JBW’s Michal Hoschander Malen spoke to Sarah Aronson, author of the recently published young adult novel Believe.
Michal Hoschander Malen: Believe is a book which is full of the complexity of the events of modern times, mixed with eternal issues of faith and trust. What events inspired you to write Believe?
Sarah Aronson: I was first inspired to write this book in a hair salon in 2006! 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 — the baby who fell in the well. It made me think about how people deal spiritually with second chances — especially after near death experiences. (I’m not just a former religious school director; I’m also a rabbi’s granddaughter!)
I also thought about how fame and the media changed our world. That day, I found out that one of the men who had saved Jessica killed himself after his fifteen minutes of fame were over. I also found myself judging Jessica for not leading a more purposeful life – and that wasn’t fair. She hadn’t asked for fame.
When I got home, I began to write! Faith and fame are issues I talk about all the time. I was sure that by combining faith with incidental fame, I could find a great story.
MHM: Janine was a little girl when she survived a terrorist attack and lost her parents. Whose responsibility is it to protect a child from manipulation or abuse in that situation?
SA: Of course, I believe that adults should shield their children from all sorts of painful things, but when it comes to fame, I think we are all in danger of losing perspective. There are worse things than growing up under the spotlight, but I hope kids who read this will think about what they want to accomplish in their lives. Fame is not the only measure of success.
MHM: What do you think will happen to Janine as she continues to mature? What do you think she will do with what she has learned?
SA: Spoiler: I think Janine’s trip to Israel at the end of the book signals the beginning of change in her. I hope that when she returns, she’ll make amends with her friends. I also hope she’ll slow down her creative process. I know that’s possible. I was an impatient young woman. Now I have more realistic expectations. I wait for my characters to develop. I never force them.
MHM: There has been some talk about Janine being an “unlikable” protagonist. I’m not sure I agree that she is unlikable; perhaps merely self-protective. But why would an author, in some cases, choose to portray a primary character as less than likable? Do you think it inhibits the reader from “rooting for” the character?
SA: As a reader, I always prefer interesting to likeable. But that doesn’t mean my decision to make Janine “real” was easy. I struggled with it, but every time I tried to make Janine nicer, the tension in the book decreased.
Today, many of us are preoccupied with our images and what others say about our work. We know that in today’s world — Janine’s world— we have access to what our readers think of our creative decisions. Here is the big problem: if we let it affect us too much, it will hurt our work.
It takes nerve to write unlikable protagonists. You need to be brave to write this way, to risk polarizing readers. When you write a book about tough topics — especially for kids and teens — you must be prepared to face the criticism of readers who wish she were smarter or nicer or kinder. Those readers want to protect young minds, even though I have seen time and time again: young minds don’t need that. They are ready to read what they choose.
Like me, some of them want real. They want honest. Perhaps, even, they want to spend some time in a body that they would never want to be in real life. When I wrote this story, discussion and conversation was what I hoped for. So it’s okay with me if readers don’t totally like her. I just hope that everyone who looks at this book will find her interesting and complicated. I hope they question her actions — and the trends in our world.
MHM: Which books have you, the author, loved and which have, perhaps, influenced your writing?
SA: I read all the time — from classics to contemporary novels. Some of my favorite YA authors whose books helped me find my voice are Robert Cormier, Nancy Werlin, Walter Dean Myers, Markus Zusak, Carolyn Coman, and K L Going. I also love reading books that feature Jewish characters. I think it’s important for kids especially to see themselves in books. Some of the books that I think about long after reading include The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Emil and Karl by Yankev Glatshteyn, Real Time by Pnina Moed Kass, Julia’s Kitchen by Brenda Ferber, Bigger than a Breadbox by Laurel Snyder, Intentions by Deborah Heiligman, and The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer. All of these books have challenged me as a writer and, more important, as a human.
SA: Right now, I’m hard at work on a few things. Like all my books, they deal with ideas and people that I hope give readers something to talk about. This is what I love most about reading and writing: the chance to get together with others to make lifelong connections through books.
Thank you so much for inviting me to share my ideas.
Readers can contact me on my website: www.saraharonson.com. I love talking to readers as well as parents, teachers, librarians, and aspiring writers!
Michal Hoschander Malen is a librarian and editor of reference books. She is the editor of the children’s and young adult section of Jewish Book World.
Michal Hoschander Malen is the editor of Jewish Book Council’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A former librarian, she has lectured on topics relating to literacy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.