Faith-based fiction today takes many forms. No longer limited to prairie romances or nostalgic historical novels, evangelical Christian fiction has experienced an explosion of popularity over the past decade and now mirrors general popular fiction in genre choices.

Beyond that, the longer tradition of treating religious and spiritual themes in more literary fiction, and from the vantage points of other faiths, has gotten an infusion of energy from the culture's current fixation with matters religious, a zeitgeist with roots in continuing interfaith conflicts and tragic events like 9/11. The Da Vinci Code phenomenon has also played a role in drawing readers to books with these themes. Publishers are responding with novels of every description, for every kind of story seeker. —Lynn Garrett

YA Novels Explore New Frontiers

In young adult Christian fiction, the series is still sacred, and Melody Carlson—author of several ongoing chronicles, including Truecolors (Th1nk) and Diary of a Teenage Girl (Multnomah)—still corners the market. But stand-alone titles from general interest imprints like Wendy Lamb Books at Random House are beginning to offer some alternative perspectives about religious themes and questions. The imprint published A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life by Dana Reinhardt (2006), about an adopted girl who suddenly must grapple with her Jewish roots, and will soon release Looking for Bapu by Anjali Banerjee (Oct.), about an Indian boy searching through Eastern traditions for a way to bring his beloved grandfather back to life.

"I've always wished I could find more novels that deal with young readers and faith, or lack of faith," says Wendy Lamb, v-p and publishing director of Wendy Lamb Books. "Kids and teenagers often have passionate feelings and questions about God and religion. They think about life, death, spirituality, eternity, the universe, without adult filters."

Earlier this year, Margaret K. McElderry Books at Simon & Schuster published Burned by Ellen Hopkins, about a Mormon girl rebelling against her devout family—especially their views about sex and the submissive roles of women. A novel in verse, Burned explores Pattyn's "struggle with faith in the face of abuse, which causes her to wonder what being a child of God is all about," Hopkins says. Burned was just nominated for a National Book Award.

Penguin author Scott Westerfeld offers an alternative take on the End Times in The Last Days(Razorbill, Sept.). "The book is about five teenagers starting a band during the apocalypse," Westerfeld says. "Ultimately they wind up using whatever conceptual tools they've got—each character finding his or her own way of combining spiritual and rational ideas to make meaning out of chaos."

Llewellyn has also seen tremendous success with its Blue Is for Nightmares YA series that centers on Stacie, a girl who practices folk magic and whose spells "are a form of meditational prayer that helps deepen her concentration," says author Laurie Faria Stolarz. With four installments in print, the series has been so successful (selling 250,000 units), Llewellyn plans to release a boxed collection this fall.

Without worries about orthodoxy, authors at general trade houses not only have the freedom to explore a range of faiths—Western, Eastern and esoteric—but to do so with a depth and complexity rarely seen in CBA fiction for teens. —Donna Freitas

What Makes Fiction 'Jewish'?

What is a Jew? If Jews themselves find it excruciatingly hard to agree, then imagine the headaches produced by seeking an answer to a related question: what is Jewish fiction? A group of new and forthcoming books, ranging from a novel about Kabbalah to a Da Vinci Code—style thriller with Jewish themes, implicitly pose just that question without necessarily answering it.

Certainly the diversity of these new titles begs for some definitional scrutiny. Naomi Alderman's Disobedience (Touchstone, Sept.) tells the story of a disaffected Orthodox woman returning to her childhood home in London after her rabbi father dies. Sounds pretty Jewish. So too Scott Nadelson's story collection, The Cantor's Daughter (Hawthorne, July), about suburban New Jersey Jews. On the other hand, Leslie Epstein's The Eighth Wonder of the World (Handsel, Oct.) has a non-Jewish protagonist but deals with the fate of Italy's Jews under Mussolini. Semi-Jewish?

Elisa Albert's collection of short stories, How This Night Is Different (Free Press, July), has a bottle of Manischewitz wine on the cover. The stories are wry, edgy, often startlingly vulgar, drawing on the 28-year-old Albert's experiences of her own generation's dissatisfactions with the sense of Jewish identity they received from their parents. Asked to define Jewish fiction, Albert suggests that a Jewish story is one in which "the self-identity of the author or character is rooted in some kind of Jewish identity, if he would put Jewishness in the top five things he'd say about himself." Circular enough for you?

