The winners of Butterfly Girl and butterfly swag bags are…

Thank you all for stopping by the Mixed-Up Files and entering the Butterfly Girl giveaway. I loved learning more about Sarah and how the book came to be in her fun and inspiring interview…and I can’t wait to try the sensory writing exercise!

Here are the giveaway winners:

The winner of two signed books plus a cool butterfly swag bag for a teacher or media specialist is:

Erin Beaver


The winner of a signed book plus a cool butterfly swag bag is:

Carl Scott


Congrats to the winners! We’ll contact you soon so you can receive your prize.

Ashley Herring Blake Interview + Giveaway

I’m thrilled to welcome Ashley Herring Blake to the blog today. Ashley’s middle grade novel The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James just released this week, and she stopped by the Mixed-Up Files to tell us about it and to offer an autographed copy. (See details on the giveaway at the end of the interview.)

First, here’s a little bit about Ashley and the novel:

Ashley Herring Blake lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her husband and two sons. She is the author of the middle-grade novel and ALA Stonewall Honor book Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World as well as the young adult novels Suffer Love, How to Make a Wish, and Girl Made of Stars. Her newest middle-grade novel is The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James. You can find more about her on her website and on twitter and instagram.



Twelve-year-old Sunny St. James navigates heart surgery, reconnecting with her lost mother, first kisses, and emerging feelings for another girl in this stunning, heartfelt novel–perfect for fans of Ali Benjamin and Erin Entrada Kelly. When Sunny St. James receives a new heart, she decides to set off on a “New Life Plan”: 1) do awesome amazing things she could never do before; 2) find a new best friend; and 3) kiss a boy for the first time. Her “New Life Plan” seems to be racing forward, but when she meets her new best friend Quinn, Sunny questions whether she really wants to kiss a boy at all. With the reemergence of her mother, Sunny begins a journey to becoming the new Sunny St. James. This sweet, tender novel dares readers to find the might in their own hearts.



What was the inspiration behind the story of The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James?

Sunny started out with a few things: A motherless girl, mermaids, and the ocean. I knew I wanted to write about a girl whose mother had left her at a very young age because of alcoholism and I wanted that mother to show up again. I wanted to explore what happens when someone who’s hurt you truly does rehabilitate—what does forgiveness look like, does that relationship have a future. I also wanted to write about a different kind of family, one that is both biological and found. The heart transplant part of the story came a bit later, as I was figuring out exactly what kind of girl Sunny is. The concept, honestly, took me a bit by surprise, but once I started thinking about it, I was intrigued to explore the challenges Sunny would encounter.


When the novel opens, Sunny is just about to have a heart transplant. I love the thought she has later about trying to make her new heart fit into her head like it fits into her body. Also, the part about her suddenly liking butterscotch pudding. It made me wonder how much research you had to do to come up with these insights into the mind of a heart transplant recipient.

Most of the research I did about heart transplants was medical. Surgery time, recovery, medication they have to take afterward, what kind of physical activity they can do and how soon after the surgery they can do it. I did pull on some knowledge I had before starting the book, about how amputees feel phantom pain and things like that. I read some blogs by transplantees that gave me some valuable insight into the emotional aspects of having a transplant. I also did a lot of thinking about Sunny, a lot of visualization. I imagined how strange it might feel to have your most important body part taken away and replaced with someone else’s, someone who had to die in order for you to have that body part. Writing, for me, is a careful balance between accurate research and empathy. In order to develop a character the way I want, the kind of character I want to read, I have to put myself in that character’s shoes as much as possible.


This novel and your previous middle grade novel, Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World, both deal with girls who have crushes on other girls. Why do you feel it’s important that there be more books like this for middle grade readers?

Simply put, these books are important because there are kids who need them. Millions of kids are questioning their identity, are already sure of their queer identity, or are just curious about thoughts and feelings they’re having that they’re just not quite sure what to do with. We’ve all heard stories about people who didn’t come out until their twenties, thirties, but who always had these feelings about their sexual identity that they didn’t feel safe divulging, didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about it, or some combination of the two. Stories like Ivy and Sunny give kids a safe place to wonder. They give them a sense that they are not alone. They help them see they are worthy of time, of attention, of a conversation, of love. We need more books like these because kids need more books like these.


