Once Was Lost

once was lost

About the Book

Also Published as What We Lost

When thirteen-year-old Jody goes missing, the national spotlight turns to Samara Taylor’s small town of Pineview. With few clues for investigators to follow, everyone is a suspect, including Jody’s older brother, Nick. But even as the town rallies in solidarity, Sam feels more alone than ever. Her mother is drifting farther and farther away while her father grows increasingly preoccupied as he steps in to help Jody’s family in the wake of the disappearance. During the tense, uncomfortable days that follow, Sam draws closer to Nick as the local tragedy intersects with her personal one.

National Book Award finalist Sara Zarr delivers a powerful novel (originally published under the title Once Was Lost) about community, family, faith, and one girl’s realization that sometimes you have to lose everything to find what’s been missing all along.

A few years after I moved to Salt Lake City, a girl named Elizabeth Smart—who lived more or less in my neighborhood—was kidnapped. You probably remember. At the time, I worked at a church, and had no car, and it was hot, hot summer. Like everyone in Utah back then, I obsessively followed the case and watched the news. I’d walk to work in the heat and think about Elizabeth and imagine what it would be like to be a teen girl in Salt Lake right then—maybe someone who knew Elizabeth peripherally, maybe someone who was part of her religious community. A story started to form on those walks to work. It existed in numerous forms before it became the book it is today, in which we see this local crime through the eyes of a pastor’s daughter, Sam, who is already in the midst of a crisis of faith—not just religious faith, but faith in her family, faith in the basic goodness of people and safety of the world. I wound up setting my story not in Salt Lake, but in a fictional rural western town.

I grew up in church. We rarely missed a week. My mother was the church secretary. I feel like an honorary pastor’s kid. My faith is still important to me, and I’ve long wanted to write a YA novel that involved a character with a sincere but conflicted religious faith. That’s how I usually feel: sincere but conflicted. So, in some ways What We Lost is about faith. In some ways it’s a mystery. But, at its heart, it’s about what all my books are about: family, identity, and growing up. Mostly, I just hope it’s a good story!


Winner of the Utah Book Award

Winner of the INSPY Award

An ALA Best Book for Young Adults

National Book Festival Great Read – representing Utah, 2015

A Kirkus Best Book of 2009

Fall 2009 Reading the West pick – Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association

2011 Tayshas High School Reading List (TX)


Hardcover, E-Book, Audiobook CD set, Audiobook download, paperback.

Translations: Dutch, German


“Beyond delivering a gripping story, Zarr has a knack for exposing human weakness in the ordinary.” – Publishers Weekly, starred review

“This rare combination of in-depth character study and gripping mystery relies on a strong sense of emotional truth to do justice to some tough subject matter without graphic or violent scenes. Riveting.” – Kirkus, starred review

“Zarr sets a hard task for herself here: interweaving a number of strong story strands and giving them equal weight, even as she tightens the whole with questions about faith and God. …comes together as an impressive whole.” – Booklist, starred review

“Zarr’s fans will not be disappointed by this beautifully crafted novel about a teen coping with a loss of faith.” – VOYA

“There’s a lot going on here, but Zarr brings it together effectively. … The exploration of faith is quiet and thoughtful, and even those readers with more secular interest will relate to Sam’s longing to be found by her distant and other-focused family.” – Bulletin for the Center for Children’s Books

“You guys, this ain’t no vampire romance! When it comes to the mysteries of the teenage heart, Zarr knows how to create the Real Deal: the sweet awkwardness, the angst of uncertainty, the shimmering highs and the crushing lows.” – Forever Young Adult blog

“As Zarr and others in this newer crop of writers continue to weave doubt and faith together in artfully crafted YA fiction, it will be a pleasure to see how they continue to expand the boundaries of their form—and the boundaries of faith—for the better.” – IMAGE (Issue #63)

“I was impressed at the way the mystery element of the plot (Jody’s disappearance) wove into Sam’s family story so seamlessly. This thread of the plot echoed and drew out the themes Sara introduces from the outset in Sam’s story: loss, doubt, hope and uncertainty. By using the mystery element as a kind of counterpoint to Sam’s experiences, what might otherwise have been a mostly interior narrative becomes all the more gripping.” – Shelf Elf

“I want to cry from happiness as I read the kind, nuanced portrayal of Sam’s mother. It’s easy to make an alcoholic parent the bad guy; we’ve all read tons of books where drinking = abuse = evil. But the reality is more complex than that. For this reason alone, it’s on my list of favorite books read in 2009.” – A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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