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Ana on the Edge
By A. J. Sass
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Perfect for fans of George and Ivy Aberdeen's Letter to the World: a heartfelt coming of age story about a nonbinary character navigating a binary world.Twelve-year-old Ana-Marie Jin, the reigning US Juvenile figure skating champion, is not a frilly dress kind of kid. So, when Ana learns that next season's program will be princess themed, doubt forms fast. Still, Ana tries to focus on training and putting together a stellar routine worthy of national success.
Once Ana meets Hayden, a transgender boy new to the rink, thoughts about the princess program and gender identity begin to take center stage. And when Hayden mistakes Ana for a boy, Ana doesn't correct him and finds comfort in this boyish identity when he's around. As their friendship develops, Ana realizes that it's tricky juggling two different identities on one slippery sheet of ice. And with a major competition approaching, Ana must decide whether telling everyone the truth is worth risking years of hard work and sacrifice.
I stand alone at center ice. Around me, the audience is quiet. Seven judges sit in front of me, fourteen eyes ready to follow my every move.
Breathe in, breathe out. Shoulders down.
Black, glossy fabric encases my white skates, part of my one-piece costume. I look down at the National Championships logo underneath layers of ice. Knots unfurl in my stomach and flutter upward, even though I just chewed a ginger tab to settle my nerves.
The opening notes of my music drum rhythmic and low. I aim a smile at the judges before gliding forward, extending one leg behind me in a quick arabesque. I push thoughts of the large crowd in the stands, of my mom sitting among them, of how this is my first-ever Nationals, out of my head. It’s time to focus.
My step sequence begins. I carve deep edges and quick, controlled turns in a winding, S-shaped pattern.
I catch sight of my coach, Alex, by the boards. His eyes bore into me as I turn into my first jump, a simple double flip. It’s not the highest-scoring element I’m capable of, but it’s a great way to get my feet under me at the start of my program.
It also comes right before the tricky triple toe loop.
I take a steadying breath, then tap my toe pick into the ice for my double flip. One, two rotations, and I land strong, back arched.
I lift my arms as the music builds. There’s no time to get excited yet.
Everything comes down to this next jump: the triple toe loop.
Turn, bend, tap. I recite the toe loop’s takeoff technique in my head, then turn backward, preparing to spring off the ice. Once I’m airborne, muscle memory will have to get me through the rest.
My left leg reaches behind me, blade tapping. I launch into the air and snap my ankles together, arms crossed tight over my chest.
The audience cheers. Relief floods through me, and a smile tugs at the corners of my mouth. It vanishes a second later as I twist into my next combination spin.
To the untrained eye, I’m just an effortless blur of glossy black fabric, gold-and-red chiffon fluttering from my costume. But I know each crisp position comes from years of repetition in private lessons with Alex, lessons that Mom worked long hours to pay for.
Shoulders relaxing, I exit my spin to more clapping. My smile is less rehearsed, more genuine. The ice feels more like home now, instead of slippery and foreign.
I lean on a deep edge and tap my toe pick into the ice for my three-jump combo. Launch and land, launch and land. Repeat again. It’s over in a matter of seconds, my movements smooth and fast.
Out here, all my problems vanish. The judges seem to disappear, and I can no longer hear the crowd roar. The world falls away once I get into character. My steps perfectly match the music.
I land two more jumps, right on the beat of my music, then finish with a crowd-pleasing spin. My short hair whips against my cheeks as I grab my skate blade, lifting my foot high behind me in a vertical split. I end with a flourish as the audience rises in a standing ovation.
I bow to the judges, then exit the ice. Warmth forms in my stomach and spreads outward as Alex uncrosses his arms and reaches out for a quick hug. He looked stiff during my performance, shoulders tense under the gray business suit he wore especially for this event. Not anymore.
We head to the Kiss and Cry seating area, where skaters receive their scores. The cameras catch all the drama here, every tiny reaction recorded. I’m still breathing hard by the time we sit down, but I wave at a nearby camera livestreaming the event.
