by , under books, thinking

Since I wrote about Ilja, de kleine ganzenridder I’ve been wondering why so few children’s books have religion (or its trappings, like going to church, celebrating feasts, or even prayer) as a normal part of the background. It’s easy to say “because religion isn’t a normal part of life any more” but I’ve read lots of books written when it was and even those don’t have it as a normal part of the background. Whenever religion crops up, it’s immediately a theme of the book. Apparently, you can’t write with religion without writing explicitly about it. This goes for bog-standard mainstream Christianity too, not only for things that are fraught with issues already like Islam or some sect. I’ve come to expect a book with religion to be about a Big Religious Issue, most likely something nasty like an abusive father who thinks he has God-given authority.

Strangely, that doesn’t happen with things like sports or┬ámusic (well, perhaps music a little), but it does happen with non-mainstream sexuality (cue Heather Has Two Mommies), culture, ethnicity… It’s hard to find anything with one of those things in it that doesn’t have it as the main issue. And if it is part of the background, it tends to stick out like a sore thumb that it’s been put in deliberately to conform to some arbitrary standard of diversity, not because the world has diversity in it, but because there’s a kind of quotum of diversity that one should be honouring.

I’m writing, very intermittently, a space-opera story. It wasn’t until something made one of the protagonists blush, and I had to ask a friend whose children are black what it looks like when they blush, that I realised how dark Marty is. Linda is sort of average-human golden brown, perhaps vaguely Middle American. They’re a couple. And yet I didn’t set out to write a story about “lesbian women of colour IN SPAAAAACE!!” but it started with Marty’s voice describing Linda’s personality. I don’t expect anyone to want to publish that even if I manage to finish it, exactly because it’s not about lesbian women of colour in space. It’s about escape from an alien zoo, done by some humans and an ape, and two of the group happen to be lesbian women of colour in space. The way two other humans are heterosexual white people in space, and the fifth is a man of Arabic ancestry and unknown sexuality in space, and there’s also Sarah, quite an intelligent female chimp who will run errands for food. In space. I haven’t put any of those things in deliberately to avoid discriminating against black women, brown women, blonde women, men of any description, or chimpanzees; it’s just what happens to be in the story.

Also, now that we’re exploring other countries in the world where Valdyas is, it turns out that “most people in the world are various shades of brown” as Raith puts it. It’s only in Valdyas and Velihas that people are pale, generally. I don’t put that in deliberately because I feel there should be brown people; I write about other parts of the world, or run games in other parts of the world, or other people do that, and we encounter brown people because it’s normal for them to live there. As it’s normal for pale people with red or brown or blonde hair to live in Valdyas and Velihas.


  1. Zeborah

    I know a bunch of places (both pro and semi-pro) that would actually prefer stories about such characters rather than stories about such issues, precisely because in mainstream fiction (both literary and sf) you mostly only get an X character if the story’s about being X. Can scrounge up a list for you if/when you want it.

  2. Irina

    Yes, please! That will perhaps be an incentive to actually finish it (not this week, though; I have a bad case of translation).

  3. Karin Margareta

    You are very right about religion being invisible in literature in general, but my first thought was actually: no, that’s wrong, I have seen plenty of everyday religion in children’s stories. I thought some more, and rephased it: I have seen plenty of everyday religion in Astrid Lindgren’s stories.

    Astrid wrote about a society where religion was important common normal, and where most people were religious, at least in the general sense — they went to church, they believed that there is a god (or perhaps assumed that there is a god), they were respectful towards the local clergyman, they celebrated Easter and Christmas, etc. I think she made an issue of it sometimes, but most often not, in my opinion.

    She also wrote about societies where religion was less visible, or less public, but I think there tends to be a kind of resonance, if you look for it.

    • Irina

      Wow yes, Astrid Lindgren, I’d forgotten all about that. *puts the Dutch version of “Mio, min Mio” on the virtual reread pile* Thanks!

  4. Irina

    Also, this. Wants YA with characters who are whatever they are without it being an issue. Phrases it similarly to the above but more vociferously.


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