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Ellen Outside the Lines
By A. J. Sass
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A heartfelt novel about a neurodivergent thirteen-year-old navigating changing friendships, a school trip, and expanding horizons for fans of Rain Reign and Ivy Aberdeen's Letter to the World.
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.
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.
I’m ahead of schedule and this is a problem.
I know there are bigger issues. Climate change is making the oceans rise. People are cutting down trees, endangering entire forests, along with thousands of animal species. But Dr. Talia says problems like those are “out of scope.” I’m supposed to think of my life as an entire world of its own, to focus on the stuff within my control.
- My breath
- My attitude
- The words I use
A short list, but manageable, according to Dr. Talia.
It’s totally manageable. Except right now, my world’s tipped on its axis because I packed too fast but not fast enough to do anything else before my best-and-only friend, Laurel, is supposed to call.
I grab a piece of paper off my desk and head over to the suitcase lying open on my bed. I’ve already double- and triple-checked this packing list—I even left suitcase space for souvenirs, plus changed into clothes for tonight’s Shabbat service—but it’s still only 4:45.
What am I going to do for the next ten minutes?
Dropping onto my bed, I pull out my phone.
I finished packing early. You can call now.
Laurel usually responds fast. But today, my phone doesn’t ring. Downstairs, Mom’s voice drifts up to me. It rises then falls with each musical scale. Upstairs, it’s just me and my tense shoulders, a silent phone, and the whoosh-rattle of the rickety ceiling fan.
My eyes drift closed, fingers curling over the edge of my mattress.
I rock in time with the fan.
Forward on the whoosh.
Back on the rattle.
Over and over.
I tell myself it’s a good thing I’m ahead of schedule. It means I can do more than I thought in the time I planned out. I imagine Dr. Talia nodding, her silvery hair swaying as she takes notes on a pad of paper:
Ellen’s progress—Positive attitude: Check
I look at my phone again.
More rocking. Another silent pep talk. Everything’s fine. I’ve got it all under control.
Eventually my shoulders relax. I feel calm again as I head over to my desk. The surface is bare except for my dot diary, a notebook filled with schedules and lists that keep my life completely organized. It’s the total opposite of Abba’s messy desk, with stacks of doodles and half-finished graphic novel sketches.
I stare at the sticky note on my dot diary’s cover that lists my flight confirmation number, then flip to the page with today’s schedule.
Laurel’s entry is under my Events column, but it doesn’t say who’s supposed to call who, just that our check-in is at 4:55 p.m., twenty-four hours before our flight departs.
It’s exactly 4:55 p.m. now. I’m already feeling anxious as I unlock my phone and call Laurel.
Four rings, and then…
“Hi and hello!” her voice chirps. “You’ve reached Laurel’s voice mail, so…”
Stomach churning, I hang up. Laurel was supposed to get home from her visit with her older sister this morning, but maybe her phone’s dead after the long drive. I’ve never understood how Laurel can go to bed without plugging it in to charge.
I switch to her home number.
Laurel’s mom has a voice that sounds like sugar, all syrupy syllables and molasses vowels.
“Hi, Mrs. McKinley.”
“Ellen! How’re you doing, darlin’?”
“Good.” This is a lie—the truth is I’m starting to feel sick. But according to Dr. Talia, people don’t know what to say if you go off-script, and I’m the same way with schedules, so I guess I get it. “Is Laurel back from Florida?”
“Yes, indeed. She and Dahlia got in a little before lunch. It was perfect timing, really, since I’d just finished making a fresh peach cobbler and…”
As Mrs. McKinley describes each course of their meal, I pull the phone away from my ear to check the time.
What if everyone already checked in and Laurel and I don’t get seats together because peaches delayed us?
The floorboards outside my room creak with the weight of approaching feet.
“Incoming, Ellen!” Abba calls from the hall.
He swings my door open and enters my room, while Mrs. McKinley keeps talking. “It’s a lovely farm, just south of Atlanta. We should take you and Laurel on a day trip.” A knot forms in my stomach and travels up into my chest, making its way toward my throat. “… been in their family for at least—”
“Can I talk to Laurel?” My voice rises over hers.
Abba crosses his arms. I’m not the greatest at reading body language, but this one’s easy.