In just a few seconds, I’ll know how I placed.
Alex nudges me and offers a water bottle. I take a sip as a volunteer hands me flowers and stuffed animals that members of the audience threw onto the ice. I’ve seen this happen for famous skaters, but it’s the first time anyone besides Mom has thrown things for me.
“Now the score for Miss Ana-Marie Jin’s free-skate program.” I sit up straighter, trying to ignore a prickle of discomfort. “Ana-Marie has earned a total of sixty-eight point five eight.”
The steady thrum in my chest skips a beat. I was the last skater who performed today, and that’s higher than any of the scores I overheard while I warmed up. I turn to Alex, who squeezes my arm. His gaze stays on the results screen. It’ll refresh soon. Until then, nothing’s official.
I look up to the stands and spot Mom. Unlike others around her, she isn’t clapping. Her eyes are fixed on the huge digital scoreboard looming over the ice. I hold my breath and keep watching her. I want this win for her as much as I want it for myself.
A roar of approval fills the rink and Mom’s eyes widen. She stands with the rest of the crowd, hands flying to her mouth. My gaze flickers to the final results.
ANA-MARIE JIN: 68.58—1ST
I jump out of my seat as Alex rises and pulls me into another hug. I hug him back, bouncing in his arms. All those months of intense training, of sore muscles and hard falls, were worth it to get to this moment. My heart’s racing again, but this time it has wings. I’m soaring.
I look back to the stands and find Mom. I blink fast, and she smiles at me like she knows I’m trying to hold back tears, her eyes crinkling at the corners.
The announcer speaks again, and Alex catches me by the elbow. “Medal ceremony.” He nods toward the ice where a group of workers is setting up a podium.
We make it to the ice by the time the bronze medalist is announced. Silver comes next, her program music playing softly in the background as she takes the ice and curtsies to the crowd.
“Soak this all up. Enjoy every second.” Alex pats my shoulder. “Tomorrow we’ll fly home and get you back on your regular training schedule. Think you can top this next season?”
My program music plays, low at first, then strong and brassy. The other medalists already stand on the podium in sparkling dresses. The top spot is empty, waiting for me.
The announcer calls my name. I step onto the ice, then turn back to Alex. I give him a quick thumbs-up before gliding off to accept my gold medal.
Sunlight glimmers across the ice through the San Francisco rink’s floor-to-ceiling windows. I squint, trying to find my best friend, Tamar. She’s on the far side of the rink, working on spiral positions, just like I’m supposed to be doing. I scan the ice, making sure Alex is nowhere in sight, then wave her over. She skids to a scratchy stop in front of me, brown curls bouncing in her loose ponytail.
Her skin is usually pale, but right now it’s flushed pink from the cold rink air. She twirls her index finger, brows raised. “You first.”
“I’m always first,” I shoot back, but Tamar doesn’t budge.
We’re supposed to be practicing Moves in the Field—exercises that focus on power, body alignment, and edge control—but there’s no one around to call us out for goofing off. Also, I never back down from a challenge. Swizzling a few feet away from Tamar to make sure my sharp blades don’t nick her, I raise both arms. I plant one toe in the ice, reach down, and perform a perfect cartwheel. Tamar applauds, and I bow like I’ve just skated my winning program at Nationals.
“Ana!” Alex calls.
I freeze mid-bow. Tamar’s eyes dart past me, up to Alex in the viewing stands. He’s right next to my mom.
Alex beckons to me. I look at Tamar for help, but she’s zipped away, back to her corner of the rink.
I grab my stuff and slide on my blade guards at the edge of the ice, then open my phone to the calendar app Mom and I share. There’s nothing about her visiting the rink over lunch today. She should definitely still be at work.
I climb the metal steps up to the stands. Mom pats the seat next to her and I sit down, waiting for her or Alex to lecture me about my cartwheel. I fiddle with my hair, trying to tuck it behind my ear. The strands are a little too short to stay put.
