1 Author, 7 Questions: A. J. Sass

A. J. Sass’s Just Shy of Ordinary is here! This book tells the heartfelt story of Shai, a homeschooled nonbinary 13-year-old navigating public school for the first time, growing friendships, facing anxiety, coming out, and understanding what it means to be Jewish. I (Mara) was lucky to sit down with Andrew (over email) to discuss this book, the writing process, and more!

All of your books feel a bit like love letters to a younger self and draw on experiences that your young readers really relate to. Can you tell us a bit about your process? I imagine it takes a certain amount of vulnerability to take pen to paper (keyboard to word processor?).

It does take vulnerability, and it can feel scary to explore topics or events that feel very personal to me—even when they’re told through a fictional lens. But they can also be cathartic. The topics I explore, like coming out and self-discovery, navigating friendships and social situations, and managing mental health challenges, are experiences I struggled to fully know how to address when I was middle school age in the 1990s. That was a long time ago and many things have changed since I was a young teen, but these topics still feel universal to me. In many ways, they transcend time. So, while I often start developing my ideas with the intent to unpack and understand my own experiences as a child, I am also thinking about how middle schoolers might navigate similar experiences and how technology I didn’t have as a kid (like cell phones) might shape the way I tell my story to make it relatable to today’s young readers. The goal is to share a story that feels authentic to my own experiences while also feeling relevant to what kids are going through now.

Fun fact: Andrew is a very talented ice skater!!
If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend Ana on the Edge also by A. J. Sass!

Much of the book focuses on Shai exploring their Jewish heritage for the first time. How did your relationship to your Queer Jewish identity influence Shai’s research of their family’s culture/religion? And how important is it to you to have contemporary Jewish characters represented in middle grade literature?

Like Shai, I wasn’t raised to observe Jewish traditions. I learned about Judaism through books. While nonfiction books were the most informative to me when it came to Jewish ritual and belief, I craved fiction that featured Jewish characters. I found a lot of Holocaust literature that shaped my understanding of more recent Jewish history, and those stories are so important. But it wasn’t until I was an adult that I got the chance to read stories about contemporary Jewish characters, and those are very much needed, as well. Jewish people make up a small percentage of the world population, so I think it is more likely than not for non-Jewish kids who live in certain areas to never have the opportunity meet Jewish kids. That was certainly the case for me growing up in small towns throughout the Midwest and the South. It’s also the case that stories can build empathy for people whose experiences or culture are different from yours. Given the alarming rise in antisemitism, we need books that feature Jewish characters more than ever.

One aspect of Judaism that I love and aligns really well with my Jewish identity is how debate and questions are encouraged: of the religious texts, of current events, and so on. Questioning feels like a fundamental part of the Jewish experience, and it has also informed my journey as a queer person whose understanding of his identity has evolved over time. If I hadn’t been receptive to questioning why I felt out of place being viewed as a woman, for example, I might never have come out as a trans man. And if I hadn’t been willing to question why being seen as a man felt better but still not quite right, I never would have kept searching for the words to describe my nonbinary identity. The path I took was very much present in the way I portrayed Shai researching the connections between their Jewish and queer identities.

I love that Tashlich is mentioned in the book! (A practice I have always jokingly referred to as ceremonial duck-feeding.) Do you have a favorite Jewish holiday or tradition?

Ceremonial duck-feeding: I love this!

My favorite holiday is Shavuot. I love dairy and learning, and both of these things are encouraged to observe this holiday. Last year for Shavuot, I bought a cheesecake and attended an all-day event at JCC East Bay, sitting in on various lectures and activities to expand my knowledge of Judaism and how it relates to the world at large. It was a perfect day in my book!

Shai found such supportive, caring friends in Edie and Nia at public school, but their close bond with Mille feels extra special. Do you have a Mille in your life, or someone you drew inspiration from when writing his character?

I am so fortunate to have many Milles who’ve entered my life at various times. I used a compendium of personality traits from all these real-life Milles to craft Shai’s friend: humor and wit, understanding, kindness, and a willingness to point out when I (or Shai) am wrong or being unreasonable.

Your books always have me weeping at some point. In Just Shy of Ordinary, I found myself particularly tearing up at moments depicting Shai’s battle with anxiety. You go into it a bit in your author’s note at the back of the book, but are you able to talk more about the significance of the poignant depiction of anxiety in this story?

