By Alaina Lavoie
Today we’re pleased to welcome A. J. Sass to the WNDB blog to discuss middle grade novel Ellen Outside the Lines, out today, March 22, 2022!
Thirteen-year-old Ellen Katz feels most comfortable when her life is well planned out and people fit neatly into her predefined categories. She attends temple with Abba and Mom every Friday and Saturday. Ellen only gets crushes on girls, never boys, and she knows she can always rely on her best-and-only friend, Laurel, to help navigate social situations at their private Georgia middle school.
Laurel has always made Ellen feel like being autistic is no big deal. But lately, Laurel has started making more friends, and cancelling more weekend plans with Ellen than she keeps. A school trip to Barcelona seems like the perfect place for Ellen to get their friendship back on track. Except it doesn’t.
Toss in a new nonbinary classmate whose identity has Ellen questioning her very binary way of seeing the world, homesickness, a scavenger hunt-style team project that takes the students through Barcelona to learn about Spanish culture and this trip is anything but what Ellen planned.
Making new friends and letting go of old ones is never easy, but Ellen might just find a comfortable new place for herself if she can learn to embrace the fact that life doesn’t always stick to a planned itinerary.
At its core, Ellen Outside the Lines is about the challenges that pretty much everyone universally faces when their friend group changes and they’re having a lot of shifts in who they are. Why did you want to explore this with Ellen as your protagonist?
I didn’t know I was autistic when I was Ellen’s age, but I remember how it felt for me to navigate shifting friendships and other confusing social terrain. To use a metaphor from Ellen’s story, every change during that time in my life felt like it tipped my world off-axis. This isn’t necessarily unique to autistic kids, but the way I coped (or sometimes failed to cope) with these changes often felt different compared to how my peers handled similar situations. Writing this story from Ellen’s perspective allowed me to unpack some of my own childhood experiences, while presenting conflicts I hope many readers will be able to relate to, whether they are autistic or not.
I absolutely loved the way Ellen’s identities were woven into the story but without this being a “problem book” focused on any one specific identity. Ellen is Jewish, LGBTQIA+, and autistic, and is allowed to be a fully realized character with so much more to her than these identities. Why was this important to you?
Identity colors how we interact with others and how others interact with us. It impacts the way we move through the world. While working on Ellen’s story, I wanted to be mindful of this, because Ellen’s experiences as a Jewish teen differ in some ways from those of her non-Jewish peers. The same can be said for Ellen being autistic or LGBTQIA+ when most of her fellow classmates are neurotypical, straight, and cisgender.
It was important to me for Ellen to get to be authentically herself when responding to each new scenario I threw at her, that her reactions be informed by her identities without the identities necessarily taking over her story. Because ultimately, the rift forming in Ellen’s relationship with her best friend, Laurel, was a result of the two of them naturally growing apart. I think this is a situation that many people can relate to, so I simply wanted to build readers a window into the way someone with Ellen’s identities might navigate this change, without losing sight of the fact that, at its core, this story is about friendships and how they change as we grow older.
The relationship between Ellen and their teammates Gibs, Isa, and Andy was so sweet. How did you develop each character individually and in relation to the others?
I’ve always wanted to write a story that featured a found family, characters who don’t seem to outwardly have much in common but end up coming together and fiercely supporting one another. I also love upending a character’s initial assumptions about another character. The kids who make up Ellen’s scavenger team gave me ample opportunities to try both.
Isa came to me the fastest while I was developing this story, because I knew from the outset I wanted to write a character who knows who they are and isn’t afraid to correct others’ misassumptions about their gender, cultural heritage, and more. Then Andy and Gibs were always a package duo for me: best friends, basketball teammates, and popular at school.
Once I had a handle on each character’s back story and personality, I made a list of all the ways these details might impact the ways they respond to various situations I’d outlined. I wanted them to face some obstacles to their new relationship but still be friends by the end of their trip. Knowing this early on gave me the opportunity to let the more outgoing characters, Isa and Gibs, butt heads a little at first. It let me imagine how a peacemaker like Andy might try to intervene and diffuse arguments. Of course, all these interactions are being filtered through Ellen’s perspective, and sometimes her initial impressions of a situation aren’t entirely accurate, so there was ample opportunity for misunderstandings that Ellen would later have to grapple with and that the team as a whole would have to work through together if they wanted to stay friends. It was a complicated web but one I had a lot of fun crafting.
