Monday, December 6, 2021

A Conversation with Janeen Zaio about Treasure with a Face

Friends, I have a very special treat for you this St. Nicholas Day. My friend Janeen Zaio has just released her first historical novel for kids about a Jewish boy, Eli, who wants to be a treasure hunter and discovers one far greater than any treasure. I had the great pleasure of reading both the first draft and the final book, and what a book! Janeen has created a riveting story that’s hard to put down. It’s action-packed, funny, and could possibly change your life!

Janeen, I’ve known you for 10 years. What a beautiful time we’ve had together. But it isn’t until five years ago that you mentioned you were writing a book and I’ve been so privileged to read your story. I love historical fiction, but especially any story set around the time when Jesus walked this earth. Please tell us why you had to write The Treasure with a Face.

Thank you, Vijaya. I’m so glad that God brought you to Charleston! You’ve been a great friend, and you were the first person to read The Treasure with a Face. That draft was very different from the final version, largely because of your influence. Whether it was giving me craft books, introducing me to the Catholic Writers’ Guild, or giving me honest feedback, your help and encouragement was instrumental in getting it published.

It was such a pleasure and I learned what you can accomplish when you’re focused on this ONE thing.

I began writing the night I pondered the question that keeps Catholic parents awake at night: Would my boys remain happily Catholic? We both know many Catholics who have left the Church for exciting activities at megachurches, and the megachurch in our area is almost irresistible. It looks like a beautiful resort and has amazing activities for kids, a café that rivals Starbucks, and rockin’ praise music. (I know you prefer Gregorian Chant, but that praise music is really GOOD!) My boys were ages thirteen and fifteen, and I knew that at some point, friends would invite them to attend that church, so I had to make sure they understood that the communion there is not Jesus’s living Body. I wanted them to appreciate the unparalleled gift of Christ’s Real Presence in every Catholic tabernacle. Once you understand that with your heart and soul, you can’t possibly leave the Catholic Church for games and lattes.

I know that stories are much more compelling than lectures, so I started developing the plot for The Treasure with a Face to impart that lesson. Although my boys grew faster than the story did, I hope I can reach other children with an adventure story containing a subtle message about Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist.

You really struck a balance so that the story is a great deal of adventure and fun with a message that’s not preachy. Was that hard to do?

As you know, my first draft was too preachy. Only a little :) Then I changed the plot line to add more adventure. My protagonist Eli is an aspiring treasure hunter who wants to find treasure as a way to escape from being his demanding uncle’s metalsmithing apprentice, so he resolves to find the ultimate treasure: the Ark of the Covenant. That’s not going to be easy – the Ark’s been missing for hundreds of years, flames reportedly shoot out the bottom of the Ark, and people who touch it tend to die, but Eli has a plan. Surely, Jesus knows where the Ark is hidden, so Eli sets out to meet Him.

Now amidst my character crawling through glowing caves, running along the walls of ancient Jerusalem, and outwitting villains, I was able to weave in the events that reinforce the theme of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, but leave the “preaching” to the discussion questions at the end. I’m a retired homeschooling mom so the discussion questions are designed to get kids to think deeply but also to share some interesting facts. For example, do you know the most exotic place anyone has ever taken the Eucharist? The answer is on page 258.

I do! And there was just a story about it in Shalom Tidings. Your back-matter is excellent, with Q&A and glossary. So smart to leave the teaching in the back for the kids who read everything and for teachers. I should think about doing something similar for Bound.

I could picture everything so clearly in your story and it brought ancient Israel to life. Please tell me the kind of research you had to do to make it so immersive.

Aww, thank you for saying that. I love reading private revelations in which the visionary follows the life of Jesus and makes you feel like the 13th Apostle, so that really helped me understand the landscape, food, and customs. I read many other books with maps of ancient Jerusalem and pictures of the Holy Land today, and there were many good websites like, but my favorite way to learn about ancient Israel was to visit The Holy Land Experience in Orlando. It’s a Christian theme park that has short theatrical productions about Biblical events, a huge replica of The Temple in Jerusalem, and an enormous replica of ancient Jerusalem.

I had no idea there’s a Bible-themed park in Orlando. I will definitely have to visit, given that covid-rulz have cramped international travel. My sister went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land right before covid became news and she’s soooo grateful. What are some of the themes in your book?

While the main theme is that Jesus is alive in the Blessed Sacrament at Catholic churches today, so you don’t have to live in ancient Israel to meet Him. Another theme is paraphrased from St. John Vianney: “You are what you are in the eyes of God and nothing more.”

I love that! So true. 

I think that message is so needed in this world. Another theme is that Jesus died to redeem all of us, no matter what sins we have repented of, no matter our race, our job, or our family situation. 

Amen! I know you’re a cradle Catholic, but did you always have devotion to the Eucharist?