Does a "Jewish" novel necessarily seek a Jewish audience? Not at all. Claire Wachtel, senior v-p and executive editor at Morrow, will publish Sam Bourne's The Righteous Men (Aug.). The book, a thriller drawing on religious lore à la Dan Brown, takes its title from an ancient rabbinic teaching about the 36 righteous men who sustain the world.

If the book is a hit—and with 95,000 copies already on order, the signs are good—it probably won't be Jews who drive sales. Much of the Jewish material in it will be less exotic to them than to non-Jews. Wachtel says, "You don't have to be Jewish to get involved in it. The early readers who are not Jewish have been just overwhelmed."

Surely a novel by a rabbi, incorporating theological meditations, qualifies as Jewish. But what if the theology is questionably Jewish? Consider Kabbalah: A Love Story (Morgan Road, Oct.) by Lawrence Kushner (InProfile, pS14), a Reform rabbi who admits of his book, "It really does flirt with heresy. To say that the author of the Zohar [Judaism's principal mystical text] may have been a woman," as Kushner does in his story, "is pretty dangerous." Kushner says that one idea he seeks to get across to readers is the "core mystical idea that everything is connected." As the last line in his novel puts it, "IT'S ALL GOD."

Maybe, after all, there's no payoff in trying to rigorously define what makes Jewish fiction Jewish. In that case, it's all Jewish. —David Klinghoffer

Catholic Fiction: Mainstream and Distinctive

"Catholic fiction" has always been around. Only the labeling of it is new, an attempt to stress a marketing distinctive of fiction that has been firmly mainstream. The current vogue for fiction with religious and spiritual themes has given a boost to novels that treat Catholic themes and motivated making that distinction explicit. Although writers whose work can be considered culturally Catholic—think Graham Greene, James Joyce, Flannery O'Connor—have been published by big general trade houses, specialty religion publishers are now looking for a piece of the action. And there is more than enough of that to go around, since an author need not even be alive to be published.

Catholic publisher Loyola Press is resurrecting out-of-print novels as "classics" for a new generation of readers who aren't familiar with these books, mostly from the mid-20th century. The press is pleased with the line, which debuted in spring 2005 with Mr. Blue by Myles Connolly, Helena by Evelyn Waugh, In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden and Saint Francis by Nikos Kazantzakis. The series has sold 30,000 copies so far. By the end of this year, 17 titles will be out.

For Loyola, reprinting builds a backlist quietly. But the house has more than a monetary interest in reviving these books, intended to remind Catholics of their history and their stories. "The financials are okay," says Joseph Durepos, acquisitions director at Loyola. "But there's as much mission here as a desire to meet margins."

Sheed & Ward, the Catholic imprint of Rowman & Littlefield, will publish The Best American Catholic Short Stories next January. The anthology was assembled by Daniel McVeigh and Patricia Schnapp, who teach English at Siena Heights University, a Catholic school in Adrian, Mich. Not planned as an annual, the book collects the best writing within the past 75 years. More than half the 13 writers are contemporary, among them T.C. Boyle and Richard Russo.

Cowley Publications—owned by the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, an Episcopalian monastic order—isn't Catholic. But the small Boston area house is preparing to launch a fiction line that constitutes what it calls a "literature of spiritual values." The philosophy behind the original fiction line is based on the critical work of the late Catholic nun Mariella Gable. Editorial director Michael Wilt and marketing director Matthew Wright were both hired in the past two years to develop the line. To enhance visibility, the house signed with distributor National Book Network this year.

