Posts Tagged #authorinterview

Author Spotlight: Landra Jennings + a GIVEAWAY

In today’s Author Spotlight, Jo Hackl chats with author Landra Jennings about her debut middle-grade novel, The Whispering Fog (Clarion Books, September 13). She’ll share her inspiration behind writing it and the real-life elements upon which she drew. (Spoiler alert: it just might include a dog).  Plus, there’s a chance to win a signed Advance Reader Copy of Landra’s book if you enter the giveaway. Scroll down for details.

Book Summary:

The Whispering Fog combines a mysterious South Carolina swamp, a determined sister, an endearing dog, and three friends who join together on a common mission. In the book, a twelve-year-old girl, Neve, moves to the fictional town of Etters, South Carolina with her mom and older sister, Rose, after their parents separate. Only eleven months apart in age, the sisters are in the same grade and do the same activities. Quiet, creative Neve is used to having Rose take the lead in most everything. Things change, however, when Neve witnesses Rose being swept away by a mysterious fog and must figure out what to do. The only people who believe Neve about the fog are two classmates who’ve each had their own supernatural encounters in the town. The trio work together to figure out what happened to Rose and how to bring her back.

Interview with Landra Jennings

JH: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Landra!  Thanks for joining us today.

LJ: Thank you so much for having me.

JH:  First I have to tell you how much I loved The Whispering Fog and devoured it in one sitting. Your book evokes the swamps of the South—brimming with mystery, magic and abundant heart. Neve is the perfect guide to this strange and unsettling world and I couldn’t put her story down.  Can you please tell us about your inspiration to write the book?

LJ: Thank you, thank you, thank you! There were several things that led me to this story. One was a fairy tale I read as a child: Snow-White and Rose-Red by the Brothers Grimm. I particularly remember a picture book with gorgeous illustrations. I enjoyed the tale of inseparable sisters who never fought and were endlessly good, but I always thought it would be more interesting if the sisters seemed more like real sisters. Why were they so very attached? Why did they never even get frustrated with each other, not even once? I have three sisters and though I love them dearly, we definitely did not always get along. I even used the names from the fairy tale—the name Neve is a derivation from the Latin word nivis which means ‘snow.’ Second, I wanted to set a story in South Carolina, where I live. The more things I took from my own life, I figured, the less I would have to research or invent. Third, I love spooky and fantastical stories. I had been trying my hand at those types of stories for a long while but I couldn’t find the right angle. I always thought that fairy tales in their original forms (not the animated versions!) were scary and at times even disturbing, so I leaned into that. I wanted this story to have a spooky edge.

The Appeal of Spooky

JH: Why spooky? What appeals to you about that?

LJ: I love spooky stories in general. I’ve been reflecting on why that is. I think that, for middle grade fiction, it’s because I believe it is important for kids to see young protagonists facing big, scary things and finding their own strength in getting through it. Overcoming fear is an important life skill because, let’s face it, life can be pretty scary at times. I also like dealing with strong and deep-seated emotions, and scary situations in books can bring out that adrenaline rush or visceral reaction that is related to the big emotions I’m exploring. The spookiness then ends up serving a larger purpose in the story. In The Whispering Fog, the scary situations Neve must face represent the fear she has of separating from her sister.


JH: You mentioned research. What was your research process like?  What is the most interesting fact that you learned?

LJ: I did have to do research. I mixed the real world with fantastical elements, so I was asking the reader to take a leap with me. I wanted to anchor the reader in the “real” part of the story with as much authenticity as I could so that the leap into fantasy felt believable. So many of the research sources are online these days, which can at times yield questionable results, but I tried to make sure sources were credible ones. There were many things I had to research, including: The small differences in the climate between upstate SC and the midlands of SC, where the story is set. The science of Mutualism for the class project (I loved reading about futuristic designs for communal living with animals, for instance). And tomatoes, because of Piper’s love for them. Lots of tomato research was done! I was very surprised to discover that the tomato is the world’s most popular fruit (yes, it is a fruit!). According to WorldAtlas, tomatoes compete with bananas for popularity, but tomatoes are the clear winner with 182 million metric tons harvested annually. Although I loved the research, my editor was firm on reining in any fact-sharing that wasn’t used in service to the story. Tomatoes, for instance, are important to Piper for a very specific reason, which becomes clear in the story. And Mutualism is another way of thinking about the evolution of the relationship between Neve and Rose.

