The fantastic world of the Mormon mom

I’ve never been one of those parents who worries about exposing her kids to fantasy worlds, whether they be those of of J.K. Rowling, Lemony Snicket, or C.S. Lewis. Reading them and talking about them together allows their young minds to stretch their imaginations and distinguish truth from fiction.

I wasn’t put off by Stephenie Meyer’s (Twilight) biting fictional account of life among vampires, although I did rapidly grow tired of the hero’s pale face and marble skin. My 13-year-old daughter loved every minute of the books, the movie, the marketing…

What I (and perhaps many other readers) didn’t know is that Meyer is not the only Mormon mother writing fantasy fiction for teenagers. Last week the Boston’s Globe’s Michael Paulson took a look at how Mormon women are increasingly moving into the young adult niche with tales marked by the lack of explicit sex and sometimes explicit morality.

The lede introduces us to a local Massachusetts Mormon author whose first novel is about to be published:

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.

After recounting what appears to be at least a boomlet in young adult fantasy books by female Mormom writers, Paulson hypothesizes that there may be three reasons connected to Mormon culture and faith–”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.”

His extensive interviews with writers and scholars, and his quotations from church policy shape the story, not the other way around.

“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.”

This story works because Paulson allows Julie Berry to tell her own story, which threads the article, in counterpoint to quotes from scholars and people in the publishing industry. He examines a persistent theme in conservative Christian circles about whether fantasy is appropriate for children, but in a way that spotlights the emerging role of Mormon women writers. The unique voices of these women come through.

We’re not talking hot Mormon mommas. But we are talking hot Mormon writers. One question Paulson doesn’t ask is whether these book are more likely to appeal to girls instead of boys, and how the female characters are portrayed in relationship to the male ones.

Something is going on here, folks (do I sound like Tmatt?). Paulson’s story is another sign that Mormons, for a long time sidelined in debates about politics and culture, may be entering the mainstream. Paulson doesn’t get too heavily into doctrinal matters here (he only has so much space to tell the story), although one of the writers alludes to them when she talks about “miracles and angels and ancient prophets and rediscovered Scriptures.” But he does describe the general cultural context. As journalists attempt to assess the evolving role of this growing denomination in American life (and in other cultures, where it is apparently thriving), hopefully we’ll get more on the doctrine, too. Yet the Mormon writer trend, or trendlet in young adult fantasy books are another milestone that may indicate that our national conversation around both literature and religion is becoming more diverse, whether we notice it or not.

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  • Jettboy

    “hopefully we’ll get more on the doctrine, too”

    Um, we did get plenty when Romney ran more than we got his political beliefs. What happened? A terrible examination of Mormon theology mentioning the most provocative beliefs outside of context and nuance. Get Religion writers themselves, if I remember correctly, came to the conclusion reporters don’t respect any religion unless it is Liberal. Any theology they respect and understand even less. Hopefully news reporters will stay out of doctrinal issues.

  • FW Ken

    Elizabeth, you tempt me to go find my Zenna Henderson books and start re-reading them. I also like Orson Scott Card, but he’s not a woman, and I should stay sort of close to the subject! Both of them, however, have written stories that are Mormon in much the same way as The Lord of the Rings is Catholic.

    And interesting portal into the world of Mormon writers:

  • Jerry

    FW Ken,

    I’ve loved the Zenna Henderson “people” stories for many decades. She was obviously a teacher from her stories and clearly knew something about the Western US. Her writing displays a negative view of “witch burning” fear-based religion and a positive view of spirituality, but the reference to her in your cite did not seem to me to be a reference to Mormon beliefs. Maybe that something about her ability as a writer and maybe something about me. But in any event I share your recommendation of her stories.

    I think that highlights one point of the article. A story can flow from someone’s religious beliefs without chapter and verse being easily discovered.

  • FW Ken

    Jerry -

    I know she was raised Mormon because I read it on the Zenna Henderson Homepage, although one of her later stories had an element that struck me as specifically Mormon. However, I already knew she was raised Mormon (from the Zenna Henderson Homepage to which I linked), so I may have been reading into the story. Certainly, I read the People stories in the 60s and assumed classical Christianity (gathering “in the Presence, the Name, and the Power”). From the Homepage:

    One interesting aspect about the People stories is the strong degree to which very different groups of people identify with it: Christians (including such different camps as Evangelicals, Catholics and Latter-day Saints), GLBT, Wiccans, and Jews have all recommended Henderson’s People stories. The stories, with their exclusivity and isolation from the broader culture combined with extreme inclusivity and compassion for one’s own tribe, have struck a chord with many people who feel pulled by two different worlds.

    And, yes, that is a testament to the quality of her storytelling.

  • Jerry

    FW Ken,

    I only clicked on the link not the one to her home page.

    Certainly, I read the People stories in the 60s and assumed classical Christianity

    I read them during the 60′s as well thought of them as “spiritual but not religious”. So yes, you’re right about how people can find different things in her stories.

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  • Gina

    I hope you also got tired of — or rather, alarmed by — things like the hero dictating to the heroine what she’s allowed to do and where she’s allowed to go, or the heroine waking up the day after her wedding night with bruises all over her body.

    Chastity is a good thing and we do need much more of it in teen literature. But there’s a lot more to these books than that, and some of their attitudes are downright scary.

  • Tracy Hall Jr

    I wrote Paulson to thank him for his interesting and carefully researched article, noting that I could not recall any other journalist having ever quoted from the Church’s booklet For the Strength of Youth, which exemplifies the connection the Church makes between doctrine and practice

    Such guidance, coming from Church elders who are themselves great-grandparents, helps our teens to chart a steady course while many of their peers “are like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.” (James 1:6)


  • Paul

    It’s hard to use ‘Mormon’ and ‘aversion to sex’ in the same sentence. They have many taboos but sex isn’t one of them. We had to send in the US Army to occupy Utah to get Mormons to comply with marital laws of rest of the country. Ancient history, of course, but big families are very much encouraged by the Mormon church. Rural fundamentalist Mormons, clearly condemned by the main church, still present a big problem trying to evade polygamy laws and ultimately respect for the US institution of marriage.

    No surprise that writing these books provides an outlet of expression, but its not exactly age appropriate or presenting acceptable moral standards.

  • John W. Morehead

    The significance of fantasy, science fiction, and even “mild” horror/romance to Mormon culture is significant. I recently presented a paper at the Life, the Universe & Everything Symposium on sci fi at Brigham Young University in Utah which suggested that given the interest in speculative fiction among segments of the LDS and Protestant evangelical populations, that cinefantastique, or the cinema of the fantastic, might serve as a venue for interreligious dialogue. Copies of my paper are available by request for those who would like to consider my proposal which would add another dimension to our dialogical efforts.

  • Tony


    The section particularly caught my eye:

    “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.”

    Are you really honoring God by suggesting to people that it’s okay to fall in love with someone who is evil? Unless, of course, you can show that some vampires are godly.

    I suspect this Mormon is a person who really doesn’t know what it means to produce holy fruit.