As a professor of religion at Boston University, Donna Freitas (pronounced FRAY-tis) does a lot of writing—essays, articles, nonfiction—but what she most likes to read are children's books. She uses The Giver, Skellig and Tuck Everlasting as “core texts” in her undergraduate classes because they get her students thinking and talking about life's Big Questions.

“Children's books are willing to pose the big philosophical questions that humans ask—what is the meaning of suffering? Of life? Of love?” said Freitas. It was Louis Sachar's Holes that made her want to write a novel herself. “What I loved most were all the quirks—the characters' odd names and the interesting backstory. When I finished it, I started to wonder, if I wrote a book, what would my main character's quirks be?”

The heroine of The Possibilities of Sainthood (FSG) arrived in Freitas's imagination soon after, pretty much fully formed. And she had a quirk, all right. The boy-crazed daughter of Italian immigrants in Providence, R.I., Antonia Lucia Labella had been writing to the pope for six straight years, seeking to become Catholicism's first living saint.

“There are so many novels about teenagers who become famous but it's because they are royalty or celebrities,” Freitas said. “I thought this offbeat path to fame would be a strange but fun quest for a teenage girl.”

Freitas had never taken a creative writing course but Antonia's story “poured out. I wrote like a person possessed.” A regular contributor on religion topics to newspapers and magazines (including Publishers Weekly), and the co-author of a book which examines the religious themes in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, she finished a first draft in three weeks. “It was the most fun thing I've ever written,” she said. “I'm often writing about dark and serious topics in my work as a scholar, and it was so liberating to just write a story and go wherever my imagination wanted. And I didn’t have to write any endnotes! Sometimes one footnote can take a whole day.”

Indeed, she had already lived the background. Growing up in Bristol, R.I., as part of a large Italian immigrant family, she recalls that “everything in my house was always a big drama, loud and passionate. And there's always people pushing food on you and praying to some saint or another. It was crazy, in a good way. Italian Catholics are just made for comedy in terms of family dynamics.”

Like Antonia, Freitas's mother grew up in an apartment above an Italian market, one with fig trees in its yard. “She would tell me all about how she would steal figs, and how the clippings [for new trees] came over from Italy, and about this whole process of having to bury the trees so they would survive the Rhode Island winter.” Writing Antonia's story then became a way of processing grief—both Freitas's mother and her grandmother passed away shortly before she started. “I was really sad about my mom, especially, so it was important that the book be lighthearted, because she was. I was trying to write my way out of my sadness.”

With a finished draft, Freitas returned to Holes—to find out who had published it. She then asked her agent to send the manuscript to Frances Foster at Farrar, Straus & Giroux before she sent it to anyone else.

“I'd met Donna at Children’s Literature New England conferences and she is such a presence,” Foster said. “She has a great mind and is really an exciting person. But what I loved was the voice. I thought Antonia was just so fresh. I fell head over heels about it.”

That seemed a bit, well, miraculous to Freitas, who told her agent if Foster was interested there was no need to shop the manuscript anywhere else. Foster asked for a meeting with Freitas before officially acquiring it.

“She showed up with a picture of two nuns, in full habit, roller-skating in Central Park and said, 'I saw this and I thought of you,’ ” Freitas recalled. “That is when I knew she really understood me.”