"Our philosophy is it's not Christian fiction," says Wright. "We want to be in the mainstream fiction market." The list launches next February with two novels by Chet Raymo, In the Falcon's Claw, an out-of-print title, and Valentine: A Love Story, already available in England. A third, original novel, Battered Soles by Paul Nicholas Mason, completes the first list. "We got carte blanche to take this in the direction we think will be successful," Wright says. "We're in expansion mode." —Marcia Z. Nelson

Getting Graphic

Between Blankets (Top Shelf, 2003) by Craig Thompson—a memoir about growing up in a fundamentalist Christian household while struggling with all issues typically teen, including firsts like love and sex—Jews in America: A Cartoon Historyby David Gantz (Jewish Publication Society, 2002) and Pantheon's Persepolis, Volumes I (2003) and II (2004) by Marjane Satrapi—another memoir about living through the Iranian revolution as a young girl—the graphic novel is now no stranger to religion.

Even the gospels are going graphic. Last year Seabury Books at Church Publishing released Marked by Steve Ross (2005), a retelling of Mark's gospel through vivid and, at times, brutal images. "With the readership of graphic novels climbing ever higher, particularly among young people, and an absence of visually striking, theologically rigorous works, it seemed like a natural place to go," says Lucas Smith, acquisitions editor for the Episcopal Church—owned press.

The challenge of putting a gospel to pictures was exciting for author Steve Ross. "It was a great opportunity to explore the darker and weirder side of the gospel, approaching the gospel story as if it were a joint project between David Lynch and Robert Crumb," says Ross about creating Marked.

Ross is working on a second installment based on Paul due out in 2008. The Paul project "reimagines Paul as a misanthropic special-ops expert and part-time assassin. He miraculously turns from a life of revenge only to find that the very people he's risking his life to help would just as soon see him dead," Ross says.

On a lighter note, TokyoPop issues a range of manga series that mix up Western religious traditions with the occult, including Diabolo, Cross and Priest.

"There are plenty of serious themes in manga, but religion is not one of them," says Lillian Diaz-Pryzbyl, an editor at TokyoPop and resident manga expert. "Authors will throw in a crucifix and a Star of David without any differentiation between them. Western religion seems exotic to Japanese youth, and it's fantasized about in manga. Manga is less about spirituality and more about fun, flash and the occult—using chants and magic to gain special powers."

Diaz-Pryzbyl recently licensed Trinity Blood, TokyoPop's newest series dabbling with spiritual themes, to be released as manga this fall and as novels in the spring. "Trinity Blood is set in the distant future after most of the world has been destroyed. It features the Vatican vs. vampires. There is even a female bishop who is head of the vampire secret police and sister of the pope," Diaz-Pryzbyl says.

Soon, traditional biblical tales will go manga, too. Zonderkidz, the children's group of Zondervan, plans to release six different manga-inspired graphic novel series featuring biblical themes in August 2007. —Donna Freitas

Visionary Fiction: Failure to Launch

What's visionary fiction? Think of it as a story with an agenda—a vision. Publishers and booksellers know it when they see it, but they don't see a lot of it. Although there have been some resounding successes—The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (Harper San Francisco, 1993), The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield (Warner, 1993)—the subcategory never quite caught fire, despite great expectations in the '90s.

"Nobody can figure out why," says Sandi Liss, owner of SoulJourney, a Wiccan bookstore in Butler, N.J., referring to herself and other store owners she's talked to. "We're either not carrying it, or paring down or selling off what we've got."

Yet body-mind-spirit specialty bookstores are continuing to sell the biggest titles. Coelho's whole catalogue does well at Transitions Bookplace in Chicago, as do such authors as Dan Millman. Transitions used to call its fiction section "visionary fiction" but has dropped the qualifier. "We wanted a broader selection," says Tony Koller, receiving and returns manager at the store.

"I know we have people who are working on [visionary fiction]," says Steven M. Pomije, publicist for Llewellyn, which specializes in metaphysical and occult titles. Llewellyn's The Quickening by Ly de Angeles just won the 2006 Coalition of Visionary Retailers Award for Visionary Fiction. But the subcategory is "a little amorphous," says Pomije. "It would be difficult to form an entire imprint on the genre."

Amy Hertz at Morgan Road (publisher of Kushner's Kabbalah) says readers interested in these kinds of themes already have a well-developed genre. "It's called fantasy," she says. —Marcia Z. Nelson