I always had the head knowledge that the Eucharist is truly Jesus, but about 20 years ago, it occurred to me that I should be more enthusiastic about receiving Him. I should be metaphorically skipping up to receive Him instead of going through the motions. So, I started praying that God would give me zeal for the Eucharist, and a few days later, a friend gave me Scott Hahn’s book The Lamb’s Supper. That was the beginning of my realization that we have an unparalleled gift in the Catholic Church. I started to embrace the Eucharist with my heart and soul and became more mindful of Christ’s Real Presence.

That is so beautiful. I love it when you pray for a virtue or an insight, the Holy Spirit illuminates your soul on it. But beware of praying for patience or humility because I’ve discovered that I’m literally turned into a patient or humiliated in some way.

Speaking of patience, I am so impressed that it took you only five years from conceiving this book idea and publication. I was in your shoes nearly 20 years ago and still haven’t managed to write that first story of my heart to my satisfaction. Please tell us your path to publication.

Well, you and I both trust that God’s timing is always perfect! We prioritize our vocation as wives and mothers, then do our best and leave the results up to God. You’ve had amazing results, by the way! I couldn’t put Bound down!

Thank you. It’s because the story was literally given to me in its entirety. I wish it would happen more often because it’s such a joy when the writing flows.

For me, that first year of writing was like wandering in the desert for 40 years. There was a much more direct route available, but I didn’t take it.

What do you mean by a more direct path?

If I could do it over again, I would've taken more time to learn the craft of writing BEFORE I submitted my early manuscript to publishers. I was so eager to get my story out there, but now I can see that I wasted time submitting it to publishers when it wasn't ready. I can totally see why they rejected the old version. There are so many writing no-no's that I didn't know about. For example, a weather opener in a new chapter tells the editor you're a newbie. So much for, "It was a dark and stormy night..." Who knew?

Haha! Have you heard of this? Home | The Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest ( Thanks for clarifying. But really, the only way to learn to write a novel is by writing a novel. I’m glad you dove in and then learned aspects of storytelling. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who say they want to write a book but don’t.

So I wrote the first draft THEN learned how to write. I didn’t get serious about learning until my third rejection from a publisher. (Looking back on it, I’m glad that version was rejected because this new version is much better.) So, I hunkered down and spent an entire summer watching online fictional writing classes taught by Erin Brown Conroy. They’re recorded classes through Homeschool Connections, a Catholic homeschool program. I was thirty years older than the average student, but the classes were incredibly helpful. A year later, when I finished applying the lessons to my manuscript and rewriting it, I immediately sent it off to Perpetual Light Publishing, and they agreed to publish it.

Congratulations!!! I still remember the excitement and thrill knowing it’d be a book that kids could read. Please give us some insight into your decision-making process in choosing Perpetual Light Publishing because there are so many different avenues to publish right now.

I'm thrilled to be working with Perpetual Light Publishing. They're a hybrid publishing company, which was a good fit for me versus self-publishing or traditional publishing. Being completely new to publishing, I wanted someone to do the typesetting, cover art, printing and distribution but just as importantly, I wanted mentors who could share resources and marketing ideas.

Traditional publishers sometimes reject a good manuscript simply because the author doesn't have a platform, meaning she doesn't have a following already, whether it's having a TV show, being on the speaking circuit, or having a podcast, etc. Publishers know that a platform will enable the author to sell right away which reduces their risk.

A hybrid publisher can take a risk on someone without a platform because an author pays for their services, so they won't lose money if the book doesn't sell. For example, Perpetual Light offers a la cart services or bundled services. I paid them for professional editing, typesetting, cover design, printing, and distribution, then we share in the profit off each book sold. Their contract is very generous to authors, so it was definitely the right choice for me. They've also been great at helping with marketing, whether it's sharing contacts or promoting my book.

The founders of Perpetual Light are Erin Broestl and Jeanie Schoonover-Egolf, and they’re amazingly talented editors and writers. Erin wrote God Made the Moonlight, which Jeanie illustrated, and Jeanie writes and illustrates the Molly McBride series. They were excellent collaborators, and they worked incredibly fast — 9 months to publication. In fact, the book contract arrived on December the 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and the book was published on September 7th, the eve of Our Lady’s birthday! The timing was a sweet little “God-nod” since Our Lady plays a small, but pivotal role in the story.

What a talented team. The cover is gorgeous! And I must say, the interior is sweet too. You mentioned a treasure hunt for kids. Please elaborate.

As part of my book launch, I’ve created the Escape with the Ark Challenge in which children ages seven and up solve clues and tackle challenges in their own search for the Ark of the Covenant. It’s like an escape room, but it can be held outside or in a gym.

Kids look for clues at the landmarks of ancient Jerusalem such as the Temple and the Coliseum and experience some of the same things Eli experiences like crawling through a glowworm cave. One clue requires kids to find dye to reveal a hidden message on a scroll. Another challenge has them guess which person they should ask for directions, a Roman or a Pharisee. If they guess incorrectly, they have to dig through the “garbage” at the Valley of Gehenna to find the next clue.