Sunny’s mother, an alcoholic who left Sunny with a friend several years before the novel opens, suddenly shows up in her life after the heart transplant. Was it difficult writing a character who abandoned her child?

It was actually. I’m a mother myself and I had to really reach to find reasons why I would ever leave my kids. Lena, Sunny’s mother, truly believed it was the best thing for Sunny and indeed, it might’ve been, but it’s still hard to justify a mother leaving her child and for eight years. Lena was an interesting character to write, which is why I wanted to write about this situation. There’s not an easy solution for Sunny and Lena and I wanted to show that, that life is messy, motherhood and childhood is messy, forgiveness is messy. Kate, Sunny’s guardian, made it a little easier to write. Through writing Lena’s story, I knew all the while that Sunny was deeply loved and cared for, so that was a little bit of comfort. Not every child has that, however, and we can’t forget those kids either.


You write both middle grade novels and young adult novels, can you talk a bit about the difference between the two?

It’s been interesting writing both these past couple of years. I don’t shy away from difficult topics in middle grade. In fact, I could easily see the same issue and topics from Ivy and Sunny in a young adult novel. I think the difference is simply the language I use to express these topics and situations and the lens through which I’m viewing them. A twelve year old’s understanding of an alcoholic mother is much different than a seventeen year old’s, which I wrote about in my young adult novel How to Make a Wish. I have to think about things like vocabulary, maturity, and emotional/physical/psychological development. Another difference is how I approach sexuality. In YA, I explored sex a lot more. In MG, it’s more about sexuality as identity rather than the actual act of making out and having sex. In writing YA or MG, it’s all about my target audience and that’s who I have to think about while writing.


One of the things I loved about the novel is how well your words get the reader to feel the emotions of the characters. Do you have any tips for writers on how to do this?

That is a great question and I wish I had a quick and easy tip. I have many flaws as a writer, but I do think I do emotions pretty well and the only thing I can think that contributes to that semi-competent execution is really knowing your character. Ruminate on them. Picture yourself in their shoes. Think about how you would feel it that were you. Know their needs, wants, and end goal before you start writing. Those may change, for sure, but one thing that drove Sunny throughout the book was her desire for a best friend, to kiss someone, and to do amazing things she never got to do when she was sick. Knowing she wanted those three simple things helped me understand how she would react in certain situations. I also needed to know her backstory. I like to think about backstory as the ghost. What is haunting that character? What do they carry on their back? So it’s not everything they’ve ever seen and done. It’s what haunts them. And for Sunny that was her mother leaving her when she was four, which as I dug deeper into that, meant she questioned whether or not she was lovable and worth the trouble. This was further developed with her issues with her former best friend. So you can see how knowing, solidly, just a few things about my character opened up a large emotional landscape for the novel.

Thanks so much, Ashley, for these great answers and for taking the time out to visit the blog.

To be the lucky winner of a copy of The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James, leave a comment below. I’ll choose a winner at random on Sunday at midnight and announce it on Monday. (U.S. only please.)



Interview and 3 book + swag bag giveaway with Sarah Floyd


I’d like to welcome Sarah Floyd to the Mixed-Up Files blog.

Thanks so much, Mindy! This is a dream come true for me. I’m a huge fan of this blog!


Huge congrats on the launch of your debut middle grade novel! How did you come up with the idea for Butterfly Girl?  

Butterfly Girl, or at least the idea of flying, has percolated in my mind for as long as I can remember. As a child I often dreamed of flying (sleeping dreams as well as daydreams), and on one particularly windy day in kindergarten, I ran across the playground with my umbrella open and lifted two feet off the ground. If my umbrella hadn’t flipped inside-out, breaking its spines, I might have flown right over the rooftop! As a fourth grader, my friends and I tried to levitate. During lunch period, we sat cross-legged on our school’s tall lab tables, eyes closed in meditation, whispering “light as a feather” and waiting to float toward the ceiling, mind over matter. And in sixth grade we created wings out of cardboard and duct tape and ran down the hills of San Francisco (where I grew up), flapping our arms and trying to fly. None of our attempts were successful, but there was a delicious sense of almost flying, that the secret was ever so slightly out of reach. That secret, that mysterious missing ingredient, is magic—and that’s why the book’s main character Meghan can fly, and I still can’t!