As an autistic reader, I especially loved that Ellen mentions not wanting a cure and the joys of being autistic, such as flapping their hands happily. Why did you want this to be a part of Ellen’s perspective on the page for readers?
There were so few books about neurodivergent or disabled characters available to me when I was a kid and when I managed to find any, it often felt like the character’s disability was used as a plot device or portrayed in a negative light, as something to be overcome to ensure a happy ending.
I absolutely think there should be space for stories which address the challenges a society that caters to neurotypical people places on neurodivergent and disabled individuals. Since the friendship aspect of this story is so personal to me, however, I wanted to explore a scenario where the main character knows she’s autistic and has a solid support system in place with her family, a therapist, and, later on, a new group of friends. Even though I didn’t know I was autistic when I was Ellen’s age, I often felt isolated from my peers in a way I couldn’t explain. With Ellen’s story, I got to imagine how that might have been different if I had known I was autistic sooner. The more I thought about what might have been, the more I wanted to show readers the pride and happiness I feel when expressing myself in a way feels authentic to me as an autistic person. That translated into my portrayal of Ellen.
Why did you want to write a book set in Barcelona? Can you tell us why this setting felt right for the story?
Every summer, my Georgia middle school hosted an international class trip for students learning French and Spanish, but because of my figure skating training schedule, I was unable to attend the trip with my classmates. In that sense, Ellen Outside the Lines is a little bit of wish fulfillment. I finally got to go on the trip I missed when I was a kid!
As an adult, I took a job that was headquartered in Barcelona, which required me to travel there several months a year to work with my team. Barcelona is a city with a rich history and multiple local languages and cultural traditions, many of which I was unfamiliar with when I first started my job. Like Ellen, I find comfort in known quantities, so I felt very out of my element working in an unfamiliar city without a strong grasp of the languages spoken within the region. But with each subsequent visit, I got increasingly comfortable embracing the unknowns and learning to roll with unanticipated changes in my schedule. When I started brainstorming ideas for this story, Barcelona, a city I came to view as a home away from home, felt like the perfect setting.
What was it like setting up the scavenger hunt aspect of the book? Did you know from the beginning what the clues and answers would be?
My very early drafts of this story actually didn’t have a scavenger hunt component! The way I’d initially set up this class trip focused on field trips and lectures that Ellen’s entire class attended together. This left little room for my characters to do all the fun things I enjoy doing when I travel: exploring my surroundings, eating foods that are new to me, and meeting people. Even worse, the initial trip format left Ellen and her friends with almost no agency to make their own choices (and mistakes).
It was late 2019, and I felt blocked on how to make this story work. My partner and I had recently returned from a trip to Europe and decided to start watching old seasons of The Amazing Race for fun. It clicked for me after the first episode: I could rework the trip into some sort of a contest and assign characters to teams, requiring the kids to make choices if they wanted to win. The scavenger hunt format developed from there.
This didn’t mean I had any immediate idea what the clues and answers would be. When I got the green light to begin drafting Ellen Outside the Lines, I had what I thought was a nicely detailed outline of the book’s plot. When I sat down to write my first draft, however, I soon realized I had been incredibly vague with respect to defining the substance of the clues that would lead my characters to each site. It took a lot of reminiscing about what made my own visits to Barcelona special—also hours of research via Google Images since I couldn’t travel overseas in the midst of the pandemic to verify details—to develop the clues that appear in the version of this book readers can now hold in their hands.
I loved that Ellen winds up using both she/her and they/them pronouns by the end of the book. What does it mean to you to offer this in a middle-grade novel?
One message I tried to convey in my debut novel, Ana on the Edge, is that it’s okay to take time to figure yourself out. This message is also reflected in the journey Ellen takes as she explores her gender identity. I use two sets of pronouns myself (he/him and they/them), but it took me years to feel comfortable sharing who I am with others. I hope readers take away that it’s completely valid to have more than one set of pronouns if that fits with who they are. And I hope Ellen Outside the Lines helps open the eyes of readers who may never have questioned their own identity, and that it encourages them to have empathy for their trans and nonbinary classmates, friends, and family. I’m so grateful I have the opportunity to write stories like these.
This story also explores peer pressure and the lines we sometimes cross for our friends when we’re afraid of upsetting them. How did you craft that journey for Ellen?
