Author pho­to cour­tesy of the publisher

On the first Fri­day night of her school’s sum­mer study abroad trip to Spain, Ellen Katz, the main char­ac­ter in my nov­el Ellen Out­side the Lines, makes her way to her abba’s hotel room to video call her mom and cel­e­brate Shab­bat. The scene that fol­lows is qui­et; there are no major plot twists. It’s also one of my favorite scenes in the entire book because while the focus of the sto­ry isn’t strict­ly on Judaism, Ellen and her par­ents’ Jew­ish­ness is an inher­ent part of who they are.

This scene felt like a big deal to write in part because I hadn’t read more than a hand­ful of por­tray­als of Jew­ish char­ac­ters in mid­dle grade books up to that point. Grow­ing up, I read wide­ly with­in a vari­ety of age cat­e­gories and gen­res. But most of the books I read as a kid that fea­tured any­thing asso­ci­at­ed with Jews or Judaism focused on the Holo­caust. This is an impor­tant top­ic for any young read­er to learn about, with­out ques­tion, but I also craved more casu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion and con­tem­po­rary settings.

These books may have exist­ed when I was younger. I hope I sim­ply missed them grow­ing up in small­er towns through­out the Mid­west and South. Maybe they sim­ply weren’t stocked in the book­stores and libraries where I grew up because there wasn’t a large Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion. But even that presents a prob­lem, in my mind. Because books can serve as mir­rors to our own expe­ri­ences and make us feel seen, but they’re also win­dows into the expe­ri­ences of oth­ers, fos­ter­ing empathy.

Now more than ever, we need books that serve as mir­rors and win­dows. We need Jew­ish char­ac­ters fea­tured as the leads in sto­ries where Judaism is an inci­den­tal yet still ful­ly inte­grat­ed part of the nar­ra­tive. Even the small­est of nods can be essential.

That’s why my main char­ac­ter, Ana, and her mom are Jew­ish in my debut nov­el, Ana on the Edge. It’s cer­tain­ly not the focus in a sto­ry about a com­pet­i­tive ice skater learn­ing to embrace the fact that she’s non­bi­na­ry, but the rep­re­sen­ta­tion exists in small ways that are mean­ing­ful to me as a non­bi­na­ry Jew. As Ana learns more about her iden­ti­ty, she begins to won­der how her role might change when she comes out to the mem­bers of her com­mu­ni­ty. Will she still have a bat mitz­vah if she isn’t a girl? It’s a lit­tle nod to Jew­ish read­ers, and hope­ful­ly some food for thought for those who aren’t.

In my sopho­more nov­el, Ellen Out­side the Lines, there is a larg­er focus on Jew­ish rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Ellen’s fam­i­ly observes Shab­bat every week, her moth­er is a can­tor at their tem­ple, and her abba was born and raised in a Hare­di com­mu­ni­ty in Israel. The sto­ry, how­ev­er, is not about Ellen and her par­ents being Jew­ish; it pri­mar­i­ly focus­es on how friend­ships can shift dur­ing mid­dle school, how this can be dif­fi­cult but also a nat­ur­al result of grow­ing up. Still, it felt impor­tant to high­light how a Jew­ish kid’s expe­ri­ence of study­ing abroad might dif­fer from those of her non-Jew­ish peers.

Books can serve as mir­rors to our own expe­ri­ences and make us feel seen, and they’re also win­dows into the expe­ri­ences of oth­ers, fos­ter­ing empathy. 

Hav­ing grown up in Israel, Ellen’s abba often address­es Ellen in Hebrew. On their flight to Barcelona, for exam­ple, Ellen’s friend, Lau­rel, over­hears Ellen and her abba speak­ing Hebrew, and tells Ellen, I adore that … It’s like you and your dad have a secret lan­guage.” Ellen adores it too. There’s joy in this moment, in shar­ing a lan­guage that con­nects many with­in their com­mu­ni­ty. That said, I chose not to include a glos­sary of Hebrew words at the end of the book. It’s sim­ply a nod to fam­i­lies whose make­up is sim­i­lar to Ellen’s. For non-Hebrew-speak­ers, the mean­ings can be under­stood through the larg­er con­text of the scenes they appear within.

