If you’re looking for a good book to read and discuss with teens or a book for a teen discussion group, I would highly recommend Sarah Aronson’s “Believe” (Carolrhoda Lab, 2013). When Janine Collins was 6 years old, the media dubbed her “the soul survivor” because she was the only one to survive a suicide bombing in Israel that killed her parents and many others. Now Janine is 16. It’s the 10th anniversary of the bombing and Janine feels as though everyone wants something from her. Reporters want a story. Her friends want her name recognition. And Dave Armstrong, the man who pulled her from the rubble, is now a religious leader who believes Janine has healing powers. He and his followers want her to heal the sick and the injured. Does Janine have the ability to heal others?
This story explores faith and belief from multiple angles and asks the question what do you do if you find yourself suddenly thrust into a life you didn’t ask for? How do you figure out for yourself who you are and what you believe when everyone around you has their own idea of who you are?
I interviewed Sarah Aronson for this article. This is what she had to say about her book and her writing process:
Q: Where did you get the idea for this book?
A: I was first inspired to write this book in a hair salon in 2006. I had just finished sending in my fourth packet to my last Vermont College Fine Arts adviser Tim Wynne-Jones and he challenged me to do something new. As I sat under the dryer waiting for my hair color to process, I picked up some copies of People. In one issue there was a story about the woman I knew as Baby Jessica. Her story was not profound, and I began to think about how people deal with a second chance — after near-death experiences. I also wondered about fame. Jessica was saved from the well when CNN was a fledgling channel — it was a time when fame was still earned.(No real housewives!)
That day, I found out that one of the men who had saved Jessica killed himself after his fifteen minutes were over. I also found myself judging Jessica — and that wasn’t fair. She hadn’t asked for fame.
When I got home, I began to write.
Q: How long did it take you to write? And can you describe your writing process?
A: I wrote the first draft in 2006, probably 10 more in 2007. But at that point, I knew it wasn’t working. Also, after publishing “Head Case,” (Roaring Brook Press, 2007) a book about a boy with quadriplegia (I think of it as my version of “The Scarlet Letter”), I was in the mood to write something lighter … with some action. So I put “Believe” away to write a middle grade soccer story entitled, “Beyond Lucky” (Dial, 2011). When that came out, I took it out of the drawer. I think it’s funny that the first line is “You never really knew me.” It was a long time before I did know Janine and come to terms with her story. Faith and fame are issues I talk about all the time. She had to be real.
This is how I work. I write, then I put the book away. I am now working on something I started in 2004. I am a writer who likes to “re-imagine” a lot. I need time to know the character and see the story from a lot of points of view.
Q: What was the hardest part of writing this book?
A: Creating a Jewish character that I didn’t always like. My faith is important to me personally, but she isn’t me. She has gone through something very jarring. When I was living in England in 1978, I marched in an Israeli Independence Day parade. At one point, men tried to throw rocks at us. I will never forget the look of anger on one man’s face. I thought about him a lot as I wrote this book. Faith makes people do crazy things — wonderful and scary.
I might have given up on this novel, if it weren’t for all the support I got from my writing friends who read this at different stages. The hardest reading came from the late Norma Fox Mazer. She read it and began writing me a letter about it, but had to stop. She didn’t feel well. I will never forget our last conversation. She said she’d get back to me after she saw the doctor. But her headache was a tumor, and she never could. So I had this unfinished feedback from one of my writing heroes. Even though this book confused me, I couldn’t abandon it. I felt like she was looking over me as I finally figured out the book.
Q: What was the easiest part of writing this book?
A: Something about writing is easy?
I guess the easy part for me was writing about the tree. I once mourned the cutting down of a tree. And The Book of Death. Mom’s story seemed clear to me. I was sad for Janine when she finally read it.
It doesn’t constitute as “easy,” but I have to mention my students at writers.com. When I teach a manuscript class, I ask them to submit new writing every week. Many of them read bits of “Believe” as I worked on it. As they learned to write, they read my book like writers. They inspired me to keep going.
Q: What was your path to publication? How long did it take you to find a publisher for this book?
A: My agent, Sarah Davies, had a feeling that Andrew Karre would like this book and he did. And he had a lot of ideas about how to make it better. I did a lot of work for him before he officially bought the book.
Andrew is an amazing guy. Unlike every other editor who read this book, he did not encourage me to make Janine nicer. He pushed me to make her more interesting and real. I am so grateful for this. He gave me the courage to create a character that is conflicted and confused on a lot of levels.
Q: What I like best about your book is the fact that Janine is a believable character with real flaws struggling to find her place in a situation she didn’t choose. I know some reviewers have suggested you went too far with Janine and she’s not likable. You yourself said you didn’t always like your own character. Would you like to comment on that?
A: When I first started shaping Janine’s story, some of my readers suggested making Janine nicer. Smarter. Kinder to her friends. More heroic. They were concerned that an unlikeable protagonist would hurt my chances of selling the story. The problem was: the nicer she was, the less tension she created and the less my themes mattered. Worse, she became less authentic. Her story unraveled. I think this is how you know you have to take the leap and let a protagonist be unlikeable. Nice Janine’s story became didactic. Nice Janine’s story was boring. This book only made sense if she was difficult, if she was struggling, if she wasn’t worried about teaching anyone anything. Like a lot of real-life celebrities, she attracted scorn.
I decided that it was a chance I had to take. It wasn’t really that brave. As a reader, I prefer ugly to pretty. I enjoy reading about people I wouldn’t like in real life.
I hope her story inspires a lot of great conversations.
People who would like a discussion guide to use with “Believe,” can download one at http://smgs.us/3j6c. www.lernerbooks.com/digitalassets/Assets/Title%20Assets/12941/9781467706971/Discussion%20Guide.pdf
Dori Hillestad Butler is the author of many books for children, including the Edgar award-winning series, “The Buddy Files.”