Life is more than a little complicated for the twelve-year-old protagonist of Ashley Herring Blake’s new middle-grade novel, The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James. When the story opens, Sunny’s most urgent concern is her impending heart transplant. “I’m going to die today,” she thinks. “Definitely for a few minutes and maybe forever. Kate keeps telling me no way, nohow is it going to be forever, but she isn’t the one who’s about to have her most important internal organ switched out like a new swimsuit at the start of summer.”
Luckily, Sunny survives the surgery, and six weeks later she’s ready to start a new life, including—she hopes—her first kiss. That’s if she can get past her loving but overprotective legal guardian. Kate has raised Sunny since the age of four, when Sunny’s birth mother, Lena, an alcoholic, could no longer care for her. Kate and Sunny live in an old lighthouse on Juniper Island, South Carolina, the place where Sunny feels most at home. It’s also where she parted ways with her ex-BFF, who “committed the worst betrayal that betrayers ever dared to betray” when she told the entire swim team that Sunny might want to kiss a girl.
But that was the old Sunny. The new Sunny, Blake writes, has “a brand-new heart, and this one doesn’t wonder about kissing girls anymore. I bet I could read that book about girls falling in love and just think it’s a nice story now. I bet I wouldn’t cry at all. I bet I’d just be happy for them and then fall asleep dreaming about having a boyfriend.”
Then Sunny meets Quinn, the new girl in town. Quinn is beautiful and smart and funny and has blue hair. Sunny’s surgery also brings Lena back into her life. Finally sober and hoping to reconnect with her daughter, Lena has been out of the picture for eight years, and Sunny isn’t sure how she feels about her birth mother’s reappearance. Little by little, Lena begins to earn her trust, but her reappearance causes tension between Kate and Lena. Thank goodness Sunny has Quinn, even if being close to Quinn makes her new heart beat a little too quickly.
Blake is adept at portraying same-sex relationships between young characters with honesty and compassion—the excitement of first-time romance, as well as the fears and doubts that accompany any new relationship, especially one that risks the disapproval of friends and family. Sunny struggles to navigate the ups and downs of her life just as she does the swells and lulls of the sea as she’s learning to surf. Lena teaches her how to spot the next good wave: “You have to learn how to be patient and daring at the same time.”
It takes a lot of both to survive a heart transplant, and the one thing Sunny is sure of is that she wouldn’t have this messy, confusing, incredible life at all if not for her heart donor: “I’m alive because they’re dead,” she thinks. “That’s not something I can ever forget. I wonder what their name was and what their favorite color was and if they liked soccer or if they liked to read. Look, it’s the sea, I whisper to them in my head. Isn’t it beautiful?”
A graduate of Auburn University, Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.