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Written by Rhonda Sholar   
Monday, 25 October 2010 12:19 PM America/New_York

Fiction authors tackle tough issues

Lead-art-missionalWhile "bonnet books" continue to dominate Christian fiction, interest is rising in other areas. The typically clean, safe themes found in Amish romance novels contest another evolving trend in inspirational novels-fiction with a mission.

While an exact term for the emerging genre has yet to be coined, some authors and publishers refer to it as "missions fiction" or "missional fiction." Its themes are diverse, but it includes a great story with a strong dose of realism.

AIDS, sexual abuse recovery, drug addiction recovery, sex trafficking, poverty, the unfair distribution of wealth and modern-day slavery are among the topics receiving new or renewed attention in this area.
"Folks are getting angry at the state of the world, so fiction reflects that," said novelist Mary DeMuth, whose summer 2011 Zondervan release, The Muir House, is about a girl with partial memory loss due to a trauma.

But reader-and author-interest in tackling tough topics goes beyond just addressing issues, delving deeper into helping others find hope in the midst of tough situations both Christians and non-Christians face.

"I think the CBA industry is at a point where readers are able to handle stories around a difficult topic, as long as there is a strong, redemptive faith message," said Julie Gwinn, marketing manager for fiction at B&H Publishing Group. "This 'tolerance' has given authors an audience to broach real-life subjects like divorce, pornography (Fireproof), child trafficking (Robin Carroll's Deliver Us From Evil), drug use, abortion, gang violence and suicide-subjects and situations in which believers and the Christian community are not immune."

Novelist Deborah Raney has written about many such topics, including domestic abuse, mental illness, addiction and homelessness. Her first novel, A Vow to Cherish, published by Bethany House in 1996 and reissued by Steeple Hill 10 years later, was about a family dealing with early-onset Alzheimer's.

"It was a story that many readers were living themselves," said Raney. "Most people find comfort in realizing that others have walked in our shoes and survived. A novel can serve to validate our feelings and remind us we're not alone in our trials."

Raney also serves on the advisory board of American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW), an organization that has grown to more than 2,000 members. She said a frequent discussion topic among ACFW members is "the challenge novelists face in portraying real-life situations in all their ugliness and pain, coupled with the hope our Christian faith offers-but in a way that is entertaining and enlightening, never preachy."

Christian fiction has sometimes-mistakenly-gotten a bad rap when it comes to being taken seriously.

"It is a myth to think that all Christian fiction is 'fluff' or all 'puppies and kittens,' " said Steve Laube, founder of The Laube Agency. "However, I do believe that over the years the authors have become much more adept at starting with a great story and then, as a part of that story, addressing various social issues. Many decades ago some novels were thinly disguised sermons. Not any longer."

Christian fiction has dealt with tough issues, both personal and social, for years, said Karen Ball, senior acquisitions editor for B&H Publishing Group, who added that suspense thrillers in particular are written on topics "ripped from the headlines."

"The whole concept of building a story around today's headlines has been a mainstay for fiction," Ball said. "Current issues stir deep emotions and conflict, both of which are imperative to powerful fiction."

Using emotion to move someone to action has been a goal of writers of best-selling literature for a long time.

"When the heart is stirred, a person is more apt to do something about an injustice," said DeMuth. "Consider Uncle Tom's Cabin (first published in 1852). A huge amount of nonfiction flooded the United States at the time, but that book, a novel, changed a nation's mind about the cruelty of slavery. Why? Because of story. A story can change a mind."

In the Christian industry, a forerunner in the missional category was the 1967 classic Christy, by Catherine Marshall.

"The issues of sexual molestation and unmarried motherhood are dealt with in the memorable character of Alice Henderson, Christy's mentor," said Joan Marlow Golan, executive editor for Steeple Hill Books.

Chris Jager, fiction buyer for Baker Book House for nearly 10 years, noted that books with a specific mission theme have traditionally been relegated as biographies and human interest. Take, for example, Elisabeth Elliot's 1957 best-selling book Through Gates of Splendor-still in print and released earlier this year as a classic biography from Hendrickson Publishers-which tells the true story of five young missionaries, including Elliot's husband, Jim, who were killed while trying to contact the Auca Indians of Ecuador.