Shoulders tense, I glance toward the ice, but Tamar’s focused on twizzles. They’re supposed to look like mini–traveling spins, and most of hers do—until the last set. She hits her toe picks and loses her balance.
Alex clears his throat to get my attention. “Your mom and I wanted to discuss some things now that the new season is fast approaching. You’ve been showing progress all spring during the off-season, learning harder jumps and getting more consistent. And of course, we’re both proud of how you performed at Nationals a few months ago.”
Relaxing a little, I look between them. It doesn’t seem like I’m going to get in trouble for my cartwheel after all.
“You’ll definitely be moving up a level next season,” Alex continues. “You’ve got the skills to be competitive as an Intermediate lady.”
Competition announcers always call Juvenile skaters boys and girls, then it switches to ladies and men starting at Intermediate. I already knew this, but it still sounds weird.
“Even so, this will be a big leap for you. You only needed a free-skate program in Juvenile, but Intermediate also requires a short program, with very specific jump and spin requirements.”
I nod to show I’m still following along.
“The plan is to convert your Juvenile free skate to an Intermediate short program. It’s a real showstopper the way you perform it.”
My chest swells at the thought of performing my program in front of a huge crowd again, and I share a look with Mom. The corners of her eyes crinkle, just like at Nationals.
“You’re also going to work with a choreographer to create an Intermediate free-skate program so it has a different feel and layout. The judges will want to see your range as a performer.”
My eyes widen. Alex has always been the one to choose my programs and map out where the steps, jumps, and spins will go. But all the best skaters have choreographers.
“Lastly, we’ve decided to move your home base to Oakland. Their management team has been asking me to coach there on a more full-time basis for quite some time, as you know.”
“Plus, our offer was just accepted on a house in Temescal.”
“That’s a great neighborhood,” Mom says. “I know you and Myles have been searching for a new house for a while. Congratulations.”
“Congratulations,” I echo.
“Thanks.” Alex turns to me. “I’ll still be your main coach. There are changes going into effect next season that we’ll need to keep on top of. For example, in the past, medaling first at Regionals and then at Sectionals would qualify you to compete at Nationals—but starting this season, Nationals has been cut for all but the highest levels. Instead, top Intermediate skaters will attend a training camp to build skills and determine eligibility for international competitions down the road.”
No more Nationals? I listen carefully, trying to memorize as much of this new information as possible.
“Both your mom and I want to make sure you have room to grow. Oakland has two rinks. No more competing for ice with the hockey teams, which should give you plenty of practice time to get your skills even more consistent for Intermediate. Your mom has also signed you up for some great off-ice stretching and dance classes.”
“For real?” I look at Mom. She nods again, and I can hardly believe it.
“For real,” Alex confirms. “You’ll start your new training schedule next week. How’s that sound?”
“It sounds great. Like a dream come true, actually.” Beaming, I glance back toward the ice, first to the floor-to-ceiling windows, then to where Tamar’s practicing twizzles across a patch of sunlit ice. My hands tingle as I imagine telling her everything.
“I’m glad you’re excited.” Alex stands and looks down at me, one eyebrow arched as his expression gets serious. “Now, back to work on your Moves in the Field. No more cartwheels. Last time I checked, you were a figure skater, not a gymnast.”
Tamar and I sit side by side on my bunk bed as the closing credits from The Mighty Ducks 2 play from her iPad. On the opposite end of our studio apartment, Mom sits at the kitchen table with her work laptop.
Tamar rests her head on my shoulder and sighs. “The rink is going to be so boring without you and Alex.”
“He’ll still be around for your synchro practices.”
I feel her nod. “For now, I guess. I’m having a tryout lesson with a coach he recommended tomorrow, too. Still, it’s going to be weird without you.”
“At least there’s less chance you’ll get in trouble for on-ice cartwheels?”
“Like I can even do them that well.” She laughs and leans past me to grab her iPad off its perch on my pillow. “I’m not multitalented like my BFF, the last national Juvenile champion in the history of ever.”
