Archived Voice Articles
Real, Redemptive Stories
By Kris (Cnossen) Nichols ('97)
Nicole (Van Der Vliet, ’99) Baart has loved stories ever since she was a little girl. In fact, by the time she was four years old she had already partially memorized her family’s set of Child Craft encyclopedias. Her parents, Brian and Jana Van Der Vliet, could ask her, “Where is the picture of the little girl with the broken arm?” Out of the fifteen books she could pick the exact one, flip to the page without pausing, and recite some of the surrounding text from memory.
“My parents read to me constantly from infancy on,” says Nicole. As a result, she was very young when she realized that not only could she read stories, but she could also write them.
“It was just one of those crazy dreams that kids get,” says Nicole.
Crazy indeed. This past October, Nicole’s first novel was published.
As happens with many writers, it took some years and some real-life plot twists before she became a published author. She grew up in Sioux Center, and after graduating from Unity Christian High School in Orange City she began attending Dordt College as a pre-veterinary major. Over the course of her college years, she changed her major four times, finally settling on English and Spanish majors with the intentions of pursuing a high school teaching job.
“Writing seemed like a pipe dream,” she says. “It didn’t seem realistic. When I finally decided on majoring in English, I didn’t even take the writing emphasis because the literature emphasis seemed more marketable.”
After graduating in 1999, she taught for a year at Western Christian High School in Hull before moving with her husband, Aaron, to the Vancouver, British Columbia, area so that he could attend seminary. While she was there she taught at the Mennonite Educational Institute, a large high school, where she started a thriving Spanish program that dovetailed with the school’s active worldwide missions program. Her love of reading and writing never wavered, but as often happens for those with aspirations to write, the busyness of everyday life tabled her plans for a season.
After having son, Isaac, and moving back to Sioux Center in August of 2004 so her husband could become the pastor of Bridge of Hope Ministry, a rapidly growing church that meets in the public high school theater, Nicole found she had a way to pursue her dream. A final seminary stint landed Aaron in Grand Rapids for fourteen weeks, and while he was there, he connected with some folks who put Nicole in touch with Tyndale House, a popular Christian publisher.
“I hadn’t even written the novel yet,” says Nicole. “I’d written another novel, but it wasn’t something Tyndale would have been interested in.” Over the years she’d also written many poems and short stories, but this opportunity was going to require that she produce something completely new. She wrote fifty pages in three weeks and sent it.
After reading that piece of her work, a senior acquisitions editor requested that Nicole send the rest of the story. The company was interested in publishing her work, and they waited as she hastily finished the novel.
After the Leaves Fall
The product is the recently released After the Leaves Fall, a coming-of-age novel about Julia DeSmit, a young woman growing up in a small town, wishing she could somehow start over after experiencing more pain than many of us will weather in a lifetime.
“In some ways, Julia is my alter-ego,” says Nicole. “She’s who I might have been had bad things happened to me instead of good.”
Nicole has just recently finished negotiating her second contract with Tyndale, and as a result they will be publishing four of her novels. The sequel to Leaves, Summer Snow, is already finished, and Nicole is currently working on a third novel that is unrelated to the first two.
“It is incredibly humbling to be in this position,” she says when asked how she feels about this whirlwind success.
Nicole never considered that a Christian publisher like Tyndale might want to publish her work. Typical “Christian” fiction tends to follow a formula and almost always provides its readers with a happy ending. She considers her writing to be “redemptive, hope-filled fiction, but never a happily-ever-after story.” Tyndale has called it “contemporary fiction,” a genre traditionally left to secular publishers, but one that Christian companies are beginning to pursue. This is an exciting trend for Christian writers and readers alike because the goal is to produce something that anyone—Christian or not—will pick up. This vision is part of a broader idea that shapes Nicole’s fiction.
“Our personal stories aren’t necessarily beautiful,” she says. “But I want to find the beauty in the everyday, and I’d love it if my books could do that.” If anyone will pick up these very real, yet very redemptive stories, then anyone can see the quiet workings of a God who reaches very imperfect people in a far-from-fairy-tale real world. It’s an exciting idea for anyone who has noticed the space in the world of Christian fiction that cries out to be filled with something real.
Nicole is genuinely excited to be part of this trend, but one question remains. Nicole is a busy mom and pastor’s wife. How does she find time to write novels, and to write them so quickly?
“It’s very cerebral. It’s always happening in my head, no matter what I’m actually doing.” She finds inspiration and ideas everywhere, even when she’s sitting in church, listening to Aaron preach.
“Just today I was listening to his sermon, and suddenly while he was talking he gave me this character trait I’d been searching for. It was exactly what I needed for the book.”
Besides writing, other passions dominate Nicole’s life. She and Aaron have two sons. Isaac is four, and if you read Nicole’s blog (www.nicolebaart.com), you’ll have opportunity to see that he is a light and a lot of fun. On December 1, 2006, the Baarts brought home Judah Biruk, their adopted son from Ethiopia. They were first drawn to the idea of adopting an Ethiopian child because of the joy they witnessed in the culture, and when it comes to infusing their home with joy, Judah doesn’t disappoint.
When Aaron and Nicole went to Ethiopia to bring Judah home, yet another plot twist took place. They got acquainted with Robert Bimba, the pastor of Abide in the Vine and head of Christ is Our Hope orphanage in Monrovia, Liberia. In the course of building a friendship with him and a commitment to that orphanage, they have now formed a new organization called One Body, One Hope. The goal of this organization is to provide humanitarian aid, child sponsorships, and life skills education to children in Liberia. Fifteen percent of the proceeds from Nicole’s first two books are going to support Christ is Our Hope and its goals. A team of people is now working to put together the vision for One Body, One Hope, and the Baarts are excited to see where God will lead in this new endeavor as well.
Nicole’s current and future novels are available online through Borders Books, Barnes and Noble Booksellers, and Amazon. Canada’s Chapters and Indigo carry them (www.chapters.indigo.ca). They will also be featured in many stores, including Christian booksellers across the U.S. and Canada.