Just Shy of Ordinary

  • Review
By – April 22, 2024

Author A.J. Sass con­tin­ues their win­ning streak of mid­dle school fic­tion with a new prob­lem-solv­ing, gen­der­flu­id pro­tag­o­nist who lives in north­ern Wis­con­sin. Look­ing for a new nor­mal,” thir­teen-year-old Shai has rig­or­ous­ly researched all the things they want to do this year: come out as non­bi­na­ry, get a fit­ting hair­cut, switch from home school to pub­lic school, and stop skin-pick­ing, which they have been keep­ing secret from every­one. Along the way, Shai’s list expands to include the pos­si­bil­i­ty that their Jew­ish her­itage may be some­thing that gives their life mean­ing. Just Shy of Ordi­nary reas­sures mid­dle school read­ers (and their par­ents, who may also want to pick this book up) that they can­not and do not have to do all of this by themselves.

Shai is used to excelling. They have already come out to their moth­er and grand­par­ents, as well as to the man who invit­ed Shai and their mom to move in when Shai’s moth­er lost her job at the begin­ning of the pan­dem­ic. The man has two sons, one of whom is Shai’s best friend. Now, he feels pushed aside by Shai’s new friend­ship with two girls at school, which leaves them no time to hang out togeth­er. Shai is excit­ed about skip­ping eighth grade and head­ing into ninth, but this change comes with new pres­sures, like not always get­ting one hun­dred on a test or try­ing to hand an assign­ment in on time. Shai also feels awk­ward about when and how to explain them­self and their iden­ti­ty to their new friends.

Dis­cov­er­ing Shab­bat ser­vices for an hon­ors Eng­lish project pulls Shai clos­er to their grand­par­ents and their pride in Judaism, but it dis­tances them from their moth­er, who seems to be guard­ing a secret of her own. Shai has long known the unfair­ness of soci­etal assump­tions about gen­der and sex­u­al­i­ty, but for the first time, they must con­front anti­semitism when their grand­par­ents’ syn­a­gogue is van­dal­ized. Shai does not feel in con­trol. All of their stress caus­es them to pick their skin even more.

Writ­ing in first per­son, Sass moves flu­id­ly through Shai’s first month of school, describ­ing the school buzz about home­com­ing and Shai’s jazzy arm sleeves. These sleeves catch on with oth­ers; no one real­izes that they are there to hide the sores on Shai’s skin. On cer­tain pages, Shai jots down their week­ly plans and thoughts in a nov­el-in-verse style they enjoy.

This is a nuanced, empa­thet­ic nov­el packed with the ups and downs of school and home life.

Sharon Elswit, author of The Jew­ish Sto­ry Find­er, now resides in San Fran­cis­co, where she shares tales aloud in a local JCC preschool and vol­un­teers with 826 Valen­cia to help stu­dents write their own sto­ries and poems.

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