JH: The book is set in a South Carolina swamp. What was the most surprising thing that you learned about swamps in your research process?

LJ: Maybe how badly they can smell? That peat smell is something to get used to, for sure. But I’ve always been fascinated by swamps and the important role they play in the environment. There are over 500 swamps in South Carolina! But I had to go a little south of where I live to find them. There are no swamps in the upstate. The ones in Kershaw Country in the middle of the state are the most similar to the fictional one in the book. An interesting fact about swamps is there is a misconception that swamps have standing water all of the time. They have water long enough to support certain plants that need wet soil, but many wetlands are seasonally dry. They come and they go. Naturally, this led me to imagine an evil fog that soaked up all of that water and went creeping around.

The Role of Magic

JH: That brings us to the magic, because the fog is obviously magical. What role does magic play in the book? Why did you include it?

LJ: First of all, I wanted to amplify that power imbalance. Neve has to face a very powerful opponent—the witch in the swamp who has access to magic. Neve must face the witch with just her regular old self; she doesn’t have any magical powers and she can’t solve her problems using magic. Secondly, I like including magic because I think fantastical stories can be more palatable mediums for readers to work out big emotions; the situations seem much more removed from real life. Thirdly, I used magic to get the parents and other potentially helpful adults out of the way so that Neve would have to solve the problem. And, finally, greater-than-life fantastical elements have always appealed to me in signaling a powerful change in the hero.

Favorite Character

JH: Who was your favorite character to write?

LJ: Piper. I loved Piper from the beginning. Her smarts, her determination to find her sister, her love of tomatoes, her streak of independence. Piper is who she is with no apologies. That part of her I felt was a role model for Neve in learning to become her own person.

Favorite Scene

JH: What was your favorite scene to write?

LJ: The climactic scene where everything comes together ended up being my most favorite to write but also my least favorite. That was because it was the most difficult to write. It was the most rewritten scene in the entire book. But that moment when I finally found the right lines and felt Neve come into her own…yes! It was a very nice moment for me.

To the Heart of The Whispering Fog

JH: What would you most like for readers to take away from the book?

LJ: At its heart, the book is about believing in yourself and following your own instincts. No one should require someone else to guide them in everything they do in life. There is a difference between healthy attachment and dependence / co-dependence. I would love my readers to realize they are enough just as they are and to search for their own voice.

Fairy-Tale Inspiration for an Intriguing Dog

JH: Can you tell us about the inspiration for the dog character in the book?

LJ: The name of the dog in the book is Bear, as the dog character is my interpretation of the heroic prince from the original fairy tale (who was bewitched into bear form). I was also inspired by our family’s Labrador, Lucky. If you know Labradors, you know that food is their love language and they are most attached to the person who feeds them, which is me. Lucky has been my constant companion and shadow for 13 years now. He’s gotten me through a lot of things—not an evil fog exactly—but a lot of difficult times. Lucky IS a prince of a dog, incredibly calm and understanding, who also loves to be scratched behind the ears, much like the dog in the book.

Lightning Round!

No MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so. . . .

Preferred writing snack: Dark Chocolate with mint

Coffee or tea? Tea! Green decaffeinated

Favorite animal? I am fascinated by birds of all sorts

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay? Nay, zombies are not for me, although I do love vampires

Superpower you’d love to have? Telekinesis, to bring my tea and chocolate in from the kitchen

Favorite place on earth? Mountains—Snowmass might be my favorite

Hidden talent? I can predict future happenings with the power of my anxiety

If you were stranded on a desert island and could pack three things, what would they be? The practical answer is probably a knife, but I’d also have to say my abridged copy of Les Miserables and dental floss


JH: How can readers obtain a copy of the book?

LJ: The book can be preordered at your local independent bookstores, Barnes and Noble, or Amazon, or any place books are sold. Personalized copies can be preordered at Fiction Addiction in Greenville, SC:


And now. . . .

a Rafflecopter giveaway

For a chance to win a copy of The Whispering Fog, comment on the blog—and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files Twitter account, for an extra chance to win!  (Giveaway ends August 27, 2022, MIDNIGHT EST.) U.S. only, please.


