Worlds Apart: A. J. Sass on Researching the Barcelona Setting for Ellen Outside the Lines
When I first began brainstorming ideas for my second novel, Ellen Outside the Lines, the one thing I knew from the outset was that it would be set in Barcelona, Spain. From there, I fleshed out the plot. This story, I decided, would revolve around a Spanish class’s summer study abroad trip while the main character, Ellen, tries to get the relationship with her best friend back on track after a school year where they’ve steadily been growing apart.
It felt like the perfect setup. I’ve visited Barcelona several times, both for work and as a tourist. Many of my work trips involved month-long stays that allowed me ample free time to explore the city. For years, Barcelona has felt like a second home to me.
It’s one thing to love a location and quite another to capture it in the pages of a novel in a holistic, authentic way, however, all while not losing sight of the primary plot of my story. Before I could focus on exploring how friendships often shift and change during middle school, I had to do research and consider how a story set outside the United States might differ from one set somewhere more local and familiar for my characters.
Of Pandemics and Canceled Research Trips
In an ideal world, my research would have included a trip to Barcelona around the same time my characters embark on their study abroad trip so I better get a sense of what they’d be experiencing. But Ellen Outside the Lines sold a few months after the pandemic started. This made international travel difficult.
Instead of traveling, I shifted my original plans from exploring Barcelona in person to poring over online subway maps. I also made frequent use of Google Street View and went on virtual tours of places like La Pedrera, Park Güell, and La Sagrada Família. Certainly not the same as experiencing each site in person, but virtual tours especially allowed me to make note of details I might even have missed on a real trip.
One of the feelings I hoped to capture in this story is the awe Ellen and her classmates experience when seeing Barcelona for the first time. For this, I turned to photos I’d taken on my own trips and used them as an emotional resource. It was wonderful to reminisce about the places I’d visited. Also fun to imagine how thirteen-year-old characters might react to these same places while attempting to solve scavenger hunt clues their Spanish teacher has assigned them.
One City, Many Languages and Cultures
Once I began drafting scenes and dialogue between characters, I realized I would need to be mindful of the non-English words and phrases my characters spoke throughout the story. I wanted this element to not only to be accurate but also to feel authentic to each character. Ellen Outside the Lines features American middle school students learning Spanish, as well as characters who live in and around Barcelona who speak Castilian Spanish and Catalan.
Catalan is a language I was completely unfamiliar with until I visited Barcelona, when I first heard my coworkers speaking a language that sounded a little like French, a bit like Spanish, but clearly unique to itself. It was never introduced during language classes in my middle or high schools. Yet, from my very first day in Barcelona, I could tell the Catalan language was an important part of the city’s cultural fabric. This was something I wanted to acknowledge within my story.
So, on the night Ellen and her group arrive in Barcelona, she and her classmates meet Meritxell and Xavi, two siblings visiting Barcelona from their home in a different part of Catalonia. At one point, Xavi turns to his sister and Ellen notes, “I don’t catch a single word [of what he’s saying]. It doesn’t even sound like Spanish.”
As the study abroad trip progresses and Ellen familiarizes herself with Barcelona, she and her classmates learn more about the history and language of Catalonia. This includes Catalan language and the differing opinions about whether Catalonia should remain a part of Spain or become its own country.
Over the course of drafting this story, I spoke with individuals who live in Barcelona, asking questions and running lines within my manuscript past them to ensure my references to Catalan language and culture made sense and felt authentic. I also created spreadsheets of words and phrases in the various languages spoken throughout the book, which included Spanish and Catalan spoken by characters who are from Catalonia and are fluent in both languages, along with the Spanish that would be taught in an American middle school, spoken by students who are still very much learning. Once it came time for the audiobook to be narrated, the distinctions between the way a given character might pronounce a word or phrase, and the fluency with which they might speak them, became even more important.
Returning to the Heart of the Story
There were times when I got stressed about the wealth of details it felt like I was trying to juggle and incorporate into my narrative. What subway line are my characters taking to reach La Pedrera? What’s the fastest way to get to Montjuïc Castle all the way up in Barcelona’s hills? Do Spanish speakers in this region use vosotros, ustedes, or both, and how does this differ from what the American characters might’ve learned in school?
One thing that really helped me was remembering that each person’s experiences and observations while traveling are unique to them. Ellen Outside the Lines is told from the main character Ellen’s perspective, so I narrowed down what I chose to share with readers according to what she might personally notice or wonder about. If a detail that I didn’t think Ellen would care about still felt important enough to be included, I let another character point it out within their actions or dialogue.
In a similar vein, I realized that information like the individual stops on a subway line was ultimately more important for me to track in early drafts than for readers to know about within the narrative. As I revised, I pulled back on many of these details, which allowed me to see the forest within the trees and remember that although my story is set in a beautiful location that deserves every vivid description I gave it, at its heart Ellen Outside the Lines is about identity and changing friendships—and in the end, those themes were where I ultimately had to return my focus.
One of the most magical things about writing for me is getting to see how a story evolves from its early drafts to the final version that readers can pick up off a bookshelf. Ellen Outside the Lines challenged me in the research it initially required to get a handle on my setting and the cultural heritage of the characters who called Barcelona home. It is my hope that the details I ultimately chose to preserve translate to a setting that feels rich and allows the heart of my story to shine through even brighter.
Meet the author
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. Visit him online at sassinsf.com and follow him @matokah on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok.
About Ellen Outside the Lines
Rain Reign meets Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World in this heartfelt novel about a neurodivergent thirteen-year-old navigating changing friendships, a school trip, and expanding horizons.
Thirteen-year-old Ellen Katz feels most comfortable when her life is well planned out and people fit neatly into her predefined categories. She attends temple with Abba and Mom every Friday and Saturday. Ellen only gets crushes on girls, never boys, and she knows she can always rely on her best-and-only friend, Laurel, to help navigate social situations at their private Georgia middle school. Laurel has always made Ellen feel like being autistic is no big deal. But lately, Laurel has started making more friends, and cancelling more weekend plans with Ellen than she keeps. A school trip to Barcelona seems like the perfect place for Ellen to get their friendship back on track.
Except it doesn’t. Toss in a new nonbinary classmate whose identity has Ellen questioning her very binary way of seeing the world, homesickness, a scavenger hunt-style team project that takes the students through Barcelona to learn about Spanish culture and this trip is anything but what Ellen planned.
Making new friends and letting go of old ones is never easy, but Ellen might just find a comfortable new place for herself if she can learn to embrace the fact that life doesn’t always stick to a planned itinerary.
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication date: 03/22/2022
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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