But in the last five years, Jager said she's seen fiction writers expand their topics to teach others about places they may never go and issues that affect the people there.

At her "Fiction with Chris" blog, as well as for a church-librarian support group that meets at the store on the second Tuesday of every month, Jager often spotlights what she calls "mission-trip fiction."

One book Jager has highlighted is Moody Publishers' 2007 My Hands Came Away Red by Lisa McKay, a story about teens on a mission trip to Indonesia when war erupts. Jager also blogged about the March Tyndale House Publishers release by Cathy Liggett, Beaded Hope, a story based loosely on a mission trip she took to Africa.

Some authors use their first-hand experience as missionaries to accurately depict the political and religious tensions in foreign countries.

As the child of missionary parents, award-winning author and journalist Jeanette Windle grew up in the villages, jungles and mountains of Colombia. She used that experience in the 2008 Tyndale House book Betrayed, set in a Guatemalan orphanage, and 2009's Veiled Freedom, where the main character does relief work in Afghanistan.

"Fiction authors aren't just focusing on Americans and our issues, but they are spreading out over the world to cover topics of interest," Jager said. "We are being that light everywhere and not just here."

Raney's Beneath a Southern Sky (WaterBrook Press, 2001, and re-released this year) and its sequel, After the Rains, are set in Colombia, South America, and were inspired by a 90-year-old missionary friend in Raney's church. Her novel Over the Waters (Steeple Hill, 2005), came as a result of her parents' work with a Haitian orphanage.

"I've never set foot on Haitian soil myself, but my daughter spent a week in the Dominican Republic last summer with her youth group, and one of my nieces read Randy Alcorn's novel Safely Home as a young teen and was deeply moved," Raney said. "She spent several years as a missionary in China and Tibet, and in November she and her husband leave for Thailand to work with young women caught in sex-slave trafficking."

After reading missional fiction, not everyone will pack up and head to the mission field, Jager said, but awareness of new topics and ways to get involved in missions make for a successful missional book.

"Countries like the Dominican Republic and Haiti are common places for missionaries, but books are tackling some unlikely mission fields like Central America," Jager said. "It's opening our eyes to what is still out there-wide-open mission fields that have never heard about Jesus."

Mission-booksA TEACHING TOOL
Dealing with difficult issues in a novel may leave some wondering whether these issues are best addressed in fiction rather than in nonfiction, but employing the power of story can be an easier way for readers to digest hard-to-swallow information.

"Child trafficking is horrific, and while people want to know what they can do to help, they don't want to be immersed in the details of such a terrible thing," Ball said. "That's why dealing with these issues in fiction is so effective. Fiction takes that horrific issue and tells a story, taking the reader on a journey that entertains, but also educates and enlightens."

Jager observes that customers aren't necessarily looking for missionary books, but when they stumble upon them they don't tend to shy away. "Some topics no one wants to read about, but they want the information," she said.

Just as fiction can be entertaining, it can also be a teaching tool. "Sometimes I need pure entertainment-mindless reading of something that is cute-and other days I need something that engages me, like Tom Davis' Scared and Priceless (2009 and 2010, respectively, from David C. Cook)."

On finishing Davis' books, Jager said readers know much more about AIDS in Africa and sex trafficking in Russia. "One of the librarians said when she read Priceless, her eyes were opened to the fact that sex trafficking was even an issue in Russia," she said. "She then went back and read Scared."

Gwinn has noticed an increased number of novels lately that are either based on a true story or are written from the author's real-life experiences or passions for difficult topics.

"I believe there has always been a 'write what you know' practice for fiction and nonfiction alike," she said. "It is a 'cleansing' for them to share their story-like giving a testimonial-and important to show how God worked through them and through the situation."

B&H has two books coming out next year that follow in this same vein. Words by Ginny L. Yttrup (February 2011) deals with child abuse, something the author faced herself. Beside Still Waters by Tricia Goyer (April 2011) is an Amish novel based on the true story of a family who suffered the death of a daughter/sister in a buggy accident with a tractor-trailer.