About the Author 

Landra Jennings writes fantasy novels for preteens – ages 8 through 12 – but appreciates readers of all ages! She loved books before she could read – as a toddler she’d turn the pages of books for hours. As a preteen, she’d strictly manage the list of library books checked out by her and her younger siblings. She turned this love of management and list-making into an adult career as a management consultant, working in Atlanta and Chicago. However, these days she has returned to her love of books and story, writing fairy-tale influenced fantasy like the stories that so fascinated her as a child. Landra has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University where she won the Anne Tews Schwab Scholarship in Excellence in Critical Writing and the Walden Pond Press Scholarship in Middle Grade Fiction and Nonfiction. Today, Landra lives with her husband and sons in Greenville, South Carolina. You can learn more about Landra on her website and follow her on Instagram.


How To Write Chapter Books with 8 Chapter Book Authors

From the Mixed Up Files writer Samantha M Clark here, and a couple weeks ago, my debut chapter book series, the GEMSTONE DRAGONS, was released by Bloomsbury. Moving from writing my middle-grade to writing chapter books has been a lot of fun but also had some challenges. So for this post, I chatted with some other chapter book authors about their experiences writing for this category and want to share what we said.

Before I get to our chat, a few quick notes about chapter books, in case you don’t know what they are:

  • While the sweet spot for MG readers is 8 and up, chapter books are generally appropriate for ages 6 and up.
  • They’re shorter than middle-grade too. My shortest MG, AMERICAN HORSE TALES: HOLLYWOOD, is 20,000 words. Chapter books, however, are usually between 8,000 to 12,000 words. My GEMSTONE DRAGONS are each around 10,000 words, laid out in the book with lots of spacing between the lines and a bigger font size.
  • Also, although MGs sometimes have interior illustrations, chapter books always have them. For example, the first GEMSTONE DRAGONS book has 16 illustrations sprinkled throughout the 111-page story.
  • And finally, chapter books are nearly always designed to be series; quick, multiple-read books that hook young readers into becoming lifelong readers.

So, how do you write them? In this post, you’ll hear from the following authors:

Marya Khan and the Incredible Henna Party by Saadia FaruqiSaadia Faruqi, whose brand new MARYA KHAN AND THE INCREDIBLE HENNA PARTY launches from Abrams Kids on October 18, with a second book, MARYA KHAN AND THE FABULOUS JASMINE GARDEN coming out March 28

Kelly Starling Lyons, whose first two books in the MILES LEWIS series, KING OF THE ICE and WHIZ KID, came out from Penguin Workshop in July

Kathryn Holmes, whose CLASS CRITTERS series from Abrams/Amulet added the third book, MADISON MORRIS IS NOT A MOUSE!, on August 16

Jennifer Torres, whose CATALINA INCOGNITO series published by Aladdin, is adding its fourth book, SKATEBOARD STAR, on November 22

Debbi Michiko Florence, whose fifth JASMINE TOGUCHI book, BRAVE EXPLORER, comes out from FSGBYR/Macmillan on October 18

Rie Neal, whose third and fourth books in her ASTRID THE ASTRONAUT series, published by Aladdin, are coming soon: HYDROPONIC HIJINKS on October 11 and ROBOT REBELLION on February 28

Lyla Lee, whose eighth book in her MINDY KIM series, MINDY KIM MAKES A SPLASH, came out this past July from Aladdin/Simon and Schuster

(And by the way, all these authors and two others are offering books in a giant giveaway right now here. Ends Aug. 20.)

Samantha: What did chapter books mean to you as a kid and what were your favorites?

Rie: I loved chapter books as a kid! I think I especially enjoyed the predictability of the setting and characters, the fact that I could read them so quickly, and … they had pictures!! I kept reading chapter books even when I was older, sometimes, when I wanted a quick dose of comfort. My favorites were the Polk Street School Kids and Babysitter’s Little Sister.

Samantha: Same here on the comfort. I loved the illustrations in chapter books and would scour them for every detail that had been in the text. When I saw the illustrations for my GEMSTONE DRAGONS books, I did the same.

