Interfaith sci fi for 7th graders?
May 29, 2011 2:38 PM   Subscribe

Looking for suggestions for a novel for Jewish/Christian 7th graders that explores religion-- extra points for sci fi!

I'm looking for some suggestions for a book for a class of 7th grade (13 yrs old) interfaith kids who I'll be guiding for our congregation's coming of age preparatory class. Last year the 7th grade class read "Godless" by Pete Hautman, which was excellent, but this year they want to try a new book.

Some features we'd like to have in the book:
--It establishes this class as a forum where they’re not only permitted to speak their mind, they’re encouraged to do so
--It gets into and sparks discussion about the same questions our entire course circles around, such as "why should I care?" "How do I relate with God?" "Who am I, spiritually?" "How do I label myself?"
--It breaks down the components of religion in a way that we can discuss them individually and dispassionately

I'm also curious if there are any sci fi or fantasy novels that would fit the bill. I love those genres, but I'm having trouble thinking of good suggestions. Anyway, would welcome the hive mind's ideas.
posted by akabobo to Religion & Philosophy (31 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Have you thought about The Sparrow? I also suggest Contact in another thread this weekend and think it could potentially fit the bill for you guys too.

The trouble I see is that so much of science fiction defines itself antagonistically to religion that many of the books that raise the most interesting questions may be perceived as too atheist or even hostile for your group.
posted by gerryblog at 2:42 PM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Another suggestion: VALIS or Radio Free Albemuth from Philip K. Dick.
posted by gerryblog at 2:48 PM on May 29, 2011

I think a lot of Madeleine L'Engle's young adult books would fit your criteria -- both the well-known Wrinkle in Time series but also any of the books featuring the O'Keefe children. The ones with the Austin children have quite a bit about self-realization/why does evil exist, etc., but not really any of the sci-fi/fantasy stuff.
posted by frobozz at 2:50 PM on May 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

A Case of Conscience?
A Canticle for Leibowitz?

They are not YA but I can't think of any YA that would fill your bill.

The L'Engle books are a good suggestion.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 2:54 PM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
posted by Sys Rq at 3:03 PM on May 29, 2011

The Sparrow would be an excellent choice. I've heard that the sequel, Children of God, is good as well.
posted by rossination at 3:05 PM on May 29, 2011

The Sparrow is very positive towards many religious traditions -- and atheists -- but is quite possibly too heavy for 12 and 13 year olds. It can be a very upsetting book, though I think it fits the bill well. You should read it first and decide if it is appropriate for your group. (I thought the sequel was horrible.)

If you're willing to take things less seriously, there's always stuff like Good Omens or American Gods, though the first is fairly exclusively Christian, and the second mentions Jesus once and Judaism not at all. Orson Scott Card, of course, has very Christian themes in his books; Jane Yolen often has Jewish themes in hers.
posted by jeather at 3:19 PM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

The short story "The Star" (aka "The Star of Bethlehem") by Arthur C. Clarke.
posted by orthogonality at 3:19 PM on May 29, 2011

Riddley Walker - the fragmentary survival of Christian legend in a post-apocalyptic world where although there's only a dim notion of a godhead the protagonist undergoes a pilgrimage of sorts religious themes abound. Would certainly enrich a discussion of the questions you list; doesn't exactly set out the components of religion but you have, for example, the way the Eusa story has been constructed and the purposes it serves.
, the notion of original sin and so on.
posted by Abiezer at 3:21 PM on May 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

Not Sci-Fi but My Name is Asher Lev. It entertwines both Judaism and Christianity and is a wonderful novel.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:25 PM on May 29, 2011

If you don't mind having to explain (or have them read) Ender's Game, then Orson Scott Card's "A War of Gifts" might work. It's on the short side, but is explicitly about interfaith relations in a science fiction setting.
posted by SMPA at 3:25 PM on May 29, 2011

Yeah, I forsee problems with teaching The Sparrow to 7th graders. I don't think that is going to fly. Might as well suggest the Priest's Tale or the Scholar's Tale in Hyperion at that point.

