We go to the library once or twice a week. On the kidlit shelves, we always see lots of animals and kids looking back at us. Very rarely, though, have we picked up a book with a girl on the cover who reminds us of my oldest daughter. I can count the instances on one hand… and still have two fingers to spare.
Then a new middle grade novel arrived on our stoop. On its cover? A spunky girl in a cute yellow hoodie, sitting in a chair that looks just like my daughter’s chair. Even the aqua blue of Miss E’s backpack matches the book’s bright blue background.
ROLL WITH IT by Jamie Sumner (Atheneum Books for Young Readers) has been sitting on our living room end table ever sense. Partly because I love this story. But also because I just love seeing it there - smiling at me, looking so adventurous and confident. Representation is such a powerful thing.
And I’m just a parent. Not just, but… what I mean is… this book wasn’t written for me. Yet it gives me such pride to see it on my table and know the story that lives inside. So, how must people who do use a wheelchair feel to see themselves on this cover and in this book?
ROLL WITH IT was released exactly one week ago, and it’s already on its third printing. Holy smokes, that’s quite a reception - and for good reason. Not only does this story meet a tremendous need, but it does so with incredible style, humor and heart. Here’s that cover I’ve been going on about…
ROLL WITH IT is the story of Ellie, a witty, bright, headstrong girl with cerebral palsy. She also is quite an accomplished baker - icing on the cake of this already awesome character. Ellie has a lot on her parchment paper, so to speak. Her father is more-or-less out of the picture. Her loving mom is often stressed and strained. Her grandfather’s health is deteriorating. And, early in the story, we learn that Ellie is about to start all over - in a new school, in a new town.
There are tiramisu-level layers to this story. Where to begin? Grab a fork, and we’ll dig into the elements that struck me most and connected so strongly to my family’s life.
Ellie is an independent girl, who wants real autonomy and freedom. But in so many moments throughout her day, she just can’t get it. She wants to transition between classes alone, but her mom thinks she needs supervision. She wants privacy in the bathroom, but her safety requires assistance. Ellie puts it this way…
When you’re like me, you get used to seeing your body as a separate thing. Leg one. Leg two. Muscles and hair and a heart that beats. It makes it all a little less embarrassing when people are always putting their hands on you.
The detail in Ellie’s most frustrating moments rang so true to me, particularly her restroom issues. My daughter and I spend hours in the bathroom each day, and even more time when we’re on the road, traveling or vacationing. When we’re making due in tiny gas station bathrooms, I can’t help but think about how easy the same act is for others. ROLL WITH IT captures this anger and resignation vividly.
Connecting through Cooking
Ellie loves baking and frequently writes letters to food writers at publications, such as Food & Wine and the New York Times, to get to the bottom of a preparation conundrum. The letters she pens reveal her baking acumen and attention to detail. But they also demonstrate her desire to solve family problems and bring people together through the magic of flour, butter and sugar. In one letter to an editor, she writes…
I wouldn’t bother you with this under normal circumstances, but I am hoping to be a professional baker one day, sir, and so I’d really like to get this right. Also, my family could really use a pick-me-up and I’m trying to find the perfect thing.
When an opportunity arises for Ellie to enter a pie baking contest in her new town, she is all in. Baking is, after all, a huge part of her identity. It gives her a chance to “make something from nothing.” As a mom of a child with complex needs, I want to make sure I’m giving Miss E opportunities to explore her passions. On a recent school questionnaire, my daughter told me she wants to be a musician when she grows up. ROLL WITH IT has encouraged me to investigate more avenues for my girl to explore her love of music.
Though Ellie is distanced from her father, and keeps a low profile at school, she has a great inner circle. The most constant bond is the one she shares with her mom, which plays out in snappy, playful, sometimes cheeky banter. Ellie also has amazing grandparents. (It’s easy to see where Ellie gets her trademark sass and charm.) But those relationships can’t protect her from the hurtful words and perceptions of others at school. One day, a girl makes fun of Ellie’s fruit pouch at lunch. It’s simply heartbreaking…
I shove my entire lunch back into the bag. I wish I could crawl in too. How do I explain that those squeeze pouches were the only fruits and vegetables that I could eat for a long time? “Easy calories,” Mom says. I can’t help it that I still like them. I must look like such a baby.
If only Ellie could explain to this student… surely she would understand. But so often we just don’t get the chance to say our piece. My daughter often has her favorite toy, a musical light-up jungle, on her lap. When we're out and about, sometimes little kids ask why such a big girl has a “baby toy.” I wish I could say it doesn’t bother me, but labeling things as babyish is so demeaning. I hope ROLL WITH IT encourages readers to slow down and think about the impact of their words.
I tend to wade longest in a story’s deep moments, to fully feel and empathize. So I probably disproportionately emphasized the heavier moments of this story. So I have to also loudly shout that THIS BOOK IS SUPER FUNNY!
Sumner can do it all. She balances emotional heft with light, clever humor. She sets scenes with sensory detail and immersive, creative metaphors. In quick-paced, conversational prose, she keeps the plot moving ever-forward, but with such control. And the voice… Ellie’s thoughts and words play, then rebound and then resound, full of ALL the things. Sarcasm and anger and worry and joy and love and HOPE.
Like the very best desserts, ROLL WITH IT isn’t overly sweet. It’s undisputedly a little bit salty. And it leaves you satisfied, delighted and asking for seconds. Lucky for us, Sumner has more literary goodies coming. Congratulations to Jamie on this incredible debut. (See below for your chance at a signed copy!)
Jamie Sumner, author of ROLL WITH IT, is also the author of two more middle-grade novels, which will release with Atheneum Books for Young Readers in 2020 and 2021. Sumner is the author of the non-fiction book on motherhood UNBOUND and the forthcoming book, KEEP ON, SUPERHERO, for parents of children with special needs. She is the mother of a son with cerebral palsy and writes and speaks about disability in literature.
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