Mindy Kim Makes a Splash by Lyla LeeLyla: As an immigrant and child of immigrants who came to the US at a young age, chapter books in English were my first exposure to “American culture.” In order to understand the new country I lived in and also catch up on the stories (fantasy or contemporary) my new friends in the US liked to read, I read a lot and even taught myself English through these books. I had quite a few favorites but I especially loved the Ramona Quimby books and The Magic Tree House series.

Samantha: I love that, Lyla! Why did you all want to write a chapter book series?

Saadia: I have a very popular early reader series called YASMIN, perfect for kids upto second grade. Once those readers grow a little older, they want something more advanced and complicated, but they’re not ready yet for middle grade novels. After several requests from parents and teachers about this gap, I decided to write a series for YASMIN fans who are older now.

Miles Lewis: King of the Ice by Kelly Starling LyonsKelly: Growing up, I loved to read, but I didn’t see chapter book series with Black kids as the stars. That invisibility sent a message that our stories didn’t matter. I knew that they did. My mom wrote and acted in Black theater. Our home was filled with books about heroes like Mary McLeod Bethune and Malcolm X. I didn’t realize it then, but a seed was being planted that I could help make a difference through writing books that centered Black children.

It was like coming full circle when my debut, NEATE: EDDIE’S ORDEAL, a chapter book in a series created by Just Us Books was published. I enjoyed coming up with a plot for their wonderful characters and dreamed of one day having a series of my own. A decade later, a Penguin Workshop editor invited me to write an early chapter book. Here was my chance to create the characters I longed to see. At every school and library I visit, there are children who are unsung. They need to know that they’re seen and loved. Toni Morrison famously said, “If there is a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.” My MILES LEWIS and JADA JONES series are tributes to kids who dare to shine by being who they are.

Catalina Incognito: Skateboard Star by Jennifer TorresJennifer: Chapter books meet kids when they are beginning to see themselves as readers. To me, there’s something so special about that moment. Like Kelly, I want children, especially children who are newly devouring words, to see themselves and their stories in books. To be able to picture themselves having magical adventures like Catalina, who reflects my own Mexican-American background and experience.

Samantha: Such great answers. Chapters really are a great bridge between early readers and MG, and as the sweet spot — I think — for helping kids become life-long readers, it is SO important that all children are represented. When you first set out to write a chapter book, what did you do to prepare?

Kelly: My best advice is to read mentor texts. That’s where I started. When I was writing for Just Us Books’ NEATE series, they sent me the first three titles to study. That helped me understand how to draw readers in, the way chapter books are put together, what elements help establish characters and aid in their growth and development through the story. I did the same when writing my JADA JONES and MILES LEWIS series. I read other chapter books to see what styles resonated with me, what innovations I could bring and learn some structural tips. Read the mentor texts for the joy of the story and then take them apart and figure out how the writer made them sing.

Class Critters: Madison Morris Is Not A Mouse by Kathryn HolmesKathryn: Like Kelly, I did a lot of reading of the chapter books that were already on shelves. I’d previously published YA (and had written MG, though my first published MG will not release until 2024), so I needed to get a sense of both the younger voice and the rhythm of a story of this length. Additionally, my daughter was a toddler when I started working on the CLASS CRITTERS series, and when I took her to the playground, I found myself observing young elementary schoolers. How were they interacting with one another? What kinds of conversations were they having? What issues were they dealing with that I could potentially tackle in a story? Being a fly on the wall, so to speak, gave me a lot of inspiration and insight.

Rie: ASTRID isn’t my first chapter book series (I did a write-for-hire series for Little Bee Books before this), but I wanted to put my two cents in for this one! Yes to mentor texts for sure! And in terms of getting into the language level for chapter books, one tool I’ve found really helpful is to use a service that will scan your draft and give you a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score (or any other similar metric). My tendency is to write my first drafts at more of a middle-grade reading level, which is too complex for chapter books. So, after I go through developmental edits, I use the Flesch-Kincaid (it’s available through MS Word in Editor–Document Stats–Insights), and I go through sentence by sentence until I’ve simplified the language down to between a 1.0 and 2.0 grade level rating. It sounds super tedious, I know, but it has really helped me!

