.” Well, Zim’s having no part of that, and what he does to throw them off his track is totally surprising. This book will leave you pondering whether the difference between right and wrong is absolute, or really just depends on the circumstance.

The Last Safe Place on Earth by Richard Peck

The Last Safe Place on Earth Todd has totally fallen for Laurel, his little sister Marnie’s babysitter. She is preppy, distant and completely mysterious. But when Marnie starts having bad dreams about evil and hellfire, Todd realizes that it’s because Laurel is filling Marnie’s head with her own special brand of Christian fundamentalism. Todd finds himself torn between his desire for Laurel and his distaste with her personal convictions. Things heat up even more when a local church group, of which Laurel’s mom is a member, pressure the school to remove certain books from the library. Todd starts thinking long and hard about his views on religion, censorship and individual responsibility. The implications and consequences of this novel will hurt your head (but in a good way).

Send Me Down a Miracle by Han Nolan

Send Me Down a Miracle It’s pretty hard being a preacher’s daughter. Between dealing with her hardcore, Bible-verse-spouting dad and making excuses for her mid-life-crisis mom, Charity Pittman is just plain tired. Then artist Adrianne Dabney swirls into town from New York City and ends up turning Charity’s whole world upside down and back to front. Adrianne locks herself up in her house for a month in complete darkness as part of a “sensory deprivation” project that she hopes will enhance her artistic vision. But the only vision she ends up having is one of Jesus Christ sitting in her living room chair. Well, when that little news item gets out, all hell breaks loose-literally. The little town becomes sharply divided between those who want to worship the “Jesus chair” and those, including Charity’s dad, who believe the chair is an instrument of the devil. Charity finds herself in the awkward position of being somewhere in the middle, since she wants to support her dad, but has also fallen under Adrianne’s intoxicating spell. A little book with a big message that suggests we’re responsible for making our own miracles.

The Singing Mountain by Sonia Levitin

The Singing Mountain Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all of a sudden the meaning of life became completely clear to you? Like, for once you finally understood the purpose in your body and soul being placed on this planet? That’s how 18 year old Mitch feels when he travels to Israel for the first time on a class trip. Suddenly, his Jewish heritage is more than just window dressing. Mitch decides that he wants to stay in Israel and study Judaism, maybe even switch over his citizenship. But Mitch’s friends and family in the United States are terrified that he has been brainwashed by some extreme Jewish group, especially his cousin Carlie. So Carlie and Mitch’s mom go to Israel in hopes of luring Mitch into coming back home, and what happens to them there changes everybody’s lives forever. A good solid story about how much identity can be shaped by religion.

Leaving Fishers by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Leaving Fishers Dorry didn’t just wake up one day and find herself somehow changed into a religious fanatic. She got that way through the insidious and careful coaxing of a group called Fishers of Men. The Fishers are a radical Christian cult that lure new-kid Dorry into their midst with bright smiles, accepting arms, and best of all–a sense of belonging in a new and bewildering high school. Dorry loves being a part of the Fishers–at first. Then she starts to notice how much the Fishers are really asking of her. She is constantly hounded to convert new members, to follow a rigid caste system within the group, even blow off homework to attend numerous Fisher meetings. Suddenly, Dorry’s not sure if she’s a devoted believer or a crazed fanatic. When Dorry is fired from her babysitting job for scaring the kids with stories of hell, she re-thinks the whole Fisher thing and decides she’ll take spirituality on her own terms–not someone else’s. An excellent read with a timely warning–that you can’t always judge a cult by its cover.