Just Shy of Ordinary

Thirteen-year-old Shai is an expert problem-solver. There’s never been something they couldn’t research and figure out on their own. But there’s one thing Shai hasn’t been able to logic their way through: picking at the hair on their arms.

Ever since their mom lost her job, the two had to move in with family friends, and the world went into pandemic lockdown, Shai’s been unable to control their picking. Now, as the difficult times recede and everyone begins to discover their “new normal,” Shai’s hoping the stress that caused their picking will end, too.

After reading that a routine can reduce anxiety, Shai makes a plan to create a brand new normal for themself that includes going to public school. But when their academic evaluation places them into 9th grade instead of 8th, it sets off a chain of events that veer off the path Shai had prepared for, encouraging Shai to learn how to accept life’s twists and turns, especially when you can’t plan for them.


"Via sensitive depictions of Shai’s skin picking, as well as sincere prose that yields richly developed characters, relationships, and interactions, Sass captures the tension and dread of grappling with a hidden illness during a tumultuous transition."

Publishers Weekly, STARRED Review!

"Shai’s struggles with identity, anxiety, first love, and faith will resonate with middle grade and young adult readers."

School Library Journal

"Sass writes about intersectionality with plainspoken authenticity and normalizes asking for (and accepting) help from loved ones... An empathetic portrayal of multifaceted identities and the challenges of facing change."

Booklist Magazine

"The Wisconsin setting is authentically portrayed, and Shai’s tenderhearted first-person voice will keep readers rooting for them until the book’s final pages. Moving and memorable."

Kirkus Reviews

"Shai learns more than expected about the importance of acceptance and community. While Sass tackles several heavy subjects in this affecting novel, readers remain hopeful as Shai comes out of each trial a stronger person."

Horn Book Review

"A.J. Sass con­tin­ues their win­ning streak of mid­dle school fic­tion... 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... This is a nuanced, empa­thet­ic nov­el packed with the ups and downs of school and home life."

Jewish Book Council