I’m so glad Shai’s story resonated with you. I struggled with anxiety all through middle school and high school, and it’s not an exaggeration to say it impacted virtually every aspect of my life. I stressed about raising my hand in class and agonized for weeks before having to give a presentation. As a skater, I fixated on upcoming competitions and skills tests to the point that I felt nauseated, which ultimately impacted my performance.

For the vast majority of my life, I thought it was normal to feel this way, that everyone experiences this level of anxiety on a near-daily basis.

But I also must’ve subconsciously known that this wasn’t everyone’s baseline when I started to develop Shai’s story. It’s interesting how you can extend kindness and understanding to someone else (or a character, in this instance) who is struggling, but it’s often difficult to give the same grace to yourself. It can also lead to an unwillingness to ask for help. Shai struggles with anxiety throughout the story and over the course of drafting it, I started to embrace the same understanding that Shai does: it’s okay to ask for help when you need it.

Inherently, I’d always known this, but I didn’t initially apply it to myself. Once I embraced this, though, I finally spoke to my family doctor and together we found a solution.

So, in an interesting way, my fictional character and their story taught me something valuable, something that ultimately helped make my life better. I’m not sure if I would’ve been able to write Shai’s anxiety with such authenticity without having experienced it myself, but I’m also very grateful we both have support systems to lean on.

Photo credit: A. J. Sass

Starting 9th grade is a big deal, and with that comes all sorts of exciting opportunities—like Homecoming! Do you have a favorite middle school or high school memory?

I actually didn’t spend a lot of time in high school at my physical high school. I skipped from 9th to 10th grade halfway through my freshman year, then started attending college as a junior the following fall. During my senior year of high school, though, I was determined to get an authentic “high school experience” (whatever that even means!). I decided to attend Prom.

The only hitch? My college hiking class that I was taking for my physical education credit had a mandatory overnight camping trip the day before Prom. I ended up sleeping in a tent on the still-frozen ground, somewhere in the woods of middle-of-nowhere Minnesota and then had to book it home to do hair and makeup and meet my friends to get to the Prom venue. I was exhausted but when I actually got there, I had a blast. And then I went to a friend’s house and had a sleepover, just like Shai, Nia, and Edie do after their school’s Homecoming game.

It was a bit hectic, in retrospect, but also a great memory.

Lastly, I always have to ask this question… You must have more stories to tell. Are you working on anything new that you can hint about?

I do and I can! I have some already-announced projects I’m looking forward to sharing with readers. Coming up next is a short story I contributed to the On All Other Nights: A Passover Celebration 14 Stories anthology, edited by Chris Baron, Joshua S. Levy, and Naomi Milliner. I wrote about about Sammy, a nonbinary kid brainstorming how to ask their family to use they/them/their pronouns for them when the whole family comes together at the Passover Seder. It releases on March 26 (just in time for Passover!).

In 2025, my debut picture book, Shabbat Is …, illustrated by Noa Kelner, is set to release. The story follows three kids who attend the same temple but celebrate Shabbat in a variety of different ways. It also includes queer representation that’s meaningful to me: one of the kids has two moms and another is preparing to celebrate her nonbinary cousin’s b’nai mitzvah. Also in 2025, I will be part of the Athlete is Agender: True Stories of LGBTQ People in Sports anthology, edited by Katherine Locke and Nicole Melleby. In my essay, I explore my experiences as a nonbinary figure skater who didn’t know I was nonbinary while growing up in a sport I deeply loved but in which I also often felt isolated—until I discovered my nonbinary identity and came out.

Then in 2026, I’ll be contributing to No Brain The Same: Young Neurodivergent Activists Shaping Our Future, edited by Lindsay H. Metcalf, Kella V. Dawson, and Jeanette Bradley, and illustrated by Bradley. This picture book anthology introduces readers to young neurodivergent activists in prose and poems. I had the honor of writing a poem for queer, autistic activist Lydia X. Z. Brown, whose advocacy I’ve admired and followed for years.

Thank you so much, Andrew, for taking the time to participate in my favorite kind of blog post! 😊

You can follow A. J. Sass on Instagram @matokah!

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