What was the hardest part about writing Butterfly Girl?

Butterfly Girl literally woke me up at 5:00 every morning, demanding to be written. I navigated daily life distracted by thoughts of magic spells, wings, farming, paparazzi, frenemies, and first crushes. I became a master list-maker and relied on timers to pry myself away from the manuscript to take care of my family and other responsibilities. Some days my head was so full of characters chatting with each other and plot points twisting and turning that I could hardly fall asleep at night!


I love when a manuscript begs for attention like that!

What type of research did you have to do so we could experience circus and farm settings and what inspired you to include them in Butterfly Girl?

Most of the settings in my writing have a personal connection to my own life, although I often do additional research to support my understanding and add details. So, farm life and the circus both have a basis in my own history.

I spent my early childhood on the Big Sur coast of California, near the Salinas Valley, the most productive agricultural region in California. Farm life was all around me, part of the landscape. My best friend’s mom had a wonderful organic garden (smaller in scale but similar to Meghan and her grandfather’s garden), where I learned about composting, organic fertilizer, and the challenges and rewards of working the land. For accuracy in the book, I researched crops that would thrive in Oregon, where Butterfly Girl takes place, as well as bird species and geographical details that are specific to that state. The idea of terraced farmland came from the year I spent in Malaysia as a ten-year-old, where fields are often cut into the hillsides like terraces, which helps maximize irrigation and land use (it’s a method that some savvy organic farmers have also adopted here in the United States).

The circus element in the book comes from my current life in Florida—the Ringling Circus Museum is located in Sarasota, Florida, about an hour from where I live. It is the former winter home for that circus, and over time, many performers have settled in Florida year-round. There’s a strong sense of family within the circus community, which was a perfect fit for Meghan’s mom. The notion of her running off to join the circus came from a childhood memory of my teenage brother taking me to the circus . . . everything about it seemed magical and exciting, so different from anything I had ever experienced, and I remember him talking about how the circus moves from town to town, and often attracts runaways. He wondered who in the crowd might run away and join the circus that very night! That idea stuck with me—the circus was the perfect place for Meghan’s mom to disappear for a while, and it suited her spotlight-loving personality.  


Wow! I love seeing your connection to the settings in Butterfly Girl.

You weave in lots of senses and find unique ways to describe things that really make us feel like we’re there–things like baseball sized tomatoes, shiny red strawberries the size of a baby’s fist, and Greta’s eyes glinted like shards of green glass.

Can you share a writing exercise that will help students (as well as writers) dig deeper to find creative ways to make their prose pop?

This is a fun and easy exercise that taps into emotions to create vivid imagery. Later, students might label their sentences as similes or metaphors, or categorize parts of each sentence, but ideally this starts as a brainstorming session to unlock creativity and show students how to come up with fresh, vibrant imagery. Students can work individually, or if groups are preferred, they can collaborate by using a shared list or index cards to come up with their group’s sentences.  


Sensory writing exercise:

Combining sensory details with mood words is a great way to create more depth and emotion in your writing. A deeper emotional connection helps readers immerse themselves in the story by experiencing whatever your characters are feeling. Here’s how to get started:

  1. Make a list on the board or a sheet of paper, or use index cards to write one or two Sensory Details for each sense: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Here are some examples:

Sight: sun beaming, the sky

Sound: my dog barking, birds chirping

Smell: bread baking, fragrance of wildflowers wafting on the breeze

Touch: velvet texture of moss, rain dripping onto skin

Taste: sour lemon, cotton candy

(“Taste” is tricky—along with taste words like sour, sweet, or salty, I sometimes use an actual food item to create the emotion I’m trying to convey, such as “cotton candy clouds,” a cheerful and pleasant image.)

