Back home in North Carolina for a visit, writer Melissa Walker first heard the term "hell house" from a friend's mom. "Oh, what's that?" she asked.
The productions, usually held near Halloween, are haunted houses used by evangelical Christians to teach about the wages of sins. Each room presents a graphic set piece of consequences; there are bloody abortions, tortured suicides, deadly alcohol-fueled accidents.
Walker's jaw dropped.
That led to a 2006 story on the practice for ELLEgirl magazine, where she then worked. Yet after the piece was done, the experience lingered. What had attracted her was a story promising a potent mix of political hot button issues, timely topics and teens. "That was there, but there were also these cool, thoughtful and engaged teenagers who were 100 percent convinced that this was the best way to bring people to God," Walker said. "They never left my mind. I thought 'I have to delve into that world a little more.' "
With the recently released "Small Town Sinners" (Bloomsbury), the Chapel Hill native and young adult novelist does just that. The book tells the story of a pastor's daughter, yearning for a lead role in a hell house production, just as she begins to question all she thought she believed.
Good girl, small town
The book's theme puts Walker among a growing number of YA authors who are exploring faith. That makes sense; a recent global survey conducted in 24 countries revealed that 73 percent of those under 35 say their religion/faith is important in their life.
Vicky Smith, children's and teen editor at Kirkus Reviews, attributes the trend to the breadth and depth of the YA genre, and perhaps, a response to the plethora of vampire and zombie teen books. But she also sees more.
"There's a general respect for faith and many different types of faith. It's so deeply tied to an individual's identity," she said, adding that faith also provides an enduring theme. "It's an easy vehicle to frame the teen desire to define themselves, and to rebel against that."
In "Small Town Sinners," Lacey Anne is a good girl in a small town, firmly grounded in her faith, who yearns to be a little less perfect. She's eager for her first kiss too. Her two best friends are Starla Joy, a child of divorce with a beautiful older sister, and Dean, a creative emo type. The plot is propelled by the mysterious return of an old friend, Ty. He could be her first love. But he also asks questions that challenge her to distinguish between what she believes and what she's been taught to believe, and opens her eyes to contradictions within those she trusts most. Along the way, the friends face bullying, teen pregnancy, gender inequality and more.
Walker's book has notes of rebellion, but she handles the matter sensitively. "I felt there were so many potential land mines," she said. "I didn't want to do a disservice to anyone." Instead, Lacey Anne stays true to what she's learned, even as she grows.
"I wanted to stay in this world, to push the bubble a little bit, but not in a crazy way. I wouldn't have Lacey Ann run off to New York. When it's only a slight shift, it feels true." Impressively, the parents in "Small Town Sinners" are as nuanced as the youth. They're allowed to parent, to be misunderstood and yet they're not villainized. "Parents are hard, they're not big characters in YA novels," Walker said. "But it was important that their point of view be represented."
Re-creating the culture of faith wasn't difficult, Walker said. She grew up regularly attending a Methodist church (of her faith now she says; "I'm still figuring out what I believe."), but the work shifted as she started it, back in 2007, away from the more strident fire-and-brimstone approach of hell houses. "I didn't know it was going to be a quieter reflection of faith," she said.
So far, reviews have been positive, with The New York Times calling her book a "quietly astute story" and Publishers Weekly saying the work is "both tender and provocative."
Walker, meanwhile, has had her own milestone. At the end of July, she gave birth to a daughter. She says she's not sure how she and her husband, who is Jewish, will handle the faith issue. "I think we have this idea that we're going to find all these children's books on different faiths and she'll know the stories (of different religions) and then she can decide whether to explore anyone of them further."
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