I’m going to travel around the Southeastern U.S. hosting these events. Parents can go to to request that I host one for their Catholic school or homeschooling group.

That sounds like so much fun! Truly, you are bringing all your gifts to this project. I often have a saint or two who make themselves known to me, who come onto my radar for specific stories and to whom I turn to for help. What saints did you ask to intercede for you as you wrote?

I asked for the intercession of Blessed Carlo Acutis and Manuel Fodera who aren’t canonized yet, but I’m sure they’re in heaven. They were young boys who died of cancer in 2006 and 2010 respectively. Each of them showed great devotion to the Eucharist. Carlo called the Eucharist his “highway to heaven” and Manuel called it a “bomb of grace.” The other unofficial saint is the baby I miscarried, whom we named John Sebastian. I’m sure those three helped make this book and the Escape with the Ark Challenge more fun.

What’s next for you? What’s God calling you to do?

In addition to hosting the Escape with the Ark Challenges, this spring I’ll host a True North Book Club which allows students around the world to watch recorded sessions online where we discuss each chapter of The Treasure with a Face and give author secrets. We also talk about literary devices and vocabulary, so it can be a language arts class for schools and homeschoolers.

I’d also love to speak at homeschooling or Eucharistic conferences. I give two different talks:

26 Ways to Help Kids Have Zeal for Christ’s Real Presence and 40 Ways to Be an Ambassador for Christ’s Real Presence.

After that, we’ll see where God leads me, but it would be fun to write a sequel to The Treasure with a Face or to take a Eucharistic miracle and develop a fictional story around it.

That’s so exciting, Janeen. I know you will follow God’s call with single-minded devotion. May He bless all the works of your heart and hands.

What's the best advice you ever received--on prayer, on writing, on marketing? What advice do you have for new writers?

The best advice on prayer is from our mutual Friend: “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” I often go into Eucharistic Adoration stressed out but come out peaceful and joyful.

Me too, Janeen. It is amazing.

One of the best nuggets of advice I ever received on writing is from you, Vijaya. You said, “Write about something you’re passionate about.” Now that I’ve read The Treasure with a Face about a hundred times, I can see why you have to love what you’re writing, or it would be very tedious.

And let’s not forget that passionate means you’re willing to suffer for it.

The best marketing advice I have for writers is to find your audience and figure out how you want to reach them. So many people think social media marketing is the only way, but I think relationship marketing, while not as efficient, can create more loyal customers. Things like speaking events, book readings, and scavenger hunts might be more time-consuming, but they allow you to interact with your readers on a personal level, which is far more gratifying.

As a person who doesn’t have any social media presence at all, I am in complete agreement with what you say about building relationships. And it’s a lot more fun too.

My advice for new writers is that it’s never too late to start.

Hey, I’m reading that book right now by Julia Cameron.

Oh, and my unsolicited advice for everybody is the last line in my book, “Wherever you’re living, whenever you’re living, go discover the living Jesus for yourself.”

Amen! Thank you so much, Janeen, for taking the time to chat with me. Please share where they can find you online.

Link to my Facebook page, Janeen Zaio, Ambassadors for Christ's Real Presence

Link to my Facebook page, The Treasure with a Face by Janeen Zaio

Link to my MeWe page, Catholics Who Love the Eucharist

Finally, what is your favorite donut?

I have a list of my faves but THE very best one is sugar-coated, custard-filled, flaky croissant donut from the French chocolate cafe downtown Charleston.

There you have it, folks! The donut ministry helped tremendously during our conversion, so take note. Coincidentally, while we were having this conversation, I was having one with Grace Wynter over at WriterUnboxed. See: Author Up Close: Vijaya Bodach—Play. Dream. Believe. – Writer Unboxed


Mirka Breen said...

It's exciting when your Beta reads turn in to published works. Especially as this one is close to your heart.

Carol Soisson said...

This sounds like a wonderful book. Congratulations, Janeen! I hope this book brings many souls closer to Christ.

Janeen Z said...

Thanks, Carol! I appreciate your kind words. Yes, may He be praised, adored and loved in the Blessed Sacrament!

Vijaya said...

Mirka, I have beta-read so many amazing stories and what joy to have them be real books with weight!

Carol, you will enjoy it very much. Made me laugh and I even wept in a couple of places and that's rare. Kids will love Treasure.

Janeen, Amen!

Faith said...

I always love your interviews, Vijaya--never a boring moment! Thanks for sharing about your faith and you book, Janeen!

Vijaya said...

Thank you, Faith. I always learn so much. Janeen did so many things well and will bring so many kids and their parents home to Jesus. I often think kids can accept the Mysteries of the faith better than adults.