JBWs 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. 

MHM: Are you work­ing on any­thing now? What can we look for­ward to? 

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​.sara​haron​son​.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.