Samantha: I analyzed mentor texts too! I bought some and borrowed a bunch more from the library, then I looked at everything from chapter breaks, number of chapters, sentence structures, voice… I broke down some of the stories into outlines so I could see how they were different of the same to my MG. And I did have the problem of making some of my language too MG when I was working on books 3 and 4, which come out on Dec. 27. I’ll have to remember the Flesch-Kincaid tip, Rie! It seems like a lot of us also write MG. Outside of language, how is writing chapter books different from writing MG?

Saadia: In some ways, it’s the same. You still have to write the best possible story, develop your characters, and take care of your craft. But in other ways, writing a chapter book is very different from middle grade novels. The plot has to be much simpler, and the main character takes center stage in a very obvious way. I think it’s so much fun writing chapter books!

Jasmine Toguchi: Brave Explorer by Debbi Michiko FlorenceDebbi: I agree with Saadia! As a writer, you still need to know and develop the characters just as deeply in chapter books as in novels for older readers. But because chapter books are for newly independent readers, it helps to create characters that have memorable personalities, quirks, and phrases so that the reader can anticipate some things and feel successful. Like how Jasmine Toguchi always says “Wowee zowee” when she’s excited and “Walnuts” when she’s disappointed. And also, chapter books are often part of a series, so it helps to be able to carry those things through all the books.

Samantha: Great tips! Speaking of series, how did you approach that aspect of chapter books, ie. creating characters and a world that would continue?

Kathryn: Because each book in the CLASS CRITTERS series has a different protagonist, I spent a lot of time world-building their classroom. I knew as I wrote book one, TALLY TUTTLE TURNS INTO A TURTLE, that every kid Tally interacted with was a potential protagonist down the line. I took the time to name every child and come up with an animal that they could transform into, as well as a possible reason for the transformation. I made a spreadsheet! With 24 kids in the class, I also had to think about how to introduce them in a way that would make them (and their idiosyncrasies) feel familiar in subsequent books without the number of characters ever becoming overwhelming. David Dixon (narrator of book 2) and Madison Morris (narrator of book 3) both appear in Tally Tuttle’s story, and Tally features in their books—but David and Madison’s stories also introduce kids that aren’t in Tally’s story. So, with each book, the classroom feels a little more fleshed out. No kid is just a side character; they all have the potential to be the hero of their own story one day.

Jennifer: While each of the books stands alone, I knew I wanted the main character, Catalina, to grow and change over the course of the series. So I kept track of the skills she develops from book-to-book and spent a lot of time thinking through how her relationships with others would shift as she learns and responds to challenges. I also had some threads I wanted to pull through all four books: Cat’s Stitch and Share lessons at the library, her best friend’s latest telenovela obsession, a magical disguise. I think that helped create a consistent and familiar world.

Astrid the Astronaut by Rie NealRie: For Astrid, I wanted to use the breadth of the series to especially show how she’s growing as a team player and as a friend. Teamwork is SO important for astronauts (and for so many other professions, and just for life in general! Ha!), and it’s something that Astrid doesn’t really factor into her plan in the beginning–she’s too focused on doing things her way. So while each book has its own plot and character arc for Astrid, the greater arc of the series also shows her friend circle slowly expanding with each book–often with characters only mentioned briefly in previous books later becoming Astrid’s friends (instead of just acquaintances–or in the case of Pearl, enemies!).

Lyla: With MINDY KIM, I wrote books about topics that I myself cared about/found interesting when I was a chapter book reader myself. Getting a puppy for the first time (and proving to my parents that I am responsible enough for one), feeling singled out and sometimes like a downright outcast when I was the new kid at school that packed food from my culture for lunch, trying to find ways to preserve ties to my family and culture as a child from an immigrant household (but still have fun, too!), or even something as seemingly simple as learning how to swim. Even though the series isn’t strictly autobiographical (Mindy’s family and mine are very different, for example), putting myself back into Kid Me’s shoes really helped me develop the series and the world of the books.

Samantha: Wonderful! What’s the biggest thing you have learned from writing this chapter book series so far?