  1. Make a list of Mood Words (things, not feelings) that match whatever emotion or mood you would like to create. So, for “happy,” my list might include:

a gold medal

a life raft

a heart

a cake

the summer sky (sky is on both lists—some words can be both sensory and mood words!)

  1. Now, mix it up! Combine a Sensory Detail with a Mood Word to express each of the five senses and create more emotional depth. Here are some examples:


The sun beamed like a gold medal above the finish line as I rounded the final bend.


Marley’s familiar bark echoed across the distance, a life raft in the storm.


 Cotton candy clouds floated across the summer sky.


Sensory details combined with mood words will make your writing more vivid, emotional, and memorable. Try different combinations and see what happens! 

Thank you so much for that fantastic writing exercise!

If Meghan wanted to be anything besides a butterfly, what would it be…and why? What would you want to be?

Meghan wishes she could fly like a butterfly, but the wings she grows aren’t actually butterfly wings, although there’s a connection to butterflies—which I can’t talk about without spoiling. : ) The shape of her wings is reminiscent of a butterfly’s wings, but they are sturdy and flexible, with a leathery consistency, not delicate and fragile. If given a choice, she might have liked to grow bird wings, if it was only about flying . . . but from the author’s point of view, Meghan’s longing for wings and her connection to butterflies is also about her longing for independence, and about the transition from childhood to becoming a young woman—coming of age. So, even though bird wings would have worked, the idea of a butterfly’s metamorphosis from a crawling caterpillar to a joyful winged-creature seemed like a perfect fit on a meta-level, and was more emotionally resonant.

As far as what I would want to be, I would want to be myself, but with the ability to “think” myself airborne. When I fly in dreams, I just think myself into the air and suddenly there I am, flying. I love when that happens!


What’s something unique people don’t know about you?

I know how to ride a unicycle! I learned when I was eleven and my cool older sister received a unicycle for Christmas, which she promptly hid in the garage. The boys on my block laughed at my clumsy attempts to ride it, so of course I had to learn how! That stubbornness (let’s call it tenacity) helped me stick it out through many clumsy manuscripts and queries—thank you, trusty old unicycle! I passed the unicycle along to my young nephew—he was so excited to try it, and over time I realized I wasn’t riding it very often (my husband and son both have two-wheeled bikes, which are faster and more stable for the longer distances we travel together). It’s great to see someone else enjoying my old unicycle, and keeping it in the family means I still get to ride it once in a while. I will never completely turn away from that determined little girl who worked so hard to learn how to balance on one wheel.


I love how a unique activity when you were a child shows the determination that helped you become a published author!

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?

I have wanted to write for children since I was in elementary school, and finally decided to go for it when my now sixteen-year-old son was in kindergarten. I started with picture books and then branched out to include writing for tweens and teens. I’m happy to share that my first picture book will be released soon, Ten Clever Ninjas. It’s an incredible feeling to finally see some of my work making its way into the world!


Congratulations, Sarah! It’s great to see your childhood dream of being a children’s author come true. Thank you for stopping by the Mixed-Up Files and letting us celebrate with you.

Thank you so much for having me, Mindy! It has been an honor and a pleasure to chat with you! : )


To learn more about Sarah, stop by her website and follow her on Twitter.


Sarah has generously donated 3 signed copies of Butterfly Girl along with awesome butterfly swag bags which include bookmarks, stickers, tattoos, and other surprises!


Twelve-year-old Meghan is abandoned on her grandfather’s Oregon farm, stumbles on an ancestor’s magic spell book . . . and sprouts wings. When her absentee-mother shows up with superstar plans for her Winged Wonder Girl, Meghan must decide if a Hollywood life with the mother she longed for is worth leaving the friends who stood by her, and Grandpa, who loved her before the whole world knew her name.




2 signed books plus a cool butterfly swag bag for a teacher or media specialist

*1 book for a teacher or media specialist

*1 for their classroom, media center, or library

a Rafflecopter giveaway

A signed book plus a cool butterfly swag bag

a Rafflecopter giveaway

*These giveaways are good in the U.S. and Canada

Winners will be announced on Sunday, March 31. Good luck!