Faith and good works
Mormon writers find their niche in wholesome young adult genre
MAYNARD - Julie Berry's first novel is a fairy tale with a prince and a witch and love and despair. But there's no swearing, and no sex. The novel is, she grudgingly admits, wholesome.
And that's what links Berry, of Maynard, and other Mormon writers, many of them young women, who are surging into the genre of young adult literature, finding a happy marriage between the expectations of their religion and the desires of a burgeoning publishing niche.
The most famous among them, of course, is Stephenie Meyer, a practicing Mormon from Arizona whose "Twilight" series, about a teenage girl who has a no-sex-before-marriage relationship with a dreamy adolescent vampire, has sold an astonishing 28 million books and spawned a film that has already grossed $188 million.
None of the other Mormon authors has achieved that kind of success, but Shannon Hale's "Princess Academy" was a New York Times bestseller and a Newbery Honor Winner, and the success of "Twilight," as well as the Harry Potter series, by non-Mormon writer J.K. Rowling, is clearly spurring new interest in fiction for teenagers.
That Mormon writers have come to loom large in an increasingly popular literary genre can be linked to several unique characteristics of their faith and culture: an aversion to the sex and swearing that prevails in adult fiction, a propensity for large families that often means a child-focused life, and an affinity for fantasy writing.
Just this week, Berry's novel, "The Amaranth Enchantment," is being published by Bloomsbury, "Everything Is Fine," by Ann Dee Ellis, is being published by Hachette, and "Taken By Storm," by Angela Morrison, is being published by Penguin. And in May, St. Martin's Press is publishing "The Chosen One," a novel about a 13-year-old living in a polygamist community, by Carol Lynch Williams. All the authors are Mormon, and all the target audiences are the adolescent readers referred to by publishers as young adults.
"Over the years there has been a steady increase in Mormons who are publishing, whether in illustration, picture book, or the middle-grade marketplace," said Williams, a Utah-based writer who for the last decade has been running a summer conference on "writing and illustrating for young readers" at Brigham Young University.
The conference each year attracts agents to travel from Manhattan to Provo, hoping to find the next big thing.
"Most every year, somebody else sells something at the conference," Williams said. "And we've had editors who have come out and said, what the heck is in the water here?"
Writers, scholars, agents, and publishers interviewed for this story offer several other possible explanations for why Mormon women are emerging as authors of young adult literature. Some suggest that Mormon writers are drawn to young adult literature because the norms of their faith make it harder to succeed as writers of contemporary adult fiction.
"It's true that there are aspects of contemporary adult literature that I'm less comfortable with, and a romance that doesn't end in sex would seem ridiculous to a contemporary American audience," Berry said. "Young adult literature is one of the last places where you can tell a wonderful story without having to be sexual."
Mormons generally avoid R-rated movies, and many Mormon book clubs read only young adult literature. The church issues official guidance to young men and women advising them to "choose only entertainment and media that uplift you" and warning them "do not attend, view, or participate in entertainment that is vulgar, immoral, violent, or pornographic in any way."
"There is a compatibility of Mormon culture and young adult literature - there's just a certain comfort level," said Chris Crowe, a professor of English at BYU. "Fantasy has pretty clear boundaries of right and wrong, good and evil, and you can deal with personal beliefs or religious values in settings other than the contemporary one. It's compatible with the way they want to tell stories."
Others suggest that, because Mormonism is a very child-centered culture and many Mormon families are large, Mormons are particularly attuned to young audiences. And there also seems to be a high level of appreciation for fantasy literature in Mormondom - a phenomenon that is striking because it contrasts with the critiques of wizardry and magic often heard from evangelical Protestants, who, like Mormons, are often socially conservative.
"With a lot of conservative religions - and Mormonism would definitely qualify - there is a taboo against fantasy concepts, against magic, and you hear people speaking against Harry Potter," said Hale, the author of "Princess Academy."
"But there's never been any fear of fantasy or science fiction among Mormons. I think Mormons believe a lot of things that are pretty fantastic - we believe in miracles and angels and ancient prophets and rediscovered Scripture - so maybe it is almost natural for us to dive into these other stories."
Berry, a 34-year-old mother of four boys, was, like many Mormons, an avid journal-writer, and she has worked as a technical writer and also penned columns for the MetroWest Daily News. But she took to fiction only recently, enrolling in the masters program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, approaching an agent, and selling her novel on the first try. She writes late at night, and is working on a series for young girls, a book aimed at boys, and a mystery for middle-grade children.
"I know motherhood is the most important thing I'll do in my life, but there's something about motherhood that makes you feel like you're disappearing - it kind of effaces and erodes you," she said. "I came into writing as a gift, and . . . I really feel like it rescued me. Those first years I would thank God every day for giving me writing."
The youngest of seven children growing up in a Mormon family in Medina, N.Y., Berry said she always loved children's literature and her interest extended into adulthood. She said she read the Narnia series and "Bridge to Terabithia" as a child, Lloyd Alexander while nursing babies; in her small office there is a complete set of the Harry Potter series, and the Tolkien books. She is now leading herself on a self-taught journey through books for adults, starting with "The Histories" by Herodotus, "The Odyssey" by Homer, "The Republic" by Plato, "Confessions" by St. Augustine, and the "Divine Comedy" by Dante.
And, every day since she was 9, she has read either the Bible or the Book of Mormon.
"I've been spoon-fed a diet of biblical literature that has fed my imagination," she said. "Scripture is the ultimate fantastic literature. Everything else is milquetoast compared to the parting of the Red Sea."
Berry's novel tells the story of an orphaned girl, Lucinda Chapdelaine, who is raised by her unkind step-aunt, befriended by an immortal witch from another world, and yearns for a prince who, sadly, is distracted by a beautiful princess. There is a magical gem and an evil courtier and dances and carriages and gardens. Lucinda once or twice says a prayer or says the word "God," but, as with many of the novels by Mormon writers aimed at the general public, there is no explicit religious content.
"I didn't want to write a moralistic fable, or an overtly religious story," Berry said.
In Vermont - the home state of Mormonism's founder, Joseph Smith, and his successor, Brigham Young - the Vermont program has experienced a striking number of Mormon students in its MFA program in writing for children and young adults.
"Nobody ever says, 'Oh, wow, there's eight Catholic students in the program,' but if you're Mormon, it's noticeable, and when the faculty are sitting around at night having a drink, they do talk about it," said Martine Leavitt of Alberta, Canada, who is the only Mormon faculty member at the Vermont college. Leavitt suggests that Mormon writers - including herself - are drawn to young adult literature partly as a rejection of trends in contemporary fiction.
"Young adult literature is a place where we can still be in love with story," she said. "There really is meaning, and there is such a thing as a happy ending."
Michael Paulson can be reached at email@example.com.