“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good book in the slightest” C.S. Lewis
Nancy Carabio Belanger’s latest novel “The Gate” passes the Lewis test. It is a Catholic novel about Joshua Lasko, a smart-alecky middle school boy, whose faith disappears at his father’s death. He meets Pie, a nursing home resident, and his life turns around into a whopping surprise.
I’ve long trusted Ms. Belanger’s writing since she penned “Olivia and the Little Way” and its sequel “Olivia’s Gift.“ Both books are eternal favorites of my ten-year daughter since she first read it; curl-tipped edges from over reading, and often quoted back to me. When “The Gate” came out, I was not sure it would resonate with the female readers (including myself) in our house, but I’m glad I was wrong.
“The Gate” was delightful for several reasons. The character of Joshua is as real as a middle school student in America can be; witty and smart as a whip. Pie is endearing, and somewhat stubborn if not grumpy. Their unexpected friendship is something I envy as I wish I had known and gotten to know all my grandparents the same way.
The Gate’s biggest gift is the unabashed Catholicism and truth of Holy Mother, which is stapled in the dialogue and the story, just as much as it is ingrained in any Catholic’s life (or should be). All without being sappy. More power to Ms. Belanger who dares to write for Catholic readers who long to be able to connect with a literary figure and are so unfortunately neglected in a secular publishing world. For those of you who enjoy a good, clean, warm read, pick up “The Gate” and get to know unforgettable characters about a story of two souls.
The only improvement I can suggest to “The Gate” is for a better designed cover. The muted illustration is impeccable, but the title and the author’s name, could be more than a simple black font. Since Ms. Belanger is now synonymous with good, quality Catholic YA fiction, I think her name deserves to be highlighted in bolder billing and can stand on its own as a brand.
Below is an excerpt of an interview I recently conducted with Ms. Belanger:
AH: Congratulations that The Catholic Press Association awarded your novels best novel. That is such a recognition for your talent and courage in indie publishing. How many other awards have your novels won?
NCB: Thank you! I give all credit to God, Who inspired my work from day one. Before I wrote the first chapter of Olivia and the Little Way, I said to Him, “I’ll write it, so please tell me what to say.” All three novels have been awarded the Seal of Approval from the Catholic Writers Guild. Also all three novels have been awarded by the Catholic Press Association. Olivia’s Gift also won a Royal Dragonfly book award. The Gate was also a finalist for the Catholic Arts and Letters award.
AH: In a Catholic publishing world saturated by non fiction, how did you first decide to write catholic novels? What inspired you to write for young adults? Why the fiction genre?
NCB: Catholic fiction is just as valid in terms of learning about Catholicism, and perhaps even more so for children. Some people learn better from a well-crafted story instead of facts and figures. I searched for solid Catholic fiction for the ‘tween and teen groups, and wasn’t finding that many choices and styles. The Protestant bookstores have shelves of children’s religious fiction, [but] in the Catholic market, I was finding coloring books of saints and board books. I wondered why the industry seemed to say goodbye to kids when they started to grow up and leave childhood behind. The future of our Church needs to be fed, too, especially at this vulnerable age! There is the huge gap between these ages. So many faithful Catholics are turning to Protestant fiction stories for their growing children, and while it is better than mainstream books, it could be confusing to young Catholic readers.
After writing Olivia, I remember wondering what to do with it now that it was finished, feeling down. When I approached Catholic publishers, they simply said they didn’t publish children’s fiction, with no explanation why. A good friend who I trust in the publishing business, suggested I start my own company to fill the needs of these children. I remember thinking, “Ugh, what am I doing, Lord?” but He kept encouraging me, opening doors, and sending consolations.
I worked very hard, and God kept opening doors for my book, so I kept letting Him lead me. I would meet parents who were so relieved to have found a Catholic fiction story about a modern girl trying living a good life, and they asked me to keep writing. I never dreamed I would write two other books. I still cannot believe that my books have come this far. I think about that day when I almost gave up, and how God led my books into Catholic schools, homeschools, and religious ed classes across the country, and I still can’t fathom it, but God is an awesome God Who makes miracles happen.
AH: How did you sketch the character of Joshua Lasko? Do you work with youth? Did you have to recall your own experience or research into modern YA?
NCB: I got a lot of material from being a mom of growing teenage boys and being in that world. If you think Catholic ‘tweens are neglected in the Catholic publishing world, what about this group: teenage boys? Wow. Not much out there for them that isn’t science fiction or sports themed, or medieval themed. I wanted to write a novel about a modern-day boy struggling with living the Faith, but it had to be fun and funny sometimes too, with surprises as well. Josh is not a football player, he doesn’t live in medieval times, he doesn’t travel to other galaxies. Josh is just a suburban kid who doesn’t really think he’s good at anything. He’s in this funk and can’t get out of it. Deep down he’s a great kid, but he’s had some problems in his life and doesn’t think he’s worthy of God’s love. Pie shows him that we’re all sinners, that we can all come back to God, no matter what we’ve done or who we are. God turns away no one, because He thirsts for the love of each one of us. There are so many kids out there who are hurting, who need to realize God’s love for them.
I don’t research much modern YA books; I don’t want to. I just write from the heart, from what I know and feel and what God sends my way as inspiration. I don’t want to get caught up in what other writers are doing, because a lot of it is dark anyway. I wanted to write something serious but uplifting and positive, that celebrates our Faith. At a time when so many young Catholics are leaving the One True Faith for other religions, the New Age movement, or simply nothing at all (like Josh), it is so important to present Catholicism as something to embrace and love all of your life, through good times and in bad. I want them to know that where the Blessed Sacrament is, there is your hope, your life.
AH: I highlighted a quote from The Gate about how libraries offer inappropriate books for our children and parents are none the wiser. Do you know other than Harvey house if there is publisher we parents could trust not to ruin our children? Can you recommend good books for our chapter readers to read?
NCB: I highly recommend Bezalel Books, the publishing company of writer Cheryl Dickow. This is a quality Catholic publisher with fantastic, wholesome fiction like The Green Coat and Erin’s Ring.
AH: In The Gate, you speak of saints as friends. Do you have a patron saint for your writing? Tell us how that Saint worked with you as you wrote.
St. John Bosco, patron of youths, was the perfect saint for The Gate because he drew so many lost young souls to the Faith. St. Therese of Lisiuex, the Little Flower, was the inspiration for Olivia and the Little Way and Olivia’s Gift, as Olivia learns to follow the Little Way in her own life. My illustrator Sandra Casali LewAllen [and I] felt her intercession in many powerful ways during the production of both of the Olivia books.
I think it’s important for ‘tweens and teens to embrace their patron saints and become friends with them. They are our heavenly intercessors, and are so underappreciated. Lots of parishes that prepare young adults for Confirmation don’t have them choose Confirmation saints anymore. Why on earth not? It is so important to have a special saint you can turn to all your life, who is connected to you in a special way— a saint that seems to speak to you and your needs. A lifelong friend to pray for you and comfort you. So I encourage parents to have their kids research and choose a patron saint they feel especially drawn to in preparation for their Confirmation. On their name tags on that special day, write down that saint’s name under their own. Your child will always have this awesome connection to that saint.
AH: A final question my daughter who was so impressed I was interviewing her favorite author: are you writing a part 2 to the Gate? What other projects are you up to?
NCB: Awww, that’s so sweet of your daughter! I think about a part 2 to The Gate often. I have some ideas and am waiting for the Holy Spirit to inspire me! I’m open to ideas!
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