“I’m sorry,” I tell Mrs. McKinley, swallowing hard. “It’s just, we were supposed to check in for our flight seven minutes ago.”
Maybe eight now.
“Well.” She pauses like she’s puzzled. “I’m afraid Laurel’s not here right this moment, dear. She headed over to the Taylors’ after lunch. Have you tried her cell phone?”
Yes, but I can’t tell her that, because my throat has closed up. I also can’t tell her how things were supposed to return to normal once Laurel got back from Florida. No more messed-up schedules or canceled sleepovers. No missed calls or unanswered texts, either. Just two weeks in Spain with our Spanish class, the two of us doing everything together. She promised.
Suddenly, there’s too much to focus on.
the fan’s too loud
cypress branches scrape against my window
Mom sings downstairs
Hebrew words swirl in my head
Too much, too much. My temples throb.
“All my girls have been such little social butterflies,” Mrs. McKinley continues, totally oblivious. “First Lily on student council, then Dahlia with all those honor societies, and now Laurel and her gymnastics…”
I meet Abba’s gaze for a split second. He steps forward and holds his hand out.
“Hi, Susannah? It’s Natan. Seems the girls had a miscommunication.”
I don’t remember handing Abba my phone. He walks a slow circle around my room, his messy bun of curly brown hair bobbing. It’s longer than my red-brown hair when it’s loose.
He pauses at my desk, eyes drifting to the sticky note on my dot diary. “If you have Laurel’s confirmation number, I can check us all in together.”
I thrum my fingers against my leg, focusing on Mom’s song downstairs.
Lekhah dodi, liqrat kallah, p’ne Shabbat—short tap, tap, tap with my index finger.
Neqabelah—finger fan. First index finger, then middle, ring, and pinkie against my leg.
The rhythm helps me focus and keeps me calm.
“All right, Elle-bell. You and Laurel officially have seats together tomorrow,” Abba says as he hands my phone back to me. “Hakol beseder?”
I breathe in. Abba’s words are clearer. Even though I was ahead of schedule and Laurel forgot about our call, things still worked out. The fan is still rattling and the tree branches still scritch, but they’re just background sounds now. I breathe out.
“Beseder gamur.” Totally fine. I tell myself it is, even if things didn’t go exactly as planned.
Still, I can’t help checking my notifications to see if Laurel’s texted me back.
“Metzuyan. I’m glad.” The corners of Abba’s mouth lift and the stubble on his cheeks rise with it. His voice is a mix between Mrs. McKinley’s warm Southern accent and Mom’s New York–brisk that never quite went away after we moved to Georgia. Israeli airy: That’s what Mom calls it. “I see you’re already packed for our trip. Any chance you could help me organize my suitcase before we head to temple?”
The knot in my throat finally dissolves now that I have something else to focus on. I get up to consult my dot diary. Sunset isn’t until 9:01 p.m. tonight, according to my notes, but Shabbat services start earlier. I do some quick math. “We have to leave in thirty-three minutes.”
“That’s doable, right?”
“Yes.” I grab a pen from my desk drawer and add an entry to my Tasks list. “All right, let’s go.”
I weave us around the creakiest hallway floorboards. “Barcelona’s humid in June, just like Georgia, so you’ll mostly need T-shirts and shorts. You should have lots of space left over for souvenirs.”
“And my art supplies?”
I glance back at him. “You are very predictable.”
“True.” Abba grins. “But I bet you’re already coming up with a packing plan, nachon?”
“Yes.” I smile a little.
He’s right. Predictable might be a bad thing for some people—too boring—but not for me. And since we’ll be flying halfway around the world by this time tomorrow, it’s best to focus on what I can control now—like helping Abba pack his art supplies before my family leaves for temple.
The next afternoon, we roll to a stop in front of the McKinleys’ house, where Laurel waits for us on her wraparound porch. She hugs her family goodbye as Abba carries her luggage to the trunk.
“The two Els, reunited at last,” Abba says as he and Laurel get into the car. “How was Florida, Miss Laurel?”
“I adored it.” Laurel adores a lot of things, since it was her favorite word for all of seventh grade. “We drove to the Gulf last weekend. It was so pretty.”
