Please welcome Christian YA author Courtney M. Whitaker to the blog today! Courtney’s first novel, Faith Under Pressure, released in July (hip hip hooray!), and she’s in the throes of grad school and another writing project, so I’m glad she made time for an interview 🙂
LB: In Faith Under Pressure, lifelong missionary kid Katie moves from Africa to California. Her parents encourage her to let her light shine wherever they live. Most readers won’t move to a different continent in their high school years, but the lesson is still relevant. How would you advise readers to let their lights shine, even if their life seems boring?
CW: My best advice for my readers would be to look for everyday opportunities to make a difference, even if they seem small in the eyes of the world. So many teens that I knew growing up glamorized the idea of being a missionary in a third world country, thinking that made you a better Christian or “proved” that you were truly bold for Christ. But too often, we forget that we don’t have to travel overseas to make a difference. We can make a huge difference in the lives of the people around us simply by offering to pray with/for them, reaching out to a new student at school, and just genuinely showing people the love of Christ. These are things that we all can do, and incredible ways to let our light shine for Jesus.
LB: Good point! Katie’s family is notably close-knit, which I found to be a breath of fresh air in today’s fiction. Why did you write her family to be supportive of each other?
CW: Honestly, I’m not sure I did this a hundred percent consciously, but I wanted to show through Katie’s family what it looks like to be a light amongst darkness and portray Christians who don’t just “talk-the-talk” but also “walk-the-walk.” In our world today, the church has gotten a bad rap amidst scandals and most people in the world see Christians as hypocrites. I wanted to show Katie’s family as a group of believers who try (imperfectly) to live out the words of Jesus. This starts with loving the people you’re related to and if you have kids, modeling a healthy marriage and family life that reflects God’s design.
However, I also didn’t want to give readers the impression that Katie and her family were perfect. Katie struggles with peer pressure and with showing Christ’s love to the people at her school who are hard to love. She also, at times, makes questionable decisions (like going to a complete stranger’s house by herself . . . NOT something I would recommend someone doing!). But I wanted to show that she was human, and that being a Christian doesn’t equal perfection.
LB: What nudged you to write for the middle-grade and young adult audience?
CW: I started writing middle-grade and YA fiction when I was still a teenager myself, so I think this is a big reason why I chose to write for this audience. I started writing my first book (which, crazy story, is actually my current WIP!) when I was only fourteen years old. Frustrated with some of the Christian fiction I was reading, which felt more concerned with the lesson than other important aspects of storytelling, and secular fiction, which too often contained questionable content, I set out on a mission to write the kind of books that I would want to read. I wanted to write books that both acknowledged the complexities of life and that honored God on every page. I also wanted to leave readers feeling uplifted and inspired—and remind them that no matter how hard life may get, with Jesus, they can get through it.
LB: What a meaningful mission 🙂 Upon arriving in America, Katie and her brother Jackson face a plethora of changes – everything from traffic and the suburbs to temptation to date a non-Christian. As the story goes on, Katie deals with anxiety. I’m curious, of all the plausible trials she could’ve endured, why did you choose to have her face anxiety?
CW: I chose to focus on the topic of anxiety because this is one of the main struggles that I dealt with during high school and college. Back when I was struggling with this, mental health was not the hot topic that it is now, and oftentimes I felt like my brain was defective, or like there was something wrong with me. I wanted to show through the character of Katie that struggling with anxiety doesn’t make you “weird” and that if it’s something you struggle with, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I think in the church for so long, there’s been sort of this idea that if you’re a strong Christian, you won’t deal with things like anxiety or depression—or if you do, you can just pray these things away. This is an assumption that I think is harmful to a lot of Christian teens, so I wanted to dispel this myth by portraying a character with a rock-solid faith who struggled with anxiety and panic attacks. I also wanted to show that it’s OK to seek out help from other people if you’re struggling, and that we don’t have to navigate these issues alone.
LB: Yes, I agree that mental health battles do not automatically indicate spiritual weakness. What value does fiction have in a Christian’s life?
CW: One of my favorite classic novels is To Kill a Mockingbird (as you may have guessed from the male lead’s name in Faith Under Pressure!) so I’m going to answer with a paraphrased quote from this book: to climb into another’s skin and walk around in it. As Christians, we cannot possibly know what it’s like to walk in the shoes of everyone we meet, but through reading, we are given a glimpse into different struggles and situations that may not be ones we ever face ourselves. Through reading fiction, we can grow in compassion for the different kinds of people that we encounter in our everyday life.
Fiction also, I believe, has a way of illuminating truth without preaching. Even in secular books, you can often see the fruit of a character’s choice to live out the principles God calls us to in Scripture, and the negative consequences of sin. Thus, I believe that books help point us back to what is true, noble, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8!) in a memorable way.
LB: Yes! I agree completely! Can you give readers a glimpse of what to expect in your next book?
CW: Absolutely! My next book, Soul on Fire, is a Middle Grade, coming-of-age story about the power of friendship and redemption. It centers around a small, newly launched church and the teenagers in a new youth ministry—all with different struggles, personalities, and faith journeys. On top of dealing with their own challenges like navigating a new faith, personal insecurities, and dealing with challenging people, they are all forced to come to terms with a shocking reality when someone sets fire to their church. Readers who enjoyed Faith Under Pressure can expect to find the same elements of faith, humor, drama, and inspiration in this book (Which, Lord willing, will release sometime next year!).
LB: That sounds great. I look forward to reading Soul on Fire! Where can readers follow you?
LB: Thank you for sharing your time and insight with us, Courtney! Readers, grab a copy of Faith Under Pressure and host a book study with your friends 🙂