There were also oppor­tu­ni­ties to illus­trate the chal­lenge of keep­ing kosher while trav­el­ing. On Ellen’s first night in Barcelona, she and her class­mates eat din­ner togeth­er at their hotel, buf­fet-style. While wait­ing in line, a teenage guest in front of them rec­om­mends one food item in par­tic­u­lar. Try the jamón ser­ra­no,” she encour­ages them. It’s a specialty.”

Ellen rec­og­nizes the word from her Span­ish class and knows it’s trayf. She makes a men­tal note to avoid it going for­ward, but also won­ders if her abba, who is a trip chap­er­one, knows that jamón’ means ham.’ This isn’t a major plot point, by any means, but it’s a moment I hope many Jew­ish read­ers might under­stand or relate to. For oth­er read­ers, an invi­ta­tion into the life of a char­ac­ter whose family’s prac­tices might look dif­fer­ent from their own.

A person’s rela­tion­ship to and expres­sion of their faith can dif­fer wide­ly, even with­in Judaism, so I want­ed to give a lit­tle nod to that in this sto­ry, as well. Ellen is autis­tic and finds com­fort in rules. So, when her abba seems no longer to be keep­ing kosher dur­ing their meals, Ellen’s anx­i­ety ris­es. When Ellen final­ly con­fronts Abba about this, he tells her he appre­ci­ates that she’s try­ing to look after him but notes that Ellen’s mom is the more obser­vant one.

This con­fus­es Ellen at first. What are you talk­ing about?” she asks. You, and me, and Mom, we’re all the same.”

To which her abba responds that while they are a fam­i­ly, they aren’t all the same. And this is a good thing. Abba goes on to share why he’s some­times less obser­vant than Ellen and her mom and explains that it’s up to each per­son to decide what’s best for them. The con­ver­sa­tion is cen­tered around Judaism because Ellen’s fam­i­ly is Jew­ish. Anoth­er nod, but cer­tain­ly not one that’s exclu­sive to Jew­ish families.

Exam­ples like these, as well as my favorite scene depict­ing a transat­lantic, vir­tu­al Shab­bat, are all lit­tle nods to my char­ac­ters’ Jew­ish her­itage. They’re inci­den­tal, often qui­et, moments of con­ver­sa­tion or reflec­tion that shape and some­times chal­lenge my char­ac­ters’ under­stand­ing of the world around them. These nods may be qui­et, some­times bare­ly notice­able, with­in my mid­dle grade nov­els. But giv­en enough of them, they feel like they ulti­mate­ly add up to some­thing big­ger, giv­ing read­ers of all back­grounds an oppor­tu­ni­ty to see the beau­ti­ful diver­si­ty with­in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. Most impor­tant­ly, they can be affirm­ing to so many young read­ers, let­ting them know there’s a place for them and their fam­i­lies with­in the pages of a novel.

A. J. Sass (he/​they) is an author whose nar­ra­tive inter­ests lie at the inter­sec­tion of iden­ti­ty, neu­ro­di­ver­si­ty, and ally­ship. His debut nov­el, Ana on the Edge, was a 2020 Book­list Edi­tors’ Choice, an ALA 2021 Rain­bow Book List Top 10 for Young Read­ers, and a Junior Library Guild Gold Stan­dard selec­tion. His sopho­more nov­el, Ellen Out­side the Lines, is also a Junior Library Guild Gold Stan­dard selec­tion. A. J. is the co-author of Camp QUILT­BAG* (Algo­nquin, 2023) and a con­trib­u­tor to the This Is Our Rain­bow: 16 Sto­ries of Her, Him, Them, And Us (Knopf Books for Young Read­ers) and Allies: Real Talk About Show­ing Up, Screw­ing Up, And Try­ing Again (DK/​Penguin Ran­dom House) antholo­gies. When he’s not writ­ing, A. J. fig­ure skates and trav­els as much as pos­si­ble. He lives in the San Fran­cis­co Bay Area with his part­ner and two cats who act like dogs. Fol­low him at sassinsf​.com or @matokah on Twit­ter and Instagram.