AJ_Sass author photo

I’ve read and liked a lot of A.J. Sass’s books, and have been lucky to feature Ana on the Edge, Ellen Outside the Lines, and Camp Quiltbag, which he cowrote with Nicole Melleby.  His newest middle grade novel, JUST SHY OF ORDINARY, debuted on January 30, 2024.


Thirteen-year-old Shai is an expert problem-solver. There’s never been something they couldn’t research and figure out on their own. But there’s one thing Shai hasn’t been able to logic their way through: picking at the hair on their arms.

Ever since their mom lost her job, the two had to move in with family friends, and the world went into pandemic lockdown, Shai’s been unable to control their picking. Now, as the difficult times recede and everyone begins to discover their “new normal,” Shai’s hoping the stress that caused their picking will end, too.

After reading that a routine can reduce anxiety, Shai makes a plan to create a brand new normal for themself that includes going to public school. But when their academic evaluation places them into 9th grade instead of 8th, it sets off a chain of events that veer off the path Shai had prepared for, encouraging Shai to learn how to accept life’s twists and turns, especially when you can’t plan for them.


In our last interview, you said, “I do think there is a unique space in the larger middle-grade landscape with a lot of opportunities to explore a variety of topics and narratives in unique ways.” What are some of the narratives in this landscape that you’re currently most excited about?

Coming of age and coming into yourself and your identity are narratives that feel evergreen, whether it’s discovering you’re queer, wanting to explore your religious or cultural heritage, or even realizing your path might differ from that of your family and friends (in any sense). The possibilities feel almost endless to explore these types of narratives in the middle grade space, which can often be intersectional in focus, and I hope authors continue to keep doing so. So many of the stories that exist now would’ve meant the world to me when I was a young reader. In fact, they still mean a lot to me now as an adult.


Me too! While JUST SHY OF ORDINARY confronts a few heavy topics, you’re able to deftly present them into the narrative in a very digestible way. What helped you find this balance in the story itself?

I really like crafting secondary characters who offer their friendship and moments of levity to give readers some breathing room from the heavier topics my main characters often deal with. I don’t think I went into each book saying, “okay, my main character needs a supportive community of friends and family – what would that look like?” But it does feel like I default to that in my writing process: wanting to include secondary characters who offer support and humor. Examples include nine-year-old Hope in Ana on the Edge, who basically has no filter (which leads to some silly conversations) but is also a bubbly, joyful kid who’s thrilled to get to skate with Ana at her new rink and become her new friend. In Just Shy of Ordinary, there’s Shai’s best friend Mille, an aspiring fashion designer who loves to modify the lyrics of Disney songs to fit situations and make Shai smile, plus Nia, Shai’s new school friend who likes to ask for advice, only to talk herself through to a solution on her own, much to the amusement of Shai and her other classmates who often can’t get a word in edgewise.

Even if we’re going through something difficult or heavy, we don’t usually exist in a vacuum where that one thing becomes our sole focus in life. There are moments of humor and moments of joy even during the hardest of times. That reality is what I try to reflect via secondary characters in my stories.


And you do a beautiful job of it! What is some of the most memorable positive feedback you’ve received from your readers?

One bookseller reached out and told me that my second novel, Ellen Outside the Lines, felt as masterfully crafted as Kelly Yang’s Front Desk and that her bookstore was planning to make it their upcoming book of the month for middle schoolers. This was a huge honor for me because I absolutely adore Front Desk and deeply respect Yang as an author.

Beyond that, I cherish every in-person event I get to attend, and one of my recurring joys is getting to briefly talk to young readers during book signings. So many of them like to share their pronouns or tell me about a nonbinary family member after reading my books. The fact that they’re comfortable in their identities or the identities of their friends and family gives me so much comfort and hope. It feels like evidence that we as a society are moving in the direction of acceptance and inclusivity.


Wonderful! You’ve also written a picture book Shabbat Is…without giving away spoilers, is there anything you can tell us about it yet?

At first glance, picture books may seem like the simplest form of storytelling because they’re usually pretty sparse on text, but they often take the longest from initial sale to publication because there’s a lot of design and illustration work that goes into each story after the text is set. My debut picture book is currently scheduled to publish sometime in 2025.

Shabbat Is … follows three kids who attend the same synagogue but observe Shabbat with their families in very different ways. It culminates around one of the kid’s nonbinary cousins who is celebrating their b’nai mitzvah ceremony and the story also includes queer parents. The message is simple: there are lots of different ways to be Jewish and practice Judaism, and that’s something to be celebrated. The illustrator is Sydney Taylor Book Award notable illustrator Noa Kelner whose illustrations are wonderfully colorful and vibrant. I can’t wait to share more about the project as we get closer to publication. I’m also excited to reach a new audience with this one!



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