In their latest book, author A.J. Sass creates a neurodivergent main character (Ellen) who is negotiating changes in her friendships and sense of self. Ellen’s carefully planned and controlled world is upended during a class trip to Spain. Her Jewish faith provides a safe structure within which to explore her shifting gender and sexual identities, and comforts her as she processes her experiences as a young teen with autism.
Recommended for readers ages 9+, Ellen Outside the Lines explores autism, gender identity, religious spirituality, puberty, culture shock, and shifting friendships in the life of one very interesting 13-year-old girl. Sass, who uses the pronouns he/they, provides a sympathetic picture of a child encountering someone with a non-binary identity and learning what that means for that person and for herself.
Use one or more of these activities to help children explore Ellen Outside the Lines from a spiritual perspective
- Through Ellen’s kosher eating habits and Shabbat celebrations, the reader sees some of her religious practices. Ellen then interprets and adapts these practices for spiritual support. While in Spain, the practice of Shabbat feels like returning home. When she becomes overwhelmed, she thrums her fingers to the tune of a spiritual song. Brainstorm with children some of their spiritual practices. Ask: How do you feel when you practice these things? How have you personalized these practices? Which practices might you use or adapt when you feel stressed or anxious?
- Ellen creates lists in her diary to help her navigate a complex world. When she learns that Isa uses the pronouns they/them, she’s confused because she can’t list Isa as either a boy or a girl. Her father explains that sometimes people can be many things, such as when someone keeps kosher and also makes exceptions. Encourage children to identify categories that they use to describe themselves, such as athlete or non-athlete, bus rider or walker, believer or non-believer in God, boy or girl. Ask: How well do these categories describe your whole self? What parts of you are not captured by these labels?
- The scavenger hunt around Barcelona is a fun way for the class to learn about special places in the city. The first clue describes a place of ‘light and silence’ along ‘Grace Avenue’. Later, Ellen and her teammates create their own clues representing other sites they have discovered. Invite children to create scavenger hunt-style clues that describe places that are spiritually important to them. Share your clues with each other and see if you can guess the places they point to.
- Through the scavenger hunt, the class learns about the architect Antoni Gaudí. Ellen loves the interesting shapes of Gaudí’s designs, particularly in La Pedrera and Sagrada Família. She feels light and relaxed in these spaces, which leads her to flap her hands joyfully. Explore Gaudi and his buildings online with children. Talk together about how you imagine you would feel in those spaces. Then think about your neighborhood. Ask: What spaces generate strong feelings in you? How do you express those strong feelings?