I roll my eyes. “There’ll still be national champions at Junior and Senior. I’ll just be trying to qualify for the national training camp at Intermediate instead.”
Tamar gestures to the wall, pointing at my gold medal. It hangs right beside a Michelle Kwan poster so old it’s curling at its yellowed corners. Michelle was the first Chinese American I ever saw skate, so she’ll always be my favorite.
“Last. Ever. Juvenile. Champion.”
Shaking my head, I can’t help smiling.
“But the camp does sound cool,” Tamar says as she scrolls through iPad notifications.
“Yeah. If I skate well there, I could get picked to compete internationally as a Novice-level skater the season after.”
At this, Tamar looks up. “Okay, that would be awesome.”
All I’ve wanted since I started skating is to represent the United States in competitions around the world.
Tamar checks her texts. “Mom’s downstairs.” She scooches toward the ladder at the edge of my bed as I twist around to glance at my Nationals medal. It never gets old to look at. That’s when I notice the photo missing from its spot behind my poster.
“Hey,” I call to Tamar. “Do you see a picture down there?”
Mom’s mattress squeaks below me as I scramble down the ladder.
“Found it!” She studies the photo before handing it back to me. “You look a lot like your dad.”
“Really?” I glance at the two teenagers in the picture. Mom’s hair was longer back then, but just as straight. Beside her, Dad’s graduation cap tilts above a mess of wavy, dark blond hair.
Tamar nods. “Same smile. And nose.”
“I guess.” It’s a super-old photo, from Mom and Dad’s high school graduation. They had me a couple of years later, but it’s just been me and Mom for as long as I can remember. Dad moved away when I was a baby.
A chair leg scrapes against the floor. I look past Tamar, over to Mom.
“How was the movie?” she asks. “It was that hockey one again, right? You two must be close to a record number of views by now.”
Tamar and I glance at each other. “Yeah, probably,” we say, totally in sync.
Tamar grabs her backpack from the foot of the bed. “I should head downstairs. Mom’s waiting.” She turns to me. “Walk me out?”
She waves to my mom, then grabs her shoes from a rack near the door.
Outside, we give each other our usual goodbye hug. “Let me know how it goes with the trial coach?”
She takes a few steps away, walking backward. “Only if you let me know all about your first day in Oakland.”
My stomach twists at the reminder that we won’t be skating together anymore, but I push away the feeling. “Deal!”
Mom’s in the kitchen when I return. “I thought we’d have a special treat before your big first day.” She waves me over. “Help me mix the batter?”
Soon, the griddle’s hissing. I stand next to Mom, collecting plates and silverware for dinner.
“I’ve set the alarm for six tomorrow.” She nudges her spatula under the first pancake, then flips it. “Alex arranged a car pool with a family who just started taking lessons with him. Mrs. Park drives to Oakland every day with her daughters, Faith and Hope. They’ll pick you up at seven thirty in front of my office.”
“I know Faith. She competed against me a few times last year.”
“That’s wonderful.” Mom covers her mouth to yawn, but it’s not because she’s bored with our conversation. She works all day, plus teaches Mandarin to private school students on weekends and evenings. Nowadays, she’s almost always tired.
Flipping the final pancake, she turns to me. “Start setting the table, Ana-Marie, please?”
I look down so Mom can’t see my frown. I wish she’d just call me Ana like Alex and Tamar do, but I’m not sure how to tell her. We spend a lot of time apart now. Talking to her doesn’t feel as easy as it did last year.
“Are you excited about tomorrow?” Mom asks.
My eyes dart over to her, then back to the plates in my hands. My stomach was a little fluttery with Tamar in the hall, but now it feels like it’s performing somersaults.
“Yes.” I head for the table.
I chew on the inside of my lip and lay out two place settings. “A little.”
Okay, a lot. It’s weird how you can want something so much but still be all jittery when you finally get it.
We sit down across the table from each other, under our apartment’s only window. A light breeze makes me shiver. Hot days are rare in San Francisco, even in June. For me, summer is less about warmer weather, more about being done with my online homeschool classes until the fall, plus skating lots with Tamar. It’s also when Alex puts together my new program before Regionals in October.
