Thirteen-year-old Ellen Katz, who is on the spectrum, is headed to Barcelona with her Georgia school classmates for a summer abroad program. So is her best-and-only-friend Laurel in “Ellen Outside the Lines” (Little Brown 2022) by A.J. Sass. Laurel has always made Ellen feel like autism is no big deal and has helped her navigate tricky social situations.
But Laurel has recently expanded her circle of friends. Ellen hopes that this trip will get their friendship back on track. Ellen’s father, Appa, is one of the chaperones on the trip and we learn much about their observant Jewish family. There’s a new kid on the trip, Isa, who identifies as they and them. That’s fine with Ellen. Isa is straightforward, confident, and kind.
The curriculum for the trip is based on a scavenger hunt, designed by their Spanish teacher, Señor L. On the flight over, Ellen asks Appa to be part of his group, which, she discovers, means that Laurel is in another team of four, a group of girls interested in make-up, shopping for clothes, and boys. Ellen still rooms with Laurel, but she’s a bit undone when she discovers her teammates are Andy, Gibs, and Isa.
Gibs tends to ask too many questions and we see how Ellen is challenged by this, and how she sorts through the questions. But she can usually slip into a bathroom stall, rock and count to sixty in Spanish and we begin to experience her autism with her.
Ellen’s teammates, except for Gibs, are diligent clue followers. As we follow them around Barcelona we see Gaudi’s architecture—especially Cathedral Sagrada Familia—the subway system, the grand boulevard Rambla and other landmarks. The bustling Rambla is a “sensory overwhelm” to Ellen, and she experiences a minor breakdown, but she knows to put on her headphones and take phone videos to be able look back on later in the quiet of their hotel. But it’s embarrassing to wear those headphones. Andy and Isa accept this immediately. They understand that Ellen is on the spectrum. With time, Gibs gets it, too.
Besides Ellen’s schoolmates, there’s an attractive Catalan brother and sister staying at the hotel. Ellen realizes she’s more attracted to the girl, Merixtelle, than Xavi, the boy. This opens her eyes to wider possibilities. Ellen and Laurel realize they’re drifting apart and make desperate attempts to right this fear, but both of them make a hash of this and the plot thickens.
Andy has a secret which Ellen naively reveals so there’s another subplot, all which adds up to a novel where you learn about autism, Barcelona, and various gender identities as Ellen expands her life. The reader is in good hands with A.J. Sass who is a fine writer and identifies as both non-binary and autistic.
Patricia Hruby Powell is the author of the award-winning books: Lift As You Climb; Josephine; Loving vs Virginia; and Struttin’ With Some Barbecue all signed and for sale at Jane Addams bookstore. Books forthcoming about women’s suffrage, Martha Graham, and Ella Fitzgerald. talesforallages.com