She rubs her small cross-shaped charm between her index finger and thumb.
Some people believe you have to look into a person’s eyes to know what they’re feeling, but I think you can tell more from what they do with their hands. Like, I know Abba is stressed when his knuckles turn white around his tablet pen. Mom waves her hands around as she talks when she’s excited, and I do my finger thrum whenever the world gets too bright, loud, or both.
When Laurel gets nervous, she fiddles with her necklace.
She turns toward me. “It was like the beach in Savannah. Remember?”
She waits for me to say something, but the words get stuck in my throat. I nod instead, a quick, jerky movement that matches the beat of a pop song playing from our car’s radio.
I remember. Last summer, between sixth and seventh grade, I spent a week with the McKinleys at their vacation home on the Georgia coast. Laurel and I swam in the ocean every morning and ate lunch on the beach each afternoon. We’d make up stories about the other tourists as we ate. Things like where they were visiting from and what might happen in their lives when they went back home.
“Sounds like you had a nice trip,” Mom says.
“Yes, ma’am.” Laurel’s strawberry-blond hair bobs on her newly tanned shoulder. “I sure did.”
We merge onto the freeway, and Abba’s arms appear above his seat, stretching as far as they’ll reach. “I hope no one minds if I take a nap. I lost myself in some sketches last night and stayed up past my bedtime.”
“That’s fine.” Mom turns down the music’s volume. “We’ll keep quiet for you, right, girls?”
“Yes.” I find my voice at the same time that Laurel says the same thing.
“Chalamot paz, Abba,” I add. Sweet dreams.
My phone buzzes. A new text from Laurel.
I skim our last few messages.
I finished packing early. You can call now.
Sorry I forgot to call
I was shopping with Dahlia all morning, then SA needed a packing intervention and I totally spaced
SA stands for Sophie-Anne Taylor. We’re all students at Lynnwood Preparatory School, but Sophie-Anne has her own group of friends and I don’t get how Laurel fits in with them. Ever since we met in third grade, it’s always been just Laurel and me: an inseparable pair of Els. I hunch my shoulders and lean forward in my seat.
I called your house yesterday when you didn’t answer your cell phone. Your mom talks a lot.
Laurel giggles. My phone buzzes again.
LOLOLOL I know, I live with her
The sides of my mouth twitch up, and I relax in my seat. Up front, Mom hums a Shabbat song she sang in front of our temple this morning. I try to imagine what it’ll be like to spend two Shabbats halfway across the world. Except for the trip to Savannah, I’ve always gone to temple with Mom and Abba every week. While Mom leads our temple in song, I sit with Abba, humming along.
Abba’s breaths become deep and slow. Laurel and I keep texting to make sure we don’t wake him.
So how much homework do you think Señor L will make us do on this trip?
The syllabus from last year was on the school website. It’s lectures in the morning, then a siesta and afternoon field trips before dinner. I didn’t see times listed for homework.
Let me guess… you made daily schedules for the whole trip
I glance over at Laurel, right as Abba snorts in his sleep. The corners of our mouths rise at the same time.
Mom glances back at us in the rearview mirror. “Grins must be contagious,” she tells us in a loud whisper. “Now I can’t stop smiling, either.”
The car rolls to a stop in front of the Atlanta airport’s international departures terminal. We grab our suitcases and say goodbye to Mom. My stomach swirls with nerves as she coasts away.
Inside the airport, a group of Lynnwood students clusters together in front of the security line. Some kids wear blue school T-shirts with the gold Lynnwood crest across their chests, while others wear a version with our school mascot perched on top of a shirt pocket. The brown thrasher: It’s not exactly regal like a lion, tiger, or eagle, but it’s the Georgia state bird and can sing up to 3,000 unique song phrases. So, it’s got a few things going for it.
Abba slows, then turns back to us. “Hey, Miss Laurel. How about you head over while I run something past Ellen?”
I automatically take a step toward Laurel. We’re supposed to stay together on this trip.
But Laurel doesn’t seem bothered. “Sure.” She turns to me. “Come find me when you’re done?”
“Okay.…” But I keep my eyes on her until Abba starts talking.
“I’ve been thinking about our last family session with Dr. Talia. Do you remember what she said?”
