When Jamie Sumner was in fourth grade submitting a writing assignment, her teacher remarked “Jamie, you’re a writer.” Looking back, she says, “I’ve been writing all my life, but early validation shows one the importance of guidance and encouragement in your later years.” An educator’s endorsement might seem cliched in the larger scheme of things, but for Sumner it would be a recurring theme for years to come.
She would go on to write a whole bunch of middle-grade kid lit books (and counting). Even before she majored in English at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, Sumner moved up the ranks in high school writing and directing a theatre production as part of an independent study. Later she worked in the American Publishing Industry in New York, gaining valuable insight into the profession. Then it was back to Vanderbilt for a master’s degree in education and teaching.
Sumner burst onto the kid-lit scene to critical acclaim with the publishing of her first book, Roll with It, in 2019, a fun-loving picture of 10-year-old Ellie Cowan who lives with her mother Alice, a high-school, teacher in Nashville. Ellie was born with cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to get around. The book paints an intimate portrait of the Deep South, one filled with interstate travel, doctor appointments, and community churches.
Ellie and Alice are headed to Eufaula, Oklahoma to help Alice’s aging parents — particularly her father who is unwell. Eufaula is in middle America, a stark contrast to big city Nashville. Alice quit her job and takes up a temporary school position in small-town Eufaula. Ellie dreads the idea of joining a new school and having to deal with making new friends.
This mother-daughter relationship stands out in what is a poignant coming-of-age story. Ellie describes herself as someone with the medicine rack of an 80-year-old. Sumner has done well to explore ideas of identity as Ellie recognises family, friends, actions, and consequences as a differently abled young person not quite ready for the big bad world and everything that comes with it.
Sumner noticed a deep chasm in the middle-grader childrens’ reading list. In her words there was little to no books filling the transition that children went through between reading picture books as toddlers, and later the jump to adult reading after graduating high school. That age group between nine-12 years is a crucial time to cement young ones as readers.
The other more important reason that motivated Sumner to write Roll with It (and her later books) was her son Charlie who has cerebral palsy. She couldn’t find books that spoke to his experiences. She writes not just as a mother, but as an advocate who holds onto tips and tricks in the Deep South when speaking for her child in everyday life.
About learning on the go, Sumner describes disability in the Deep South as a steep learning curve. One must work the system as they are not entering a smoothly paved road. She also likens it to stitching a quilt — disability and accessibility needs care, effort, and knowledge.
We live these ideas through the mother-daughter duo in Roll with It. On the nearly eight-hour drive to Oklahoma, they have a flat tire. The scene gives a hint of what is to come with reading this rollercoaster (wheelchair) story:
“It took her an hour and she lost her hat in the snow, but she did it. She changed that flat tire in the freezing-cold middle of nowhere America. When she climbed back in, we sat for a minute and listened to Christmas music while the van warmed up, and she wiped the black off her hands with wet wipes.
It was nice after it wasn’t scary anymore. And then we drove on. If there’s one thing I know about Mom, it’s that she can do just about anything. I’m hoping that’s still true. I’m hoping she can help Grandpa. Help him in the way he needs, I mean. Fixing a tire’s not quite the same as fixing a person.”
There is but a natural conflict when a protagonist comes of age in the process of finding themselves and this is further complicated by a disability. In the words of Ellie, her wheelchair is like a batmobile, sending signals for kids to come from far and stare at her. She fights against her mother’s patient expectations and help from her peers. It is in this conflict that she blossoms as an individual recognising the world for what it is.
Ellie is just one of the many lead characters that Sumner has created in her books, which speaks to how these protagonists deal with hard circumstances with laughter and hope. In Sumner’s opinion, it would be an injustice to not tell these stories.
(L-R) Cora, Jamie Sumner, Charlie, Jody, and Jonas
Take for instance Deep Water, which was her first book of verse. The story revolves around young Tully undertaking a six-hour marathon swim across Lake Tahoe, which straddles the border between California and Nevada. It’s a story of abandonment — her mother has walked out of the family and she’s running from her father. To win her mother’s approval back, she battles stormy conditions in the water. One certainly must read on to find out what happens next.
Sumner’s latest release titled Maid with It was published earlier this month. This is also set in the Deep South and was a product of pandemic quarantine writing. She says it was one of the hardest books she’s ever written, adding that it was a very personal endeavour.
This is another young girl-mother dynamic whose lives are turned upside down by addiction and a car accident. The central theme revolves around children who must take on the weight that their parents leave them with.
Sumner continues to live in Nashville with her husband Jody, kids Charlie aged 11, and twins Jonas and Cora aged 9. In her free time, she enjoys watching baking shows — a nod to Ellie who processes her emotions through baking in Roll with It.
There are two more books in the series — one already published called Time to Roll and a third, Rolling On, is on the way. Ellie is now older and wiser. ready to face different challenges in life. Sumner won’t reveal too much but continues to write what she calls a “hello and goodbye” book.
Jamie Sumner books
In closing, it’s worthwhile to mention that Sumner played a role in designing the book jacket for Roll with It. Aware of the semantics that come with disability media representation, she insisted that the wheelchair Ellie uses on the cover matches the description in the book.
She could pop wheelies as if her wheelchair was a skateboard and that is represented on the cover, including the South Asian edition published by Simon and Schuster India.
Sumner looks forward to visiting India and share Ellie’s story amongst her other titles. In the past, she has worked with international schools in China. There are also other editions available in Europe, for instance, a French version which helped the book reach a wider audience.
The author is a doctoral student in Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee. He grew up (reading) at the independently owned Storyteller Bookstore in Calcutta based in Ballygunge and on the EM Bypass
Copies of Jamie Sumner’s book Roll With It (and other titles) are available at Storyteller Bookstore for readers. They ship globally.
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