WHEN JULIA was 12, her self-confidence began to drain out of her like air from a leaking balloon. Her mother could actually see her shrink and withdraw. Julia was stressed and she was worried and she was confused.
The child thought prayer might help, but she knew "Now I lay me down to sleep" wasn't going to do it, so she asked her mother to write her a new prayer. Celia Straus, a Washington documentary writer, did - that night and every night for a year. She pinned each prayer to her daughter's pillow, and in those prayers were the words Julia could not find to express her confusion, her hopes, her joys.
Why prayer? Why not a feminist pep talk or a lesson in self-esteem or a poem or a famous quote? What was Julia looking for that she found in a one-way conversation with the uncomprehendible divine?
"There was a spirituality gap," says Celia Straus, an Episcopalian married to a Jew, both of whom had walked away from religion. "We would celebrate holidays in a mindless secular fashion, but nothing else. Julia was looking for something outside herself."
Straus has collected those prayers into a book, "Prayers on My Pillow" (Ballantine, $18.50), and she says the book is finding an audience among preteen girls in the same place Julia, now 16, found herself four years ago.
That place seems to be a place of worship.
Newsweek, Teen People and Girls' Life magazines have stumbled on something Dear Abby has known forever: The best place to find girls is in church. Each publication recently has had a feature or major story on the subject.
"Church is social place, and girls this age are intensely social," says Karen Bokram, founding editor of Girls' Life, who wrote "Girls & God" in the December/January issue after reading Web site responses from 500 girls.
But church is more than an alternative to the mall for these girls, hTC who face daunting pressures from peers and popular culture.
"And then there is church, with God's unconditional love," says Bokram. "Short of her dog or her hamsters, God might be the only one she can count on for that right now."
Bokram makes the point that these are the children of 1960s children, many of whom discarded organized religion in their rebellious youth. They are children of the first generation to regularly marry outside the family's faith. And many are the children of divorce.
As a result, many young girls are growing up in a religious void, where parents don't have answers or are too busy with their own troubles to respond. These girls show their gumption by getting to a church or a synagogue on their own or with friends.
"These girls are facing stuff that seems impossible to deal with - their parents are divorcing, there is tragedy on television, diseases that can't be cured, the economy is melting down, the possibility of war - and they are looking for something to believe in."
Bokram says the Girls' Life survey showed that, though beliefs differed, the overwhelming message from readers was one of religious tolerance.
"These are the golden-rulers," Bokram says. "They want their friends to do well, and they are incredibly protective of their friends' feelings."
Bokram says the church is a place where girls hear that there is someone looking out for them and if they live their lives according to a certain set of rules, everything will be OK.
"When you think about it," she says. "That is a tremendously comforting message."
Pub Date: 12/13/98