There are so few Christmas-themed books aimed at teens, and I’m hard pressed to think of any with the staying power of Katherine Paterson’s Angels & Other Strangers. The nine short stories here focus on young people and adults experiencing the kinds of crises of faith that often creep up during adolescence—and a single event that brings about a change in perspective.
Over the years, many of the teens and adults I’ve spoken with have described going through their catechism, confirmation, bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah—a rite of passage at the center of their communities of faith designed to welcome them in—and finding themselves questioning that very community. It’s such a common experience of adolescence, yet we rarely talk about it amongst ourselves or with teens. We become complicit in a silent agreement that in “polite society” we don’t discuss religion or politics. But books like Katherine Paterson’s can help young people feel less isolated if they’re experiencing a sense of alienation from their religion, and to know that doubt is part of developing a lasting faith.
Many of our country’s citizens came to our shores to escape religious persecution. Not just the Puritan pilgrims, but throughout history—Jewish families seeking refuge during World War II, Muslim refugees from Kosovo, the subject of Paterson’s The Day of the Pelican. Growing up in a family that practices religion is not always easy. Communities are made up of individuals, and a teenager who questions his or her religion does not always feel there are places to go to talk about those questions. And the wide range of religions and cultures in America also make us feel that we’re in a largely secular society, making teens feel they must be believers in secret.
Books like Katherine Paterson’s let teens know they’re not alone, that there are many stages within a religious practice, and that it’s also normal to doubt. Some of the characters in these nine stories are in a crisis of faith, like Carol, the mother in “Tidings of Joy.” Others are in a period of doubt, like Carl, the father in “Star of Night.” Or they have only ever known doubt and fear, like Genevieve, the foster child in “Maggie’s Gift.” But in each story, one honest act of compassion or generosity—often from a child—leads the questioning adult or child to a place of hope, and perhaps on the road to a more lasting feeling of faith. For those times when we feel alone and faithless, these characters make good companions.