Except now I’ll be at a different rink and have a choreographer.
My stomach flips again and I fidget, rubbing the charm on the necklace I always wear. My phone chimes in my pocket. Mom looks at me.
“Sorry.” I silence it.
“Would you like to say the blessing tonight?” she asks.
We never used to recite a blessing before meals, but I started practicing prayers in Hebrew school a few months ago to prepare for my bat mitzvah. Mom thought it’d be a good idea to recite some at home, too.
As soon as I’m done, Mom picks up where she left off. “Alex will arrive in Oakland by midmorning, after your off-ice classes.”
I take a bite of my pancake.
“I’m sure Faith and Hope will help you get settled in beforehand.”
Swallowing hard, I try to imagine tomorrow. New skaters. Different rink. A choreographer I’ve never met. I overheard Alex tell Mom on the phone that she’s flying in from Florida. Mom turned off the speakerphone when he mentioned her choreography fee, but not before I heard we’ll be splitting her travel costs with the other skaters who hired her.
I glance past Mom, beyond the kitchen, and to our bunk beds on the opposite side of the apartment. Our entire studio could fit into Tamar’s living room.
“How are we going to pay for everything?”
I can’t help asking, even though she’ll probably just tell me that it’s her job to pay for things and mine to focus on training. But I know a low-income families sports voucher made it possible for me to learn to skate, and that she split Alex’s coaching fee with Tamar’s parents for a year after we passed all the levels in our skate-school.
Mom looks at me like she’s trying to decide something. “Do you remember that big case I helped out with last April?”
“When I stayed at Tamar’s house for, like, a week?”
“Yes, exactly. Work just won a large settlement. My boss gave me a bonus to thank me for my help.”
“Seriously?” I lean forward. “That’s awesome!”
Mom doesn’t smile. “This doesn’t make us rich, Ana-Marie. Far from it. I’m only sharing this with you because you’re old enough to understand the costs of your training, and I don’t want you to worry. Focus on your skating, and train hard this summer.”
“Okay.” I sit up a little taller. “I’ll train hard. Hard squared.”
“I know you will.” Mom keeps her eyes on me, pausing long enough to make me wonder what’s going on. “Now I have a question for you: If you had the chance to help pay for your skating, would you be willing?”
“Yes.” I don’t even have to think about it.
“Good.” Mom nods, as if she’s made a decision. “I’ve already paid for your practice ice tomorrow. Alex will explain more later.”
“Explain what?” How am I possibly going to get any sleep between my current nerves and this new mystery?
Mom smiles a little, and I know she’s amused by my impatience.
“Eat, Ana-Marie” is all she says. “It’s almost time for bed, and you’ll need your rest. You’ve got a big day ahead of you.”
I wake up an hour before my alarm is set to go off. Closing my eyes, I steady my breaths and roll from my back to my side, but sleep feels out of reach. My head swirls with thoughts.
Nationals. The Oakland rink. Cars honking on the street. The high-pitched whine of bus brakes. Money. New choreography.
For a while, I stare at my Michelle Kwan poster. Eventually my eyes drop lower, to my parents’ photo. Mom and Dad both smile back.
The alarm finally goes off. “Time to get up, Ana-Marie.” Mom’s drowsy voice floats up from the lower bunk.
Mom takes the bathroom first and emerges in her freshly ironed work clothes. Then it’s my turn to get into a T-shirt and my comfiest stretchy leggings. Alex once told me the Iowa rink he trained at as a kid would make girls wear skirts or dresses to practice. I’m glad there are no rules like that at the rinks here.
We eat a quick breakfast and head out.
The Number 5 bus will take us to Mom’s office, but we only ride it on special occasions. Walking is free. Homeless people sleep or sit huddled under aged brick buildings, reminding me how lucky we are. I slip my hand into Mom’s. Even if our studio is small, it’s safe and comfortable.
