Review: Ellen Outside the Lines

Ellen Outside the Lines

by A.J. Sass

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2022

Category: Middle Grade
Reviewer: Stacy Nockowitz 

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As A.J. Sass’s new middle grade novel, opens, Ellen Katz is getting ready to go on a huge adventure: a special school trip to Barcelona with a class of students studying Spanish. Joining her on the trip are her abba, who is one of the parent chaperones, her best friend Laurel, and an assortment of other students, including a new, nonbinary student named Isa. When everyone arrives in Spain, the kids are split into small groups to complete a series of tasks throughout the week, and Ellen finds herself in a group without Laurel but with Isa and a couple of boys she doesn’t know well. As the week goes on, Ellen must navigate the twists and turns of middle school friendships while dealing with the sights and sounds of a totally new environment. All of it can be overwhelming for Ellen, who is autistic. She is also just beginning to discover her feelings about a couple of other girls on the trip. Ellen is a beautifully realized character who grows throughout the story. She makes mistakes, questions her place in the world, and pushes herself to take risks. Ellen Outside the Lines is a story about coming to know and accept yourself for the fantastic person you are. It’s also about friendship and accepting others.

There is a lot of Jewish content in Ellen Outside the Lines, all of it woven seamlessly into the narrative. Ellen’s Israeli father often speaks to her in Hebrew. Her mother is a cantor, and Ellen and her dad celebrate Shabbat with Mom on a video call home from Spain. As an autistic kid, Ellen likes structure and feels comfortable following rules, so she is thrown off when she sees her father eating non-kosher food on the trip. But Ellen’s abba uses that as a teachable moment, emphasizing to Ellen that it’s okay for people in the same family to practice their religion differently. The Jewish content is important in that being Jewish is a strong element of Ellen’s identity, but ultimately, these moments are more incidental than central to the book’s plot. I leave it to the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee to determine if the Jewish content qualifies Ellen Outside the Lines for the award, but I loved everything about this book, from its loving and accepting characters to its sweet, positive tone. This is a lovely book that will appeal to many middle grade readers, Jewish or otherwise, and it should be read widely.
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Reviewer Stacy Nockowitz is a middle school librarian and former language arts teacher. She holds Master's Degrees from Columbia University and Kent State University, and is an MFA candidate in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her debut middle grade novel, The Prince of Steel Pier, comes out in September 2022 from Kar-Ben Books. Find her on Twitter @snockowitz or visit