This circles back to my own personal experiences as well, particularly with being a people-pleaser and not wanting to rock the boat with my various friend groups. This can become even trickier if you find it challenging to interpret social cues like Ellen (and I) happen to.
I knew at the outset I didn’t want to paint any one character as the bad guy in this story; the goal also wasn’t to drive Ellen away from one set of friends and toward another. This made Ellen’s story all the more challenging to craft because there were no easy answers to give Ellen as to which friends she should choose—or if she even had to make that choice at all. I knew I wanted Ellen to make some missteps when it came to her new and old friendships, and the scavenger hunt ended up being a useful catalyst in that sense. At one point in the story, Ellen is presented with the option of potentially being able to switch scavenger hunt teams so she can spend more time with her best-and-only friend, Laurel. Her choice at that moment ripples through the rest of the book and impacts both her old and new friend groups. It is something Ellen must grapple with in terms of what it means for her relationship with Laurel going forward, after they both return home.
Ultimately, my goal was always to get Ellen to a place where she could accept that sometimes friendships change through no fault of anyone involved. And sometimes these changes open the door for new friendships that are an even better fit for who you are.
What other books do you see Ellen Outside the Lines as being in conversation with? And do you have any recommendations for forthcoming or published MG?
Sarah Kapit has written two brilliant books that weave autistic experience and Jewish identity into absolutely engaging stories: Get A Grip, Vivy Cohen! and The Many Mysteries of the Finkel Family. I highly recommend them both. Nicole Panteleakos’ Planet Earth Is Blue is also a great story, one that features a non-speaking, autistic main character in a historical setting. These books are very different from one another in terms of plot, format, and even time period; their portrayals of autistic experience differ as well. They exist as examples that no single autistic experience is the only autistic experience, and I’m grateful Ellen’s story is a part of this growing compendium.
I also love how Nicole Melleby allowed her main character in In The Role of Brie Hutchens… to make big, messy mistakes as she learned to navigate her queerness and religious faith. I like to think I gave Ellen similar opportunities to grapple with what it means to be queer and Jewish. I took additional inspiration from Katherine Locke and Laura Silverman’s YA anthology It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories. There are so many ways to be Jewish, and they can even differ within families, as Ellen comes to learn by the end of her story.
I’ve had the great pleasure of reading early versions of the following recently published and forthcoming middle grade books: The Best Liars in Riverview by Lin Thompson (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, March 8, 2022) and Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston by Esme Symes-Smith (Labyrinth Road, November 1, 2022). Both stories are engaging and feature nonbinary protagonists that I love with all my heart. I am confident they are going to make a positive impact on readers. I’m also excited to read some 2023 titles, particularly Skating on Mars by Caroline Huntoon (Feiwel and Friends) and Jude Saves The World by Ronnie Riley (Scholastic).
A. J. Sass (he/they) is an author whose narrative interests lie at the intersection of identity, neurodiversity, and allyship. His debut novel, Ana on the Edge, was a 2020 Booklist Editors’ Choice, an ALA 2021 Rainbow Book List Top 10 for Young Readers, and a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selection. His sophomore novel, Ellen Outside the Lines, is also a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selection. A. J. is the co-author of Camp QUILTBAG* (Algonquin, 2023) and a contributor to the This Is Our Rainbow: 16 Stories of Her, Him, Them, And Us (Knopf Books for Young Readers) and Allies: Real Talk About Showing Up, Screwing Up, And Trying Again (DK/Penguin Random House) anthologies. When he’s not writing, A. J. figure skates and travels as much as possible. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his partner and two cats who act like dogs.
Alaina Lavoie is a Program Manager at We Need Diverse Books and a reviewer for Booklist. She has worked with WNDB since 2015, beginning as a volunteer and joining the staff in 2019. She also teaches in the MFA, MA, and BA programs of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College. In 2017, she was awarded a Bookbuilders of Boston scholarship for her dedication to amplifying marginalized voices and advocating for an equitable publishing and media industry. Her work has been published in the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, The Boston Globe Magazine, Refinery29, The Oprah Magazine, Bitch, Glamour, The Chicago Tribune, and more, under the byline Alaina Leary. Alaina lives in Boston with her wife, their three literary cats, and a rainbow bookshelf. She is almost always covered in glitter.