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Jeri Smith-Ready: Teens, Religion and Believing in Tomorrow

Jeri Smith-Ready's This Side of Salvation sure knows how to pack a powerful punch. With its riveting story about the end of the world, religious cults and the teens caught in the crossfire, it's a poignant read that warrants discussion. We wanted to know more about the role of religion and how teens are affected by it when forced into a set of beliefs. So today, Jeri sheds some light on the inspiration behind the book and its complex topics. Take it away, Jeri!

It’s May 20, 2011, the night before cult leader/radio preacher Harold Camping has predicted the Rapture will occur. He’s convinced thousands of people that Jesus will lift them up to Heaven the next day at 6pm just as a giant earthquake obliterates a third of those left behind. Many followers have quit their jobs and traveled to California to be with Camping when it happens. Some have given him all their money so he can buy ads on billboards worldwide.

So I’m in the car that night with my husband and my dog, driving up I-95 to a booksigning in Delaware, when a story comes on the radio about the children of Camping’s followers. These kids were asked to give up everything and everyone important to them to get ready for the Rapture. Their friends, they were told, would probably be left behind to suffer meteor strikes, demon locusts and general all-around suck before Armageddon brings the world to a brutal end.

The cover of This Side of Salvation

I could hear the mixed emotions in the teens’ voices: they knew they were supposed to be happy Jesus was coming back, but they were disappointed they’d never get to grow up, get married and have kids of their own. They wanted their very own tomorrow.

Now, I’m pretty fond of this planet (it’s my favorite!), so it blew my mind that anyone would rejoice over the destruction of the Earth and those upon it. But to tell young people — who are so full of hope for the future — that the end of the world was coming and moreover, that it was a good thing? To me, that bordered on abuse.

Which of course made it a great YA story. I immediately texted my agent, who agreed — as did my editor when I told her my idea that summer.

In its final form, This Side of Salvation is about much more than cults, or even religion in general. It’s the story of one family’s struggle to make sense of the world after tragedy renders it senseless. It’s the story of one boy falling in love, playing baseball and missing the brother he lost.

The novel could’ve become an anti-religion diatribe. Or it could’ve swung the other direction, a schmaltzy sermon on the power of faith. But a) those easy stories have been told a hundred times, and b) my characters and readers deserved better. They deserve what’s real.

Real people aren’t ideas or beliefs or positions. They’re people. The ideas, beliefs and positions they hold are shaped by their experiences, emotions and personalities, all of which are unique to each individual. Which is beautiful!

As adolescents, we start to figure out who we are and what we believe. There’s a reason we call teens “young adults”: they’re not children. They can think for themselves. Questioning everything we’ve been taught is part of growing up. In the end, we may decide our parents were right about some things, most things, or nothing, but first, we must doubt.

Parents who try to shield their teens from “dangerous influences” — whether it be a YA novel that discusses rape or a biology textbook that discusses evolution — should ask themselves, “What am I afraid of? Will my attempts to smother their thoughts bring them closer to me or drive them away? What’s more important: love or control?”

Maybe if teens are given more freedom to think today, they’ll grow up to create a tomorrow we can all believe in.

-Jeri Smith-Ready

If you're in need of an engrossing book, the be sure to pick up your copy of This Side of Salvation in-stores or online today! And for more YA authors, books and buzz, visit our Everything Young Adult page!