Coinciding with Lyme Awareness Month, Brandilyn Collins draws from her own personal battle with Lyme disease for the May 2011 novel Over the Edge (B&H) in which a doctor's wife is infected with the disease.

Some retailers may be tempted to move issue-based novels to the nonfiction shelves, but Laube believes it's best if they stay in the fiction rack rather than be grouped with related nonfiction titles. He said shelving novels somewhere other than with other fiction may confuse a customer trying to find a specific book by their favorite novelist. The only exception to the rule would be on a branded book.

"Unless a novel is part of a group of products, such as novelization of a movie that should be grouped with ancillary products, shelving fiction along with nonfiction titles would only confuse the consumer," agreed Jan Stob, senior acquisition editor for Tyndale House Publishers.

New Hope Publishers launched its first-ever fiction line this year with the motto "fiction with a mission." Leading off the line was the "Extreme Devotion" series by Kathi Macias. The four-book series-with three out and the last to release in April 2011-are loosely based on the lives of believers who suffer for their faith in South Africa, Mexico, China and Saudi Arabia.

Macias' new, three-book "Freedom" series with New Hope centers on the topic of human trafficking. The series begins releasing in 2011, and research-gathering meetings are under way with the Salvation Army's worldwide human-trafficking outreach.

New Hope Publishers' fiction is passionate and deals with struggles and experiences, aiming to have a deeper impact on the way people use their time and resources-how they view the world, pray, live, said Andrea Mullins, publisher/director at New Hope. "These books address critical global issues related to God's love and concern for a lost and hurting world.

"The goal is certainly the encouragement of those already engaged in a missional lifestyle, but also the transformation of more readers to a radical involvement in God's mission," Mullins said.

Think, launched in 2003 under the NavPress umbrella to provide resources for 16- through 21-year-olds, has been among the most successful Christian publishers in the young adult genre, including fiction.

"Think fiction offers the same edgy, gritty subject matter as secular YA fiction while showing the importance of God in life decisions," said Rebekah Guzman, editorial director for NavPress. "It's essential to show Christ in the midst of difficult, realistic situations such as teen pregnancies, self-mutilation and eating disorders.

Titles in Melody Carlson's "True Colors" series were among the first young-adult fiction books for Think and have sold more than 300,000 copies. The series covers topics such as eating disorders, sexuality and depression. Carlson's latest series tackles homelessness (Forgotten, August) and date rape (Shattered, April 2011).

Though best known for gentle romances, Steeple Hill Love Inspired is seeing authors incorporating timely issues into their stories.

"Currently there is a lot of concern about drug abuse, and also a greater openness to talking about it than in past decades," Golan said.

A recent example is Out On a Limb by Rachelle McCalla (September), which deals with methamphetamine production. Alcohol addiction is featured in Made to Order Family, also out in September from Ruth Logan Herne.

The recession has also brought foreclosure and homelessness to the forefront of the national consciousness, about which Love Inspired author Lyn Cote is writing in her new mini-series, "New Friends Street," which features a community that comes together to build homes for people who need them.

Tyndale House didn't set out to publish missional fiction, but has found at least one niche in the category.

"Our goal is to publish stories that resonate with our core market," said Stob. "As the market becomes more saturated, we need to find stories with a hook-often an issue or topic that Christians should and do care about."

The company has found success with one of the most pervasive issues of our day-Christian/Muslim relations. New York Times best-selling author Joel C. Rosenberg, who writes both fiction and nonfiction on this topic, released The Twelfth Imam in October, exploring what would happen if the Islamic messiah came to earth and Iran developed nuclear weapons. Randy Singer addresses similar issues in Fatal Convictions (August), as does Josh McDowell in The Witness (July), which was first published in Arabic to reach Muslims.

"From a missional standpoint, Christian readers need ways to practically wrestle with some of these issues," Stob said. "Story is always a great way to explore these topics and make for great book-group discussions that could reach out to non-Christian neighbors."