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.
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!
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 https://heathermateussappenfield.com/
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THE RIVER BETWEEN HEARTS is out now.
You can find a copy at your favorite Independent Bookstore or library.