As the Financial District looms closer, cars honk more often. The sidewalks get busier, too. We’re weaving our way around people dressed in business suits when a fluttering movement catches my eye. Rainbow flags line the sidewalk, but someone’s tied a second flag to this lamppost. White, blue, and pink stripes whip back and forth in the wind.
“Look.” I point it out to Mom.
“How pretty. I always love Pride month. It feels so festive.” Mom smiles. “Do you remember Alex and Myles’s wedding?”
“Kind of.” I was seven and it felt like the whole city was celebrating, because two women or two men could officially get married for the first time. “That’s when Alex and Myles started calling me Bean.”
“I almost forgot about that.” Mom laughs. “You would’ve danced all night if I’d let you.”
Mom’s office is in a tall building downtown, complete with Samuel, the security guard. He always wears freshly pressed suits and keeps his hair trimmed so close to his brown skin that he looks like he’s ready to attend a wedding himself.
He waves to us. “Good morning, Ms. Jin.” I brace myself as Samuel turns to me. “Hi, Miss Ana-Marie.”
I wince at the Miss.
Looking up at Samuel, I remind myself he’s just being polite. “Morning, Samuel.”
“Big day today, right?”
I nod. My phone vibrates. There’s a 99 percent chance it’s Tamar, already checking in.
“But you’re not wearing a dress? On an important day like this?”
I tense. “Not to practice. Almost no one does.”
Before Samuel can respond, Mom steps toward the street, arm up. An SUV with tinted windows pulls to a stop at the curb in front of us.
Mrs. Park gets out of the driver’s side and shakes hands with Mom.
“Bag in the trunk,” says Mrs. Park. Her words are curt, like how my grandma Goldie talks. She grew up speaking Mandarin with her parents and didn’t learn English until she moved to Hawaii as a teenager.
The trunk already contains two designer skating bags. Skaters can sit on the hard frame while lacing up, plus the wheels sparkle when you roll them. My duffel bag looks drab next to them. I press my shoulders back and tell myself it doesn’t matter. It holds my skates just as well as any expensive bag.
“See you later.” Mom ruffles my hair. “Listen to Alex. Work hard and take lots of notes.”
Praise for Ana on the Edge:"Heartfelt, nuanced and engaging, Ana on the Edge is both an insider's look at the world of competitive figure skating and a sensitive exploration of the protagonist's nonbinary identity. Highly recommended."
—Barbara Dee, award-winning author of Maybe He Just Likes You and My Life in the Fish Tank
- "Heartfelt, nuanced and engaging, Ana on the Edge is both an insider's look at the world of competitive figure skating and a sensitive exploration of the protagonist's nonbinary identity. Highly recommended."—Barbara Dee, award-winning author of Maybe He Just Likes You and My Life in the Fish Tank
- "A lovely, necessary story of self-discovery and friendship."—Ashley Herring Blake, author of Stonewall Honor book Ivy Aberdeen's Letter to the World
- "Ana on the Edge is a poignant exploration of the importance of being seen for who you are. Ana will glide into your heart and open your mind to the richness of the full gender spectrum."—Ami Polonsky, award-winning author of Gracefully Grayson and Spin With Me
- "Sass's gorgeous debut fills a much needed void on LGBTQ+ middle grade shelves."—Nicole Melleby, award-winning author of Hurricane Season
- * "Sass masterfully balances Ana's passion for competitive figure skating with her journey to coming out. ...sensitive and realistic."—Booklist, starred review
- "Sass renders scenes on and off the ice with vivid descriptions, and writes nuanced, layered portrayals of characters."—Publishers Weekly
- "The tone of the story remains hopeful as [Ana] works toward a new understanding of herself. The personal connection of the author, himself a figure skater who identifies as nonbinary, to the story is evident within its pages in both the nuances of figure skating and Ana's interrogation of gender."—The Horn Book
- "Vulnerable and affirming."—Kirkus Reviews
- On Sale
- Oct 20, 2020
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers