It’s time for our “What I’m Reading” feature for June, and this month I’m doing a YA (Young Adult) focus. I’ve got three very different but EXCELLENT books for younger readers that can help them think, process difficult things, and grow in their faith. Plus they’re really well written.
1. Swimming Through Clouds by Rajdeep Paulus
One of your main jobs as a teen is to make sense of a life over which you have very little control. You feel like an adult, but you can’t act like an adult.
In a functional home that’s easy. In a dysfunctional home that’s not.
In Swimming Through Clouds, Rajdeep weaves a poignant but realistic tale of an abused teenage girl trying to live between “what if and what is”, as main character Talia explains in her journal. She’s trying to leave the reality of the mess of her life behind and fly to a place in her mind where things are peaceful, where fear is gone, and where dreams are possible.
For senior high school student Talia life has never made sense. In fact, life has never even really been lived–it’s been tolerated and endured. She says, “Time is my enemy. I fear her more than the dark.” She lives with a cruel, controlling father. He allows her and her brother no friends, no fun, and no dreams. Their lives are lived by lists–lists of tasks they must complete, or face dire physical consequences. When Talia’s brother Jesse gives up and tries to commit suicide, he suffers horrible injuries. And now she can’t escape the house, because to do so would mean leaving Jesse behind.
And so she feels helpless. Trapped. But as a friend reaches out and patiently tries to chip through the walls that she has built up around herself, her life begins to have glimmers of hope.
As you read this book you find yourself rooting for Talia as she discovers new things about her past, and her mother’s death, and her father’s job. And we’re reminded that all around us are kids who are hurting, and who desperately need someone to reach out to them–not just once, but repeatedly. We need to be patient, and keep trying despite the rebuffs. Those who are truly hurt cannot trust easily.
It’s a gripping tale, and young people are drawn towards tales of injustice, so I know they will appreciate this one. And it opens up questions like, who do you turn to when life is difficult? How much should you divulge to a friend? And how much can you trust those in authority–like teachers, police, the courts?
The main questions it leaves for kids, though, whether those kids come from healthy homes or not, is “are you going to make choices and control your future, or are you going to give up and just let life happen?” That’s a question that confronts every young person. It’s scary to step out in the unknown. It’s scary to make yourself vulnerable. And it’s tempting, alluring, to feel as if we have no choice. It’s tempting to feel as if we’re just trapped in the place that we grow up, and our future isn’t something that we can expand. Even when our present is lousy, choice is intimidating for many. And as Talia is forced to make a choice that will forever change the course of her life and her brother’s life, we see the world opening up to her.
Whether a teen grows up abused or not, most teens feel misunderstood, alone, and scared. And to kids, as they wrestle through these issues, Rajdeep shows us gently that God does give us choices, and we can escape the past. We don’t have to live in that fairytale world so many teens create in their heads, where they go to escape from the fear of rejection. We can reach out, ask for help, and make choices that carve our own lives, rather than leave us defined by parents, or by impossible cliques at school, or by adults who don’t understand.
Swimming Through Clouds is a great story (I had to read it all in one sitting!), and your teens will enjoy it.
Do you have a prodigal in your life? Someone who has wandered from you, and from God, and is just breaking your heart? Mom Sharon Cavers and daughter Amy Jackson have teamed up to the write Cut the Strings, the true story of a prodigal daughter–and the mother who had to let her go and find her own way.
Sharon and her husband Bill raised three daughters. Amy is the youngest. The older two never rebelled and always loved God. But Amy starting wandering in her high school days. In trying to explain the allure of a drug/alcohol lifestyle, Amy says, “If you’re going to do something you may as well do it all the way, right? Nobody likes a faker.” She had such a fear of being a hypocrite, that she decided to pounce all in to a dangerous life.
And it was dangerous. The book describes her foray into alcohol, drugs, and eventually an abortion. It describes how she was living, and the physical toll it was taking on her. But it’s not lurid–it’s just enough to help you to see that her rebellion was not something minor. And it helps those reading it to get a clear picture of how lonely and destructive it is to get high and drunk all the time.
The majority of the struggle of the book, though, is not Amy’s but Sharon’s. What do you do when you raised your child to love God, and that child is choosing things that you can see are hurting her terribly? And so she prays, and tries to let go, and tries to keep the lines of communication open by not lecturing, even when she sees the alcohol bottles in Amy’s apartment. And through it all, over the course of the years of Amy’s wandering, God whispers to Sharon. He says, “You have a rebellious daughter. But in her rebellion she does not walk outside the circle of my love.”
