Back at the end of 2018 I was able to read an advance copy of Ashley Herring Blake’s The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James. It was the first I had heard of this author who writes both Middle Grade and YA, but I immediately knew that Blake was an author that I had to get to know better. I finally managed to find the time to read Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World and it was just so good! Not surprising at all the Blake was given a Stonewall Honor Award for this book.
Blake’s books are ones that not everyone might pick up if they are not encouraged. She writes middle grade LGBTQ+ books featuring young girls who are not sure how they feel about boys or girls (spoiler – they like girls). But there is so much more to these books than that and I just wish that more people would read them! Blake creates characters who are trying to figure themselves out. These are coming-of-age stories that just also happen to be coming out stories. I fell in love with both protagonists and know that many middle grade students would empathize with the journeys that these girls are going on. Both books deal with the fear of what others might think of you and how sometimes that seems like a more important issue than what you think of yourself.
In The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James, Blake opens with 12 year old Sunny St. James going in for a heart transplant. She needs the new heart to survive, but has turned her surgery into a personal rebirth. She wants to actually live again. She wants to experience life, find a new best friend (after having been stabbed in the back by her old one), and her big wish is to kiss a boy for the first time. The surgery is a great success, but when she wakes up, not only does she have her three goals to go after, but her mysterious mother who abandoned her 8 years earlier has shown up again.
Sunny is like any 12 year old girl. She is struggling to find her place in the world. She is struggling to balance what she wants out of life vs what she thinks everyone else expects. She has all of these emotions that she doesn’t understand and doesn’t know how to talk about making life a confusing jumble. This is the plight of many 12 year olds. Add to the fact that she has been wondering for some time what it would be like to kiss a girl, adds an extra layer of confusion.
In Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World, Ivy is a young artist who we meet right before a tornado levels her house. She keeps all of her thoughts, hopes, and dreams in an art journal that she keeps, and a lot of pictures that feature two girls holding hands. It is the one item that she brings with her as they run for cover, but somehow she loses it in the shelter for displaced people. That would be bad enough, but then someone starts leaving individual pages in her locker with mysterious notes telling her to come clean about her identity. At the same time, Ivy has just started a friendship with Jane, the local doctor’s daughter. She has lots of secrets of her own, but Jane and Ivy quickly become close.
Ivy’s concerns about how the world sees her occupy her thoughts a lot of the time. She has felt invisible at home since her twin brothers were born. She used to be close to her older sister, until she over hears part of an argument that makes Ivy feel that she can’t be open and honest with her. Now she is having “feelings” for June and isn’t sure what they mean. Ivy has to find a way to figure out everything that is going on in her life and a way to be true to herself. Of course she figures it out by the end, this is a MG novel anyway, but it is the how she figures it out that makes your heart soar.
Don’t pass these books up people. They are heartwarming middle grade reads that any child can appreciate. I don’t know how Ashley Herring Blake does it, but she gets these characters and gives them such heart. Sunny is just a girl who wants a fresh start with a positive attitude. Ivy needs to find a way to get her words (via art) out instead of hiding them from everyone in her journal. They are going through the same drama as any other kid with the added difficulty of being extra confused by their feelings towards other girls. These are beautiful and important books to bring mirrors and windows to more people.