Debbi: Chapter book readers are the best! These are newly independent readers, and there’s nothing like the feeling of pride, success, and joy of reading an entire book yourself, alone, for the first time. And because of this, these readers are extremely loyal and enthusiastic. I get the best reader mail from readers who fall in love with Jasmine Toguchi and I love recommending other chapter book series to them.

Lyla: For me, the biggest lesson I learned was definitely that the most seemingly random and specific experiences in life can actually resonate with a lot of people. For example, when I first wrote the first MINDY KIM book, MINDY KIM AND THE YUMMY SEAWEED BUSINESS, I thought: “Okay, so I had this not-so-good experience in third grade where I was the new kid and the other students made fun of the lunch I brought from home” and for the third book, MINDY KIM AND THE BIRTHDAY PUPPY, I thought: “Well, in third grade I was so obsessed with dogs that getting a dog was all I could think about/was my ultimate goal in life.” These (and other plot points that I didn’t mention here) are seemingly arbitrary things that I pulled from my own life, but I still get emails today from both adults and children telling me they could relate with these parts of the stories.

Samantha: What was the biggest challenge creating this chapter book series?

Kathryn: Writing a series with different protagonists means coming up with a new, distinct voice for each book. It was a challenge to make each protagonist sound like themself—rather than a third-person omniscient narrator telling everyone’s stories. But it’s a challenge I’ve loved! For instance, David Dixon was my first time ever writing a boy narrator, and it was a delight to get inside his head. (I channeled my five nephews…) One of the most satisfying moments in each book’s process has been when I can fully hear the character in my head, speaking in their own unique voice as they experience their adventure.

Gemstone Dragons: Opal's Time To Shine by Samantha M ClarkSamantha: Different voices would be a challenge! For the GEMSTONE DRAGONS, I used third person because it had the classic feel of the chapter books I had grown up with, so that has been easier. But I’d say the biggest challenge has been separating myself from the MG mindset when I’m working on chapter books. As Saadia said earlier, there are a lot of similarities. I plot the stories the same way as my MG, just with fewer subplots. But I have to keep the readers’ age in my head much more when I’m writing and revising for both the language and story. For example, book 3 in the series has spooky elements and it was challenging to find just the right level of spookiness for this age group. What’s your best tip for writers who want to get into chapter books?

Saadia: Read a ton of chapter books! There is a lot of variety in the books already out there, in terms of word count and reading level. You want to make sure you absorb all that variety before making up your mind about where your book will fit.

Jennifer: I agree with Saadia! In developing the CATALINA INCOGNITO series, what most helped me get a feel for the voice, pacing, and plot structure of chapter books, was reading lots of chapter books. Luckily, there are so many good examples (many of my favorites are represented here!) and studying them is a joy. I also think it’s good to spend some time understanding chapter book readers, and who they are developmentally. Many of them are exploring new kinds of independence, discovering strengths and interests, and navigating their roles in friend groups and teams. They’re kind and inquisitive and often hilarious. All of that can inform and enrich your writing.

Samantha: Yes! Great advice. This has been such a fun conversation. Thank you to everyone! And readers, good luck in creating your own chapter books.

An Interview with Author Heather Mateus Sappenfield

It’s great to have Heather Mateus Sappenfield at Mixed-Up Files, talking about her newest book – a middle grade – titled THE RIVER BETWEEN HEARTS.



On an ordinary Monday, Rill Kruse left for third grade with a dad, but when she came home, he’d been stolen. By a river. One year and thirteen days later—on the first morning of summer vacation—Rill still insists he’s on his way back home.

When Rill’s cat, Clifford, leads her to the family tree fort on the mountainside, she discovers a stowaway, Perla, who appears to be on the run. As Rill considers the events that led Perla to this moment, she embarks on an adventure that tests her understanding of the world and forms a friendship that defies boundaries. The lessons Rill learns nudge her—and all those she loves—toward healing.

Following in the footsteps of literary icons such as Kate DiCamillo with a spirited main character, a memorable adventure, and a heartfelt exploration of contemporary issues, “The River Between Hearts” is a middle grade novel bound to connect with readers of all ages.


What’s the inspiration behind this story?

In the mid-nineties, I taught high school language arts. Students who were new to America would turn up in my classes. Some of them were undocumented, yet I’d become a teacher to help anyone with a desire to learn. These students were a marvel to me because, despite knowing little, if any, English, and despite knowing few of the basics of daily life within the school, they managed to get by. Often admirably. Often while also working one or even two jobs after school.

