Professor Chris Crowe reflects on the success of Latter-day Saint authors in YA literature.
Utah has produced an impressive number of highly successful young adult (YA) fiction authors in recent years—so many that The New York Times published an article titled “An Unexpected Hotbed of YA Authors: Utah” on September 3, 2023. The piece explored some of the reasons why so many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints write YA fiction. One of those YA authors, Professor Chris Crowe (Adolescent Literature), feels that BYU’s English 420 class on young adult literature has helped shape many of Utah’s YA authors.
BYU’s English department has included a YA literature class in their course offerings since 1958, which is remarkable considering the term "young adult fiction” did not come into common usage until the late 1960s. Crowe, who currently teaches the class, says that most of Utah’s YA authors have taken the class at some point, though not necessarily from him. He says, “The course creates space for people to read and think about these kinds of books. For those who had the itch to write, it helped inspire them and see the possibilities of what they might do.”
Within YA fiction, many of the top Latter-day Saint authors write in the fantasy genre, including mega successes such as Brandon Sanderson, Stephanie Meyer, Orson Scott Card, and Brandon Mull (who all graduated from BYU). Crowe says that most of the students in his class prefer writing fantasy as well. Perhaps some simply hope to follow in the footsteps of these big success stories, but Crowe believes there’s more to it. Because members of the Church already believe in what others would consider fantasy (for example, the story of divine beings visiting a teenage boy), he says, “Maybe we are in some way predisposed to suspending disbelief for a fantastic story—a story of fantasy that's not religious, but sort of halfway there.”
Crowe himself writes mostly historical fiction rather than fantasy. Before coming to BYU, Crowe taught high school English for 10 years. While there, his students introduced him to a wide variety of YA titles. Crowe began researching YA literature in graduate school, and has continued to do so here at BYU, eventually writing several novels of his own. His best-known work, Mississippi Trial, 1955, explores events surrounding the murder of Emmett Till, whose case sparked significant outcry and became a trigger for the civil rights movement.
In his YA class, Crowe encourages students to write what they’re passionate about and emphasizes the importance of authors sitting down to write even when they don’t feel like it. Speaking to aspiring authors, Crowe says, “Anybody who wants to be a writer needs to read. And don't just read what you want to write. Read everything: magazines, newspapers, fiction, nonfiction. Because it all feeds the writer’s mind and the writer’s style.”
Crowe’s encouragement, alongside the value that Latter-day Saint culture places on reading and literacy, stands as one of the biggest reasons why there are so many successful authors in the Church. As The New York Times article says, “American book-reading habits have been in decline for decades, but you wouldn’t know it from sitting in on a young-adult literature class . . . at Brigham Young University.”