Over the years Sharon struggles with what to pray and how to pray. And often she struggles alone. She says, “My pride kept me from sharing.” And so she didn’t always tell those in church and in her Bible study what she was going through. Sometimes her fear was justified–there were those who seemed to take glee in seeing a child fail. And she was scared of the advice that other Christians would give, because as the problems with Amy became more complex, she realized, “God does not give out cookie cutter solutions.” If there were cookie cutter solutions, we wouldn’t need God. We would do X followed by Y and it would always work. Instead, God just calls us to pray.
But many Christians, including her pastor, did rally around her. They supported her and her husband through this multiple-year journey into the darkest places of fear for your child.
And as Sharon prays, and lets a few others into her prayer life, she slowly but surely sees God work in amazing ways. Sometimes those ways are through an arrest, or a car accident, or a break up. But even those things that look scary God can ultimately use for good.
One of the things I appreciated most about this story was that Amy’s conversion was not the end of the battle, but the start of a new one. And isn’t that what life is like? It’s messy. And when we are called to “cut the strings” to our old life, it’s hard. My 18-year-old daughter wrote a blog post last week on “why I hate Christian fiction“, and one thing she said was that so often the tension ends once the person accepts Christ. It’s just unrealistic.
In Amy’s story, you see the reality of it. It is after she becomes a Christian that she is hit with her drunk driving charge. After her conversion she’s still drinking. She doesn’t know what to do with her old friends. She still struggles.
And God slowly does a work in her heart. Sharon wants it all at once, but God reminds her that He is working, and that it’s in His time.
This is a hope-filled book to read if you are the parent, or the sister, or the grandmother or aunt of a prodigal. It helps you pray, helps you have faith, and helps you see that you are not responsible for what they do–you are only responsible for praying for them and being there for them.
But I think it’s also a great book for teens to read before they rebel–or when they’re starting to. The realistic picture it paints of a party lifestyle is not pretty. As Amy explains, looking back on her rebellion, “It’s when we think we have the answers. It’s when we are tired of hearing about the right way. It’s when we are sure that we’ve done enough good things.”–that’s when it’s so easy for us to fall. She says, “I thought I was happy. I thought just believing what my parents believed was enough. I thought I knew who I was and what I wanted.”
For our teens who have grown up in a Christian home, but have never really “owned” their own faith, Cut the Strings is a wonderful book to show them that you can’t lead two lives. And choosing to go down the road to rebellion is not a good choice to make.
Choices. We’ve looked at two books so far about choices–in both cases, the young person had to take a step of faith and make the choice to get on the right road. Living as you’ve always lived isn’t enough. We have to take the initiative and make that choice. And that’s something every young person has to understand–and then live out.
I have never read a devotional that is so in tune with this message as Heather Boersma’s Dream Big. It’s a 30 Day Challenge for young people to work through to understand that God WANTS them to make big choices, and to dream big dreams. He is a creative God, and He calls for us to be creative, too. And as people work through this devotional, they’ll dream more. Believe more. And find themselves getting really excited about where God is taking them.
Each day has a Bible passage to read, and a 1-3 page thought from Heather. Then she leaves the reader with roughly 10 questions to pray through, journal, or think about throughout the day.
The book helps kids “own” the Christian message in a coherent, logical way–something that Amy, from Cut the Strings, didn’t figure out how to do in her teen years. Heather spends a week working through God’s Dream for Humanity; about a week working through God’s Dream for the church; and then she turns to God’s dream for you individually. She first looks at God’s Dream for you to know Him, and then in the last week she helps teens dream big dreams for God. It’s awesome.
We make a mistake when we think kids are shallow–on Facebook all the time, not able to communicate except in texts, not worried about the outside world. In reality, kids leave deeply passionate lives. They care about relationships, about injustice (and that’s why Swimming Among Clouds resonates). They hate hypocrites. They want their lives to mean something.
But just because they have these passions does not mean that they will live these out in a constructive way. Heather helps young people fuel their passions in the right direction–towards God. And she shows them that God is not boring. God is not like the sermons you snooze through, or the lectures you hear from church leaders. God is big, and He wants you to do something exciting. He’s dreamed a dream in you; and you can live that out.
The hardest part of living that dream out, of course, is the waiting. That’s a theme in all three books. Talia found time to be her enemy; she was always worried about what was coming next and what she would have to endure from her father. In Cut The Strings, Sharon found the waiting for God to work in her daughter’s life almost unbearable.
Heather, too, understands the difficulty of waiting. Many teens will have to wait for their dreams to come to fruition. And as she says, “God takes a long time to work suddenly.” He puts all these things in place, but when He is ready to move, you had better be ready.
Do you want your teens to have a meaningful summer? I’d challenge them to work through this 30-day devotional. It is life-changing to catch a glimpse of the real Dream Giver. And it will get them on the right road to always Dream Big.
Find Heather at HeatherBoersma.com.