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We Need More Catholic YA

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For the past two years, I’ve spent a lot of time in Utah. I met a friend online who co-founded Teen Author Boot Camp, a marvelous one-day writing experience for teen writers. They bring in YA (Young Adult) writers to teach the kids how to write through classes, from how to write a fight scene to making characters more believable.

Not only does the camp draw around 700 kids a year, but it also lands some of the biggest names in YA fiction: Brandon Sanderson, James Dashner, and Ally Condie. It’s truly an amazing experience to see kids taking notes, asking intelligent questions, and being serious about writing.

After my first experience at the boot camp, my friends and I went out to a curious bar and grill in downtown Provo, Utah—part sports bar, part upscale dining, and part dance club with a mechanical bull right in the middle of the dance floor. As I sat at the end of the table, I realized something: all of my fellow camp friends were Mormons.

During the conversation, I asked my friends to name all the Mormon writers they knew who either made a living creating YA fiction or actually made the New York Times Best Seller list. They responded with a long and impressive list of people. There is no doubt that Mormons are dominating the YA market and Catholics aren’t even close.

Why, I wondered, is that the case? Why don’t Catholics have a sustained presence in the YA market complete with a huge, supporting community that encourages it? Of course, there are exceptions such as Suzanne Collins who is Catholic and wrote The Hunger Games trilogy (although, many would argue the worldview in these books is not very Catholic at all). Regina Doman—founder of Chesterton Press, editor, and author—is another example. But, these exceptions just prove the rule: there doesn’t seem to be a sustained movement among Catholic writers to rush into the YA genre.

Again, the first question is why is that? The second is: is that such a bad thing? Many Catholic writers tend to be obsessed with our literary past and want to create more literary fiction. That, in of itself, is not a bad thing. However, as Randy Boyagoda pointed out in an article for First Things, no one is actually reading literary fiction anymore except other literary fiction types. Any influence on the wider cultural discussion is nominal, at best.

Of course, this is a shame. I love literary fiction as much as anyone. And we need Catholic writers to keep working hard on making literary fiction more accessible. But, we also need to figure out how to encourage more Catholic genre writers, especially when it comes to YA fiction. We need to get away from either/or type of thinking. And, even more, we need all Catholic writers to take their faith seriously when it comes to their writing.

So how do we do that? I’m going to offer some modest suggestions for discussion, debate, and reflection. I certainly hope my word is not the last one on this subject, so I’m hoping others will pick up the ball, even in order to disagree.

  1. Create an MFA/YA writer program at a Catholic University.
    At BYU and other places, they’ve started graduate programs designed to attract YA fiction writers. This seems like a radical leap for many, but it will allow Catholics to train the next generation of YA writers. Plus, for those who complain about the literary value of YA fiction, it gives them a chance to put their money where their critical mouth is by instructing better writers.
  2. Encourage and review YA fiction in Catholic publications.
    It’s a rare occasion that a YA book is reviewed in America, S. Catholic, or any of the major Catholic newspapers. I monitor these outlets on a regular basis as a part of my job as an editor at Ave Maria Press, and while I’m sure that such reviews happen, I’ve yet to see it. Editors need to make a more conscious choice to review YA fiction alongside other literary works.
  3. Found a Catholic YA press.
    This is a radical proposal, but an essential one. Deseret Books, the publishing arm of the Mormon Church, decided to found a separate imprint called Shadow Mountain Books, dedicated to developing positive YA fiction. None of their books are explicitly Mormon that I know of. But they’ve cultivated, developed, and launched a significant number of NYT bestselling authors.

There is no reason that any one of our Catholic presses could not do the same. We’ve got the time, the energy, and the resources to make a huge dent in the YA market through an imprint. Why, I wonder, have we not done it? It’s essential to creating a movement that will sustain itself. The publishing world is in chaos and Catholic writers no longer need to worry about breaking into the “big five” of New York publishers. All we need is the money (plenty of that in the Catholic world), the time, and the will.

In the end, I hope to see more Catholics writing YA novels for a variety of reasons. But the most important one is: we need to work harder at bringing the Catholic imagination into today’s culture.

Featured Photo: Pesky Librarians; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.

Jonathan Ryan

Jonathan Ryan is a critically acclaimed supernatural thriller writer and co-founder of Sick Pilgrim, an online community dedicated to re-enchanting the world through the Catholic faith. His spiritual memoir, co-authored with Jessica Mesman Griffith, will be released Fall 2017 by Loyola Press.