A Canticle for Leibowitz may be a good choice.
posted by Justinian at 3:33 PM on May 29, 2011

I read 'A Canticle for Leibowitz' in junior high, and IIRC it was assigned reading, (and more interesting than 'Goodbye, Mr. Chips'). So I'll second that recommendation.
posted by bashos_frog at 3:34 PM on May 29, 2011

Also, I believe that parts of Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles" dealt heavily with religious themes.
posted by bashos_frog at 3:35 PM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Exile's Honor pretty neatly encapsulates a sort of idealist, liberal take on identity, religion, and individual responsibility. It's probably just about right for 7th graders too. It's not tremendously subtle, but it's a fun read and would probably work really well in an interfaith setting.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:44 PM on May 29, 2011

Yes, the Sparrow is a terrible book for kids this age -- I found it a fairly traumatic read in college -- and would almost certainly require parental permission, where you'd get to explain the alien anal rape scenes.

I can't really think of any NOVELS that break down the elements of religion for individual and dispassionate discussion, but perhaps you might find an appropriate non-fiction text and use short stories to illustrate various points? Off the top of my head, both Ursula LeGuin and Madeline L'Engle have written short stories that deal with various aspects of religious faith. Even "The Giving Tree" and other popular children's books might fit in that case.

On a different note, if you can be multimedia, I loved the show "State of Grace" which was on ABC Family (I think) for two years, about two little girls in the South who were best friends, one Catholic and one Jewish. As a Catholic girl with a Jewish BFF, I related. :)

I was in college as a theology student when "Keeping the Faith" came out and, lame (IMO) Jenna Elfman plot aside, a lot of my priest, minister, and rabbi professors LOVED the move for the realistic and generous representation of a friendship between two leaders of two different faiths. It raises plenty of issues relating to faith, though sometimes in a slapsticky manner.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:56 PM on May 29, 2011

A lot of these are terrible suggestions for thirteen year olds. Riddley Walker is one of my favorite-ever books, but it's not accessible for that age group at all.

I don't know when your class is happening, but the upcoming book Glow by Amy Kathleen Ryan deals with two spaceships, one populated by a religious group, and one by a group of unbelievers. Haven't read it yet, but it might fit the bill.

The His Dark Materials series is an exploration of the way man perverts religion for power, and should spur interesting discussion. L'Engle's science fiction uses Christian precepts, but except for An Acceptable Time (which is awful), it doesn't really explore religious identity at all.

The Chaim Potok suggestion is a great one. The Chosen is also a good non-genre read.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:19 PM on May 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh, another one that I haven't read but might work: Armageddon Summer by Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:21 PM on May 29, 2011

The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis.
posted by BurntHombre at 4:50 PM on May 29, 2011

While not explicitly religious, I think Lois Lowry's "The Giver" might work. It's sci-fi, it's definitely YA without at all being squishy or lame, and it explores questions that I'd say have some relationship to questions raised by religious faith. The Wikipedia summary is pretty good; if you haven't read the book & you don't mind having the story "spoiled" for you, I would check it out.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 4:59 PM on May 29, 2011

Nthing "The Martian Chronicles," but with the added suggestion of looking at "The Fire Balloons." This short story is about a group of priests who go to Mars, in theory to convert the natives. What happens is, in fact, something totally different, something that transcends narrow conceptions of appropriate religious practices and shows the men a spirituality that is both foreign and beautiful.

From Wikipedia: "The Fire Balloons (November 2002/2033)

"First appeared as "…In This Sign" in Imagination, April 1951.

"A missionary expedition of Episcopal priests from the United States anticipates sins unknown to them on Mars. Instead, they meet ethereal creatures glowing as blue flames in crystal spheres, who have left behind the material world, and thus have escaped sin.

"This story appeared only in The Silver Locusts, the British edition of The Martian Chronicles, the 1974 edition from The Heritage Press, The "40th Anniversary Edition" from Doubleday Dell Publishing Group and in the 2001 Book-of-the-Month Club edition. It otherwise appeared in The Illustrated Man."
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:01 PM on May 29, 2011

For kids that age, both The Giver and The Chosen (both above) are definitely worth looking into.
posted by charmedimsure at 6:18 PM on May 29, 2011

The Giver is definitely a story in a sci-fi-ish setting that is neither totally for nor against religion, although it might actually be a little immature for some 13-year-olds (it was on my grade 4 class bookshelf). On the other hand, it was assigned reading for some of my friends in junior high.

