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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