Dr. Talia said a lot of things last week, but one thing stayed with me enough to write it in my dot diary. “She said me being autistic isn’t abnormal or bad, it’s unique and different.”
“Absolutely.” Abba nods. “And how about right before we finished the session?”
I think back. Even though it was only a week ago, my head is filled with a flight departure time and gate number, lots of new Spanish words, and our trip’s itinerary. I shake my head.
“It was just a quick mention.” Abba balls his hands into fists, then flexes his fingers straight before repeating the motion. Usually he does this at his desk, when he doesn’t know what to draw next. “Besides school and temple, you don’t get out of the house much, so you end up spending lots of time with your mother and me. Dr. Talia said this trip could be a great time to give you some space. Does that make sense?”
“No… You’re a parent chaperone. It’s your job to make sure students don’t get lost or hurt in Barcelona—including me.”
“Of course.” Abba slides his hands into his shorts pockets. “What I mean is, there may be opportunities for you and your classmates to be on your own, or times when a smaller group will only have one adult chaperone.”
“Small groups?” The school website didn’t say anything about this.
Abba nods again. “I wanted to see if you’d like me to ask your Spanish teacher to assign me to a different group, if something like that happens. To give you some independence.”
My stomach flips. I shake my head fast. “No. I like spending time with you.”
I expect him to smile here, like he did yesterday, but Abba just presses his lips together.
“Are you sure, Elle-bell? The parent chaperones attended an orientation, so we’re equipped to assist every student, no matter what. Plus, I’d still be around if you needed anything.”
“I want to spend time with you.” I’m still shaking my head. I don’t notice that I’ve let go of my suitcase and balled my hands into fists until Abba speaks again.
“Hey, lo hashuv. It’s okay.”
The distress drains out of me. My fingers relax at my sides.
“Do you need a moment, metukah?” Abba asks. “There’s time to stop by the bathroom if you need someplace quiet to reset.”
“No. I’m fine.”
“Okay.” Abba hesitates, like he’s not quite convinced. Finally, he reaches for his suitcase. “Let’s go join your group then.”
That should be that. But as we head toward my classmates, I can’t help feeling like my world has started to spin off-axis again.
“Mr. Katz, Ellen!”
My Spanish teacher, Señor L, waves us over as we get closer to the security line. He stands next to a woman and a kid wearing a Lynnwood T-shirt who I don’t recognize.
“Please, call me Natan.” As Abba reaches out to shake his hand, I steal a glance at the people beside him. Aside from a couple of Chinese American students, Lynnwood is mostly white, including our teachers. Many of my classmates’ parents went to Lynnwood when they were kids, too. Their families have lived in Georgia forever. It was a big change from my elementary school back in Brooklyn. Lots of the students there had families who had moved from other places. My Brooklyn classmates and I weren’t “mostly” anything.
These two people have brown skin. My eyes linger on a tuft of dyed purple hair framing the kid’s face only to dart away when Señor L says my name.
“I just asked how you were doing,” he says. “How’s your summer going, Ellen?”
Why do people ask back-to-back questions that can’t have the same answer?
“Good.…” I take a beat to decide how to reply to his second question. But my first answer seems to satisfy him, because he switches topics.
“Wonderful. Since you’re here, Ellen Katz, meet Isa Martinez. Isa will be starting at Lynnwood in the fall and is attending this trip to get acquainted with other students.”
“It’s Ee-sah, not Eye-saw.” We all turn to look at Isa. “As in ‘Wrong lever, Kronk!’ I’m Yzma-without-the-m.”
“Shh.” Mrs. Martinez places a hand on Isa’s shoulder. “Sorry, Mr. Liechtenstein. Not everyone understands Isa’s sense of humor.”
“Well, no worries here.” Señor L claps his hands together, and I try not to wince. “Feel free to call me Señor L,” he tells Isa. “Liechtenstein is a bit of a mouthful.”
It’s a German-speaking country, too—Laurel and I always thought it was a weird last name for a Spanish teacher. It’s also weird to see a Lynnwood teacher in jeans and a T-shirt instead of dress clothes, but I guess it makes sense since students aren’t required to wear school uniforms on this trip.
