“I’m going to die today.”
That’s the opening line of the heart-breaking (in the best way) middle grade novel THE MIGHTY HEART OF SUNNY St. JAMES by Ashley Herring Blake. Sunny is a 12-year-old girl going into summer without her best friend, but with a new heart. Literally. After two years of restricted activity and oxygen tanks, she has a plan for a New Life post heart transplant. Things seem to be progressing, albeit slowly, when a new friend brings up feelings Sunny wants to deny and the mother who abandoned her eight years ago returns to her life. Despite huge life-changing events, this wonderful story grounds its characters in friendship, family, internal conflicts, and raw emotions that will feel authentic and relatable to readers. With deep affection for each character, this novel tackles queerness, parental abandonment and reunification, major health issues, and more typical attempts at independence and coming-of-age.
Sunny is a likable, thoughtful, poetry-writing character whose resistance to her own emotions will have readers cheering her on and wanting to give her a hug. Scenes that describe mean girl behavior are painful, and they set up her feelings of isolation and her resistance to embracing her romantic feelings for Quinn, a new girl in town. Sunny’s confusion around who she wants to kiss (part of her summer quest is “Find a boy and kiss him”) emerges naturally, and what is soon clear to the reader grows more slowly for Sunny as the story progresses. Quinn, as a character, is also very likable and relatable. And more than a side-character, she brings a depth to the struggles developed throughout the novel. The friendship and budding romance between the two girls is intense, genuine, and portrayed with heart-felt care.
In addition, Sunny’s relationship with her guardian Kate is loving, but deeply strained because Kate is hyper-protective due to Sunny’s heart condition. The return of Lena, Sunny’s cool and rock-n-roll mother, brings up both loyalty and frustration with Kate and heightens Sunny’s urge to be free of restrictions. This tender storyline is portrayed gently and realistically, with disappointments, anger, and yearning for connection all wrapped into an adolescent heart. Between arguments, lies, vulnerable conversations, and confusing loyalties, the parent-triangle comes across as believable even as it feels so painful. What is never in doubt is that Sunny is loved from all sides, and also that she is a regular kid in extraordinary circumstances.
The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James is an easy read because readers will want to know how things turn out for the characters. The story flows smoothly between conflicts and joys and disappointments, and while the events feel overwhelming and rushed, much like adolescence, it never condescends to its middle grade audience. Adult readers will appreciate the portrayal of adults as whole characters and not caricatures relegated to the sidelines.