43 pages 1 hour read

Jamie Sumner

Roll With It

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2019

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in 2019, Roll with It is a middle-grade novel by Jamie Sumner, who is also an adult nonfiction author. Like the protagonist, Ellie Cowan, Sumner’s son has cerebral palsy (CP). Sumner’s experience and advocacy for those living with this disability is genuine. She lives with her family in Nashville, Tennessee which appears as an important setting in this novel. Roll with It focuses on central issues of disability, diversity in the disability community, inclusivity, the treatment of elderly people with disabilities, and the search for belonging.

This study guide refers to the 2019 Kindle eBook edition.

Plot Summary

The novel opens in Nashville, Tennessee where readers meet Ellie, an adolescent with cerebral palsy, and her mother, Alice Cowan, who is a teacher. Ellie’s maternal grandpa, Jonah Cowan, has Alzheimer’s and his memory loss is beginning to endanger both Ellie’s grandmother, Marianne (whom she calls Mema) and himself. When Mema calls to report that he locked her out of the house and the neighbors had to help her break in, Alice and Ellie are even more concerned for their wellbeing.

Ellie experiences social and medical difficulties. She navigates the world from a wheelchair, accepts the presence of a full-time aide at school, and is perceived as “other” by her peers.

In a second phone call, Mema reports that Jonah has driven his truck into the grocery store windows and has a broken nose. Alice makes the decision to move to Eufaula, Oklahoma to be with her parents for the semester which means that she must leave her teaching position in Nashville, and Ellie must transfer to a new school. Alice keeps this decision a secret from both Marianne and Jonah, as she is concerned that her mother will refuse the help.

When Ellie and Alice arrive in Eufaula, Ellie’s grandparents assume that they are there for a short visit over Christmas break. However, during the Christmas Eve Service at Mema’s church, Mema learns that this is not the case. At the same time, Jonah has an episode at the front of the church and demands to know who took his wallet. Marianne tries to assure him that it is at home, but a candle gets knocked over. A fire starts and then gets extinguished.

Later, at home, Marianne agrees to Alice and Ellie staying for six months. Ellie begins to form a friendship with the neighbor’s granddaughter, Coralee, who invites her to visit at her home. Coralee shares her dream of becoming a country music star and Ellie shares her dream of becoming a baker. Ellie begins to develop a sense of belonging in Eufaula, as the move extends her support system beyond just her mother.

Alice and Ellie visit the new school that Ellie will attend. They learn that this school has never had to accommodate a wheelchair user like Ellie. She will not be riding the bus because her grandparents’ home is outside of the bus route and because they do not have a bus with a lift.

Later, Alice and Ellie meet Marianne and Jonah at a neurology appointment where they discover that Jonah’s condition is quickly worsening and they should consider assisted living options. Marianne, Alice, and Ellie are agitated by this suggestion. Alice stays with the doctor to advocate for the health of her father, and Ellie catches her grandpa mistaking another little girl (who can walk) for her in the waiting room. On the way home, they stop at the local grocery store. Alice convinces the owner of the grocery store to split the cost to repair the damage that Jonah made during his crash. She agrees to carpool his son, Bert, to school in return.

On Ellie’s first day at the new school, she is told that the secretary will help her with restroom usage as needed until they are able to hire an individual aide for her. Ellie avoids this offer of help and relies on Coralee to stand outside her bathroom door. As Ellie goes to her new classes throughout the day, she discovers that each of the rooms is packed too tightly to be wheelchair accessible, and each classroom must be rearranged for her. At lunch, Ellie notices some of the other students looking at her and laughing. Coralee explains that the other students are laughing at them because of a difference in economic class—Coralee, Ellie, and their families live in a trailer park. At home, Ellie continues to express that she does not want an individual aide at school and her mother consents to letting her function independently.

As Jonah’s condition continues to decline, Ellie discovers her mother completing assisted living forms for her grandpa. Her mother assures her that this step will not be taken unless it is necessary. Ellie’s new friends, Bert and Coralee, take Ellie out to play miniature golf as an alternative to attending the Valentine’s Day dance, sponsored by the school. Ellie has the best day that she can remember having in a long time.

At school, Ellie shares a presentation with her peers about baking cookies. She feels as if her presentation goes well and starts to wonder if her peers may be accepting her. Coralee, however, tells Ellie that she will never be perceived as “normal.” Ellie begins to feel terrible. She leaves the cafeteria and goes to the gym where she loses consciousness. Coach Hutch finds her, and she is admitted to the hospital for pneumonia. She spends four days in the hospital and one week on bed rest at home, as CP makes her more susceptible to illness. Coralee contacts her and offers her an apology for what she said. Alice considers returning to Nashville with Ellie, as she knows that Ellie had access to a school aide and better hospitals in the city. Ellie’s grandparents, Coralee, Bert, and Coach Hutch all team up to convince Alice to let Ellie stay in Eufaula. Once Ellie returns to school, she realizes that her peers are beginning to see her as an individual.

At a bake off, Ellie’s friends and family enter Ellie’s blackberry, lemon glazed pie in the contest. Before the winner is announced, they realize that Jonah is amiss. Upon searching for him, they discover that he has driven away from the event. Alice, Marianne, and Ellie leave the bake off to try to find Jonah. They drop Ellie off at home in case Jonah returns or anyone calls to report his whereabouts. Ellie discovers him parked in the garage with the car still running. After struggling with the garage door, she finds him collapsed at the wheel in a fume-filled garage.

Jonah is taken to the hospital. Ellie is told that her actions are heroic, and she is presented with the blue ribbon for her pie at the hospital. When Jonah awakes, she tells him that they are talking about placing him in assisted living and he says that he is aware and has discussed it with Mema. He discloses that they have plans to move into an assisted living facility together.

In the final chapters, Ellie has a flashback to a fishing trip with her grandpa that was canceled due to a thunderstorm. She recalls her grandpa making up for it by having a wiener roast with her and remembers him saying that “[s]ometimes […] the best plan is the one you don’t make for yourself” (241).

In the last scene, Alice drives Ellie, Bert, and Coralee to the lake where they meet Coach Hutch. Her grandparents now live together in an assisted living facility and she and her mother live in her grandparents’ trailer. With a lifejacket and floats, Hutch places Elle in the water. She swims out and floats.

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