Señor L’s T-shirt has the words ¿Cómo te…? on it, above three cartoon llamas. It’s probably supposed to be a joke, but I don’t see how a trio of llamas has anything to do with the Spanish question for What is your name? It’s not even pronounced the same.
In my head, it more logically connects to what Isa just said.
“Yzma from The Emperor’s New Groove?” I ask.
The adults go quiet, and I wonder if I interrupted them while my thoughts were hopping from Spanish verbs to Disney llamas.
Isa’s fingers curl into a thumbs-up sign. “Yep. Only my family’s originally from Mexico, not South America.”
Abba nudges me. “That’s one of our favorite movies, isn’t it, Ellen?”
I nod and steal another quick look at Isa’s purple strip of hair, only to realize the other side is completely shaved. Baggy jeans and a T-shirt that hangs off narrow shoulders make me think boy, but I’ve never met a boy with a name that ends in A.
I’ve never met a girl named Isa either, though.
“And I’m Nathan-without-the-h,” Abba says. “Although most kids just call me Mr. Katz. It’s nice to meet you, Isa.”
“Ellen’s dad is actually a parent chaperone on this trip,” Señor L tells Isa and Mrs. Martinez. “So it might be good to talk to you both for a moment about Isa’s… unique circumstances.”
“Sure.” Abba’s voice is smooth, unconcerned. “How about you go meet up with your friends, metukah? I’ll catch up soon.”
Part of me wants to stay and learn about Isa’s “unique circumstances,” but I head off, weaving through the rest of the crowd. I pass my classmate Andy Zhang, chatting with his best friend, Noah-James Gibson, then Emmaline Delfina and Clara Bryant. I make my way up to Laurel, plus Sophie-Anne, who stands beside her.
“Hi, Ellen,” Sophie-Anne says.
“Hey.” I try to catch her eye, but the lights seem too bright, the floors too shiny. My gaze doesn’t make it past the dark brown hair that sways halfway down her back. Laurel’s told me a few times how much she adores Sophie-Anne’s complexion. Smooth skin, no pimples in sight, or freckles that dot her face like they do mine.
“Who was that?” Sophie-Anne points.
I follow the line of her finger. “New student. Yzma-without-the-m.”
Sophie-Anne tilts her head. “Who without the what?”
Both girls twirl around. Sophie-Anne rises onto her strappy-sandaled toes, then waves toward a check-in counter in the distance. “Madison!”
Tall, blond-haired Madison West waves back in her Lynnwood cheerleading squad tank top that says Thrash ’em! Her tall, blond mom stands behind her.
“I haven’t seen her in, like, a month—not since her parents got divorced.” Sophie-Anne turns to Laurel. “Save my spot?”
As Sophie-Anne heads toward Madison, Laurel moves closer to me. “What did your dad want to talk to you about?”
My eyes roam the security line. Classmates chatter nearby. A toddler’s shriek makes my shoulders tense. I shrug, a tight up and down.
I sway a little, arms rising.
A Sydney Taylor Book Award Honor Book
A Golden Kite Award Finalist, Middle Grade Fiction
A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
A Booklist’s 2022 Editors’ Choice Book
- * "A heartwarming and inviting book about finding self that hits at the ever-changing (and challenging) world of middle school. Recommended for all middle grade shelves."—SLJ, starred review
- * "Sass' sophomore novel shines in its nuanced characterizations, subversion of stereotypes, and world that celebrates autism for the joy it brings Ellen when they are happily flapping. A tender, sweet coming-of-age story."—Booklist, starred review
- "The story’s beautiful locales and scavenger hunt puzzles frame a heartwarming story about a transitional period in life, conveyed alongside an affirming, incidental portrayal of Ellen’s experiences."—Publishers Weekly
- "The amazing-to-imagine school trip provides an appealing backdrop, but it is the story’s interpersonal aspects that are especially welcome."—The Horn Book
Praise for Ana on the Edge:—New York Times Book Review
A Booklist Editor's Choice Title
An ALA Rainbow Book List Top Ten Title for Younger Readers
"Sass has created dynamic, original characters who are believable and fun to follow… You can’t help rooting for Ana."
- "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
- On Sale
- Mar 22, 2022
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers