Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Book of Mormon Girl includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Joanna Brooks. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. .
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What did you learn about Mormonism from this book? What assumptions or stereotypes about Mormons did you have before reading? How did this book cause you to reflect on your assumptions? What surprised you? What new insights did you gain? What questions do you now have about the faith?
2. Joanna describes how as a young girl, her religion’s rules made her feel special, like “a root beer among the Coca-Colas.” Were there things in your childhood that separated you from your peers? How did it feel to be different? Did you enjoy the feeling of being unique?
3. Marie Osmond was an important figure in Joanna’s childhood because she was one of the very few celebrities from a similar background. Who were your celebrity role models growing up, and why?
4. When you were a child, how did you think about faith? How have your ideas or beliefs changed over time? Do you have a faith or spiritual practice now? How does it guide you?
5. When young Mormon men turn twelve years old, they are ordained into the lower ranks of the Latter-day Saints (or, LDS) Church’s lay priesthood. There is no comparable religious coming-of-age ceremony for young Mormon women, and Joanna remembers that when she got her first period—another coming-of-age moment— her grandmother told her it was a “curse.” What coming-of-age rituals mark the entrance of girls into adulthood in American culture? Does your religion or culture have customs that honor this transition? How do coming-of-age rituals shape the way young women view themselves?
6. In the chapter on object lessons, Joanna describes sitting in a classroom with other young women and passing a rose around the room for each member of the circle to handle. At the end, when the rose is ruined after being handled by so many people, the young women are told that the rose was like their virtue; nobody would ever want that used flower. What kind of lessons did you hear about sexuality growing up? If you could, what would you say to your sixteen-year-old selves about sex?
7. In 1993, six members of the LDS Church were excommunicated. They were feminists and intellectuals who had written or spoken about controversial subjects. After this action by the Church, Joanna stepped away from the Mormon community for several years. Why do you think she took this step? Have you ever been in a sit- uation where something you believed in took an action you disagreed with? How did you respond?
8. Joanna relates that she did not share most of her internal turmoil about her faith with her parents. She writes, “Perhaps I wanted to protect them from shame. Perhaps I wanted to protect myself from feeling the brunt of their shame.” Are there elements of your life you were not or still are not able to share with your parents? Why?
9. Did your religion play a role in your selection of spouse? Did you marry within your faith? Outside your faith? How has your marriage shaped your relationship to your religion?
10. At several different points in her story, Joanna describes acts of kindness and understanding by friends, acquaintances, and strangers who made a difference to her as she struggled to find her way. Who stood out to you in the story as a mentor or guide? Who do you turn to in your life when you need spiritual advice?
11. The stories of her Mormon pioneer grandmothers give Joanna strength and inspiration for her journey, especially in the Pioneer Day chapter when she returns to church. Do you know your family history? Have you traced your genealogy? What kinds of family stories do you draw inspiration from?
12. At the height of the Proposition 8 campaign, Joanna destroyed some campaign materials she found inside the Mormon church building where she had attended church as a child. What do you think motivated her? Was this a courageous or a cowardly act? What would you have done?
13. Joanna and her husband are raising their children in two faiths—Mormonism and Judaism. She describes how everyone in the family “knows how to pray in at least two languages.” What languages exist in your family? Do you have cultural and spiritual traditions that are unique?
14. Joanna describes her dream of a more welcoming Mormonism where everyone has a place at the table. Is anyone excluded from the table in your faith community, culture, neighborhood, or family? What would it take to bring them in? What might your community lose, and what could it gain?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. While The Book of Mormon Girl is an extremely personal story, Joanna Brooks is also a public speaker who regularly gives talks and lectures about her views. Go to YouTube and watch some clips of her speaking in different public forums. What kind of added insight do you have from listening to her speak?
One purpose of this memoir is to address misunderstandings about Mormonism by creating a more humane and three-dimensional picture of Mormon life and culture. You can continue to learn about a diverse range of Mormon people by viewing self-created profiles at the LDS Church’s Mormon.org website and the independent Mormon Women Project site (Mormonwomen.com). On YouTube, you can also see the “It Gets Better at Brigham Young University” video made by and for young gay Mormons.
Throughout the book, Joanna talks about insights that she wishes she could share with her younger self. Is there someone in your life for whom you could be a mentor?
Food plays an important cultural role in Joanna’s home. Try making some of the Pioneer Day recipes she describes and serve them to the rest of the group. Joanna and her friends sometimes hold Mormon Desserts parties celebrating the kinds of desserts they remember eating as children at church parties: most included lots of Jell-O and Cool Whip!
Strawberry Pretzel Jell-O Dessert
2 cups crushed pretzels
3 T sugar
½ cup butter, melted
one 8 oz. package of cream cheese, softened
¾ cup sugar
one (8 oz.) carton Cool Whip
one (6 oz.) package strawberry Jell-O
2 cups boiling water
one (20 oz.) package frozen strawberries (use fresh if in season)
Combine and press pretzels, sugar, and butter into a 9" x 13"–pan. Bake at 400 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes. Allow crust to cool. Blend cream cheese, sugar, and Cool Whip. Spread on crust. Mix together Jell-O, water, and strawberries. Spread on top of Cool Whip blend. Refrigerate overnight if possible.
A Conversation with Joanna Brooks
What are the questions you get asked the most about being a Mormon? What are the biggest misconceptions that you wanted to rectify with this book?
From its beginnings in the 1830s, Mormonism has always attracted attention, curiosity, and misunderstanding. During the late-nineteenth century especially, Mormons were depicted in American newspapers and political cartoons as a dangerous and murderous polygamous sect. Some of those images persist in the American imagination to this day. One of the ways Mormons have coped with a broad misunderstanding of our faith is to try to project an image of ourselves as being perfectly All-American, with big, monogamous, hard-working, happy families. Think of the Osmonds! Think of Mitt and Ann Romney and their five sons! The truth of who we are lies somewhere between the extremes. Mormons take pride in our distinctive history and comfort in our faith. But we too are regular human beings who struggle with ordinary life challenges. We live in every state in the United States and country around the world. And there is growing diversity within the faith. Not all of us look, think, feel, or believe the same way, even as we all belong to the Mormon tradition.
You describe a wariness in the Mormon community to share too much with the outside world. How did it feel to share your story with your friends and family? Were you surprised by any of the reactions they had?
Lots of Mormons are wary about sharing tender or private elements of our faith with non-Mormons. There’s a general fear that what we consider tender and meaningful will be ridiculed by strangers; ridicule has long been a part of Mormon experience. There are also controversial elements of Mormon history, like polygamy or the historic ban on priesthood ordination for people of African descent, that Mormons ourselves feel embarrassed by or deeply ambivalent about. It’s not easy to talk about these subjects even in our own communities, let alone with people who don’t belong to the faith—and yet so much media attention focuses on these hot-buttons! Over the last year or two, as public interest in Mormonism has grown, I’ve written a great deal about Mormonism for the public and appeared on radio and television. I have always tried to speak candidly and humanely about my faith. My experience has been that if one approaches sensitive topics with dignity, humanity, candor, and even a bit of humor, it bridges misunderstandings and humanizes all participants in the conversation. I’d say good experiences outnumber ridicule by a ten-to-one margin. As for my family and friends, I always say that no one asks to have a writer in the family. The LDS community tends to be quite conservative, so I know that my willingness to share my story has brought some pressure upon my family. I also know for a fact that my mother reads every word I publish, and yet though she and I talk frequently, we never really talk about my writing—not even this book! I hope that she and all the good Mormon people I grew up with can see in these pages my fondness for all they taught me and the memories they created. My church youth leaders especially gave of themselves so generously; it wasn’t easy teaching young people about doctrine or sexual morality or even camping! But they did, and I am grateful. I should also say that the Mormon congregation I belong to now is very kind and accepting of me and my family, and I am grateful for them as well.
What kinds of conversations has the book elicited? What would you say to readers who have their own personal stories that they want to share but are concerned about how people might react?
I’ve gotten lovely mail from young Mormon women especially, who tell me that my story has helped them feel less alone. That’s deeply satisfying to me, especially because I remember how alone I once felt. There were so few books in which I found anything that resembled or spoke to my own experience. When I was very young, there was, of course, Marie Osmond’s Guide to Beauty, Health & Style, but Marie was way out of my league! In college, I found environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams’s book Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, in which she talks about how her family’s Mormon faith taught her to question authority. That made an impression on me. One of the greatest lessons I have learned in writing The Book of Mormon Girl is that admitting our own differences, vulnerabilities, and struggles can be a powerful act. Of course, you might feel afraid or ashamed. Courage doesn’t mean being free from fear; it means learning to work through fear and speak even when we are afraid. I believe that when we do so, we give others the courage to speak more honestly about their own vulnerabilities and struggles as well. No one should be the only one who feels like she has ever made a mistake or struggled with her ideals or taken a path different than the one expected of her. Our stories can shelter and keep each other company as we learn from our experiences.
In chapter 11 of the book, you describe some profound disagreements you have with certain actions of the LDS Church, but say that you are not giving up. How do you reconcile these conflicting emotions, and what steps are you taking to change the faith from the inside? What advice do you have for others in similar positions?
Change tends to come very slowly to the LDS Church. There is a strong sense of respect for authority and hierarchy; more orthodox Mormons might say that real change can only come when top church leaders direct it. But I have also seen many remarkable changes happen among rank-and-file Mormons over the last decades. Mormon scholars and historians have done valuable research into Mormon history that acknowledges the human side of our tradition, including its human flaws. Mormon feminists, gay and lesbian Mormons and their families and allies, and Mormons who may not be literal believers but still cherish the faith have also reached out to one another and offered support and companionship. I am very proud of the brave gay and lesbian Mormons— even students at Brigham Young University—who have found the courage to share their stories. Their courage lights a way to greater compassion and understanding within our faith community.
Throughout the book, you talk about things that you wish someone had told you when you were growing up. What do you think the most important lesson is, for young Mormons but also for any young reader?
I always think back to the story of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon faith. When he was just fourteen years old, he harbored deep questions about the religions available to him. None felt right, and he read a scripture in the New Testament that said, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God.” And he did. Joseph Smith went into the woods and prayed for guidance. That is the story of how Mormonism started—it all started when a courageous fourteen-year-old followed the questioning, seeking spirit inside of him. There is a powerful lesson there for all of us. Don’t be afraid to ask big questions. Don’t be afraid to trust the leadings inside of you. That’s the way to truth.
What are the biggest difficulties in raising your children in an interfaith household? What are the biggest rewards? Do you have any advice for people in a similar position?
The biggest difficulties so far are very practical ones: we’re busy! We’re busy doing two sets of holidays! We’re busy doing two sets of everything! I know that more serious challenges may lie ahead. Many Jewish people especially have real reservations about raising children in two faith traditions, and I want to acknowledge the seriousness of those reservations. But it was simply impossible for me not to give my children a Mormon faith education, and it was equally impossible for me to deny them a Jewish education, identity, and connection to their Jewish ancestors. David and I tell the girls that being members of an interfaith family means that they have to learn twice as much as the other kids. Religion is about responsibility to a community and a tradition, and we’ve got to be doubly responsible. David and I have also learned that as interfaith family parents we have to take full responsibility for our children’s spiritual education. We can’t simply rely on a single institution—be it a church or a synagogue—to teach them. It has to start at our dinner table. We try to infuse our daily lives with a living sense of these two religious worlds— their joys, their demands, their struggles, their foods, their humor, their values. It is up to us.