Sophie's World? Narrative fiction that's basically about the philosophical canon of the West, probably most enjoyably read as YA. Then there are the junior high school classics: Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, Lord of the Flies, 1984. I think Brave New World most explicitly fits your criteria.
posted by scribbler at 6:48 PM on May 29, 2011

Dare I recommend Stranger in a Strange Land? Well it was the first thing that came to mind when I saw the question. The next thoughts I had were of Chaim Potok, which I hated when I was forced to read in 7th grade, but enjoyed on re-reading a few years later.
posted by jeffamaphone at 7:12 PM on May 29, 2011

I'm not sure if the religious references are obvious enough (& they are certainly not positive in many cases) but perhaps The Knife of Never Letting Go? Great book, the right age range and brings up many questions about responsibility, choice and human imperfections.
posted by Cuke at 8:08 PM on May 29, 2011

I came in here to recommend CS Lewis' Space Trilogy, but someone beat me to it. Even as an agnostic teenager the religious themes made quite an impression on me.

The Philip K. Dick novels recommended above are more or less incomprehensible (even to adult, seasoned PKD readers who are familiar with their autobiographical aspects) and definitely not age-appropriate.
posted by neckro23 at 9:57 PM on May 29, 2011

I think the His Dark Materials series could be really interesting, but only if the kids are really willing to critically engage with the problems with it; the young characters (IMO) end up being the tools of the adults around them much of the time and so don't end up having to struggle with choices as much as they could. And the way he treats religion is generally quite negative, but really interesting. You'd have to commit to the whole series (all three books) to really get to the Big Questions though.

I thought of The Giver too, but it is more children's than it is YA.

This is also *just* the right age for Ender's Game. I have really mixed feelings about OSC, because since he's gotten successful enough to get away with it he's really been using his fiction as a platform for his own views, and his fantasy is riddled with misogyny, but Ender's Game really made an impression on me when I was around 11-12. The subplot that deals with Alai's faith is really beautiful, if I'm recalling it correctly.
posted by NoraReed at 1:58 AM on May 30, 2011

You could try Sylvia Engdahl's Heritage of the Star, also published as This Star Shall Abide. It's the first of a trilogy but works on its own. It was published in Puffin so must be fairly accessible to thirteen year-olds. Author's website. Lots of discussion of issues around faith and truth.
posted by paduasoy at 5:23 AM on May 30, 2011

A Canticle for Liebowitz is not really appropriate for a faith eduction curriculum. It's a great novel, pretty decently deconstructs religion into a social construct that people distract themselves with whilst hurtling through space, and ends up pretty depressing, really.

I'd rather see kids read Chaim Potok's The Chosen (not at all sci-fi, though)
posted by carlh at 6:12 AM on May 30, 2011

Another note on a previous comment: His Dark Materials is blatantly anti-Catholic. As a protestant reader and no apologist for Catholicism, I found it ridiculously heavy handed. It's quite spiteful against God as a concept and against all organized religion as a construct. Not appropriate for a faith based curriculum whatsoever. The fantasy setting was cool, but the author's prejudices were obnoxious.
posted by carlh at 6:18 AM on May 30, 2011

I'd recommend C.S. Lewis' most ambitious work, The Magician's Nephew.

Though written sixth in the chronicles of Narnia, the book offers a preface to the series and explains who Jadis, the Evil Queen is, and how she came to be in Narnia, gives some explanation for the lamp post in the middle of the woods and other interesting elements in the series, and more importantly has a lot of the themes you are looking for.

For example, Jadis has apparently been reckoned to Satan by some Christian theologists; when I read the book, I assumed her to represent Lillith in Judaism.

You will find parallels to Genesis, the Atlantis myth and Pandora's box (see the Wikipedia entry I linked) as well.

I found the book darker and more sinister in tone than the other Narnia books, and thus less childish, though it also has its moments of humor. Surprisingly, the Wikipedia article says others see the work as one of Lewis's lighter works. Whichever way you view it, I think it is appropriate for your age group and will spark discussion and debate.
posted by misha at 8:17 AM on May 30, 2011

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