Some mornings I’d walk through the school’s front doors to discover a group of them gathered in the lobby, crying and comforting each other because a family member, or maybe a few, had been rounded up for deportation the day or night before. I tried to imagine how that must feel: being left behind in a foreign country with no documentation and no family. Later, these students would be in my class, trying to concentrate, learn, and continue on. Their courage amazed me. When I started writing novels, I knew this was a story I would someday explore.


What does compassion mean to you?

This novel is a map of Rill’s journey to understanding compassion—how it feels, how to express it, how giving it to someone else can be a gateway to one’s own healing. Her teacher, Mr. Rainey, defines compassion as “a feeling of worry or pity for the suffering or misfortune of someone else.” The word pity, in its pure form, means sympathetic sorrow for one who is suffering, distressed, or unhappy. It can, however, carry the extra meaning of looking down on the thing you feel sorry for, and part of Rill’s journey is growing from seeing Perla as a “thing” to someone who is her equal and, ultimately, her friend. For me, that’s true compassion. I believe moments when we meet people who differ from us—in nationality, in ethnicity, in spiritual belief, in social strata—define us, and they have the potential to be among the most beautiful experiences available to us as human beings.


Who is this story for? Why explore immigration through a middle grade lens, rather than YA or adult?

When I state that this novel is “A read for all ages. A read for our times,” I’m being honest. It’s written through an almost-eleven-year-old’s eyes because Perla’s predicament is happening to kids—here in the Vail Valley, throughout Colorado, across our nation, and around the globe. I hope this novel illustrates the costs of apathy or indifference and, through Rill stumbling along and making mistakes, guides young readers toward compassion.

There’s an interesting dynamic that occurs when someone older reads a middle grade novel. Perhaps because these books are written and marketed for “children,” more mature readers tend to open the first page less guarded, and thus they’re unconsciously more susceptible to its messages. Middle grade novels are rarely simple, though. Young readers have agile minds, hungry to define their world, so these books are filled with depth and theme, irony and wit. Crafted to be easier to decode, there’s less filtering, so all this good stuff travels straight to the heart. I firmly believe every adult should read at least one middle grade book a year. It’s good for the soul.


From a craft perspective, how do you approach writing about difficult topics for younger ages?

Crafting middle grade stories is much harder for me than writing adult, or even YA, books. I relish a succulently worded description or turn of phrase, but for kids, I must do this so deftly that it’s seamless, with little or no overt artifice. There’s no nostalgia or looking back; I must be fully with the protagonist, viewing the world in that moment through their eyes. The rule “show don’t tell” is vitally important, especially when writing about difficult topics. So my characters move, via action and thought, toward figuring things out. Making mistakes is important. And they often don’t understand what motivates them, so the reader treks with them toward discovery.


What’s next for you on your literary journey?

Answer coming soon…waiting on exciting news!


About Heather:

HEATHER MATEUS SAPPENFIELD loves adventures, especially in the Rocky Mountain landscape that’s been her lifelong home. As part of women’s teams, she’s won 24-hour mountain bike races and road bicycling’s Race Across America—San Diego, California to Atlantic City, New Jersey. She’s also competed in the Mountain Bike World Championships; ski instructed for Vail Resorts, and loves backcountry ski touring. Her toughest adventures, though, arise in the writing of stories. She is the author of two contemporary YA novels, “The View from Who I Was” and “Life at the Speed of Us,” a Colorado Book Awards Finalist. Her story collection, “Lyrics for Rock Stars,” released as winner of the V Press LC Compilation Book Prize, was nominated for the MPIBA’s Reading the West Awards, was a silver medalist for the IBPA’s Ben Franklin Awards, and was featured on Colorado Public Radio. Her most recent book, “The River Between Hearts,” runner-up for the Kraken Prize, is a middle grade novel about friendship and healing. For more information, visit

You can find her on Social Media at:

Facebook: @heathermateussappenfield

Twitter: @alpineheather

Instagram: @heathermateussappenfield



You can find a copy at your favorite Independent Bookstore or library.