I was honored to feature A.J. Sass’s debut middle grade novel, Ana on the Edge, so when I found out about his newest book, ELLEN OUTSIDE THE LINES, I had to feature it also. If you enjoyed his debut, you will absolutely love this book too. It does a great job of of depicting what it’s like for neurodivergent teens who excel academically but struggle socially:
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.
In our last interview, you said, “I have some ideas for picture books and young adult stories I’m excited to dive into.” Can you tell us more about these potential upcoming projects?
I unfortunately can’t be super specific about anything that hasn’t been announced yet, but I am currently working on a project in a new age category that recently sold, plus I have some projects in other age categories I’m hoping to one day sell. Since selling my 2023 project, CAMP QUILTBAG, I’ve also become a big fan of co-writing with another author, and I see a lot of opportunities there in various age categories that I’m excited to explore.
No matter what age category I’m writing in, though, and no matter what the story is specifically about, I suspect there will always be nods to identity, neurodiversity, and allyship. ELLEN OUTSIDE THE LINES is a good example. The story itself is about shifting friendships, first and foremost, but there are threads woven throughout that address Ellen’s growing awareness that her own gender identity might not be as set as she believed. There’s also a moment where Ellen realizes that just because she and her dad and mom are a family, it doesn’t mean they’re all the same with respect to their adherence to religious observations, and that’s a good thing. There is also a cast of queer characters who all experience their queerness differently—and likewise have varying levels of comfort with being publicly out. Every person (and character) is unique, and this gives me ample opportunity to explore how my characters’ backgrounds and experiences shape the lens through which they see the world, whether they’re queer, Jewish, autistic, or have identities that intersect. That will never change regardless of what age category or genre I write in.
Wonderful. You described ELLEN OUTSIDE THE LINES as a story about “13-year-old Ellen Katz, who is autistic, and follows her as she navigates changing friendships, a growing crush, and her queer and Jewish identities, all on a class trip to Barcelona.” How did Ellen first come to you, and how did you know that Barcelona was the right place for her journey?
Unlike with my main character, Ana, in ANA ON THE EDGE, Ellen was a lot trickier for me to pin down. Part of this may have been because I knew I wanted to write a story through an autistic lens. I’m autistic myself. But up until I sat down to draft ELLEN OUTSIDE THE LINES, I’d never written a neurodivergent character and I’d rarely had the opportunity to read a story about an autistic main character written by an autistic author. I learned to suppress my own natural way of thinking about the world and the way I processed my surroundings to fit more in line with what neurotypical readers expect a narrative to look like. At first, that was hard for me to overcome. I talk more about how I balanced authentic representation with an accessible narrative on the We Need Diverse Books blog.
Deep down, I’ve wanted to write a story from a perspective like Ellen’s, so it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Ellen first came to me. The setting is a little easier. Years ago, I worked for a company headquartered in Barcelona so I would travel there multiple times a year. Outside of the office, my coworkers showed me around, and I also had the opportunity to explore the city on my own and learn more about the people who call it home than I otherwise might have had I just visited as a tourist. Many of the little details that initially trip Ellen up—like the existence of Catalan language and culture which she didn’t learn about in school and the fact that it is very hard to keep kosher in Barcelona—were things I encountered during my own visits. As an adult, I learned to roll with the punches, but I often wondered how I might have responded to these same revelations when I was younger and also dealing with shifting friendships and first crushes. I got the opportunity to explore all that and more thanks to Ellen.
And you captured everything beautifully! You also have a Tik Tok account. What has been your experience with Tik Tok so far, and what are some of your preferred social media platforms?
TikTok is not super intuitive to me. I think this stems in part from my comfort with speaking in front of a camera (or lack thereof!). Most of my existing TikTok videos involve me videoing something author-ish, like unboxing my finished copies of my latest book or sharing reading recommendations, plus the occasional figure skating video. While I follow some of the same folks I know from other social media platforms, I feel like I haven’t really found my community yet on TikTok since I haven’t been on it for very long. But I haven’t given up hope on it yet! Getting a handle on a new (to me) platform takes time, so I’m definitely working on it.
My preferred platforms are Twitter and Instagram. Twitter has to be my favorite ever since they introduced the ability to create threads a few years back. I’ve always been more comfortable thinking through what I want to say before actually saying it, and the thread feature allows me to do this—plus include videos or images as needed. Instagram, on the other hand, has been my go-to photo repository for years and it still very much is. Since my first book published, however, it’s allowed me to interact with readers and other authors in a more visual way, so it’s also become one of my social media favs.
I feel the same way. What kinds of books/stories would you like to see more of and why?
This probably comes as no surprise, but I would love to see more queer and neurodivergent characters in stories across genres and age categories, particularly those written by BIPOC and/or disabled authors. Likewise, I want to see more queer characters navigating their identities in their faith communities in ways that are realistic but also bring readers hope and joy that there’s a place for them within those spaces. I would also love to see more stories like this get adapted to different mediums: film, television, graphic novels, etc.
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. Follow him at sassinsf.com or @matokah on Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram.