I am so very honoured to be taking part in the blog tour for Elle McNicoll’s debut A Kind of Spark today, beyond honoured, because this book is so beautiful in so many ways.
Elle and her novel A Kind of Spark first grabbed my attention when publisher KnightsOf made the announcements of procurement, the context sang to me; a child’s battle to commemorate victims of the Witch Craze, an Autistic author writing an #OwnVoices novel, I was signed sealed and delivered on the abstract and when I actually got my hands on this book there were squeals of delight followed by tears, anger, resonance and joy through this tale.
A Kind of Spark is such an empowering and important book. Elle manages to pack so much heart and meaning into these pages, it’s small appearance belies the powerhouse of insight into the autistic experience and empathy that demands this book must be read and shared and taken heed, because these voices cannot and will not be silenced any longer.
Addie is autistic, so is her big sister Keedie whose shared experience, diagnosis and journey has made home an easier place for Addie. School is not great, but then they start learning about the Persecution of Witches in 17-18th century Scotland and Addie’s interest is suddenly ablaze when she learns of the local links of her village to this event.
Feeling kinship with the persecuted, as outsiders, misfits or simply different underlined when a cruel classmate says how Addie would have been judged as a witch she is both hurt but empowered to demand the stuffy local council make some commemoration of the lives destroyed by this historical persecution.
The book ultimately looks at an 11 year old autistic girl at the end of her primary school experience with nods to the changes that occur socially in this age group along with the stigma of being actually autistic in school. Her best friend has abandoned her for a ‘cool’ yet cruel girl who seems hell-bent on making Addie feel as worthless as possible and the teacher has turned the class against Addie through her own prejudices, and wider adults think she is being ‘silly’ when she asks the local ‘witches’ be honoured by the local council.
A powerful account of being autistic
For the neurodiverse reader there will be many resonances and for the neurotypical reader an insight into empathy for the daily experience of autistic people from the desire to stim (repetitive self stimulating behaviours such as rocking, waving hands, spinning, verbalising phrases etc) to the energy it takes to ‘mask’ and try to appear as neurotypical as possible, to the sapping of energy or triggering that a flickering light, bad breath, loud noises, food textures can cause an autistic person.
This experience may open minds as understanding why meltdowns may occurring why they keep making that noise or flapping, or why someone cannot cope with a certain situation even if it seems ‘normal’ to others.
Discrimination to microaggressions
Furthermore Elle lays bare both discrimination and microaggressions received as an autistic person, from the way other girls behave towards Addie, the way Nina had rejected Keedie socially and never stood up for her in school desperate to be accepted, the way Mrs Murphy is antagonistic to Addie’s presence and contributions to class.
Then there are the more subtle such as the freedom that Addie feels with Keedie to stim openly compared to others, the fact that people think Keedie is ‘cured’ because she is masking so hard, to the way that Nina uses Addie’s autism as a feature on her social media channel oblivious to Addie’s painful to read discomfort battling her desire to please her sister and the resulting trolling.
Anger and resonance
Whilst Emily’s bullying is vile and vehement and resonant it was Mrs Murphy that hit home hard for me. Autism is in both my direct and wider family and I have seen the prejudices towards family members by people particularly teachers who either ‘don’t believe in autism’ or lack the skills to accommodate and so lash out at the child, isolating and enabling bullying and restricting their integration. Indeed I felt both Keedie and Nina’s rage seeing how people have treated and spoken to my brother.
And, whilst I have no diagnosis myself I experienced my own Mrs Murphy who turned the entire class against me because I was/am a bit different; I was ahead of the class in everything except social skills, I had no friends, and got obsessed and excited about topics just like Addie and was eager to share my knowledge like the ‘food pipe’ is actually called the oesphagus; and the words that Mrs Murphy says to Addie almost word for word took me right back to the misery of my year 4 classroom.
My heart was in my mouth and my anger roiling for Addie as Mrs Murphy chipped away at her, seeing how the children in the class responded knowing this isn’t fiction, this is sadly experience for so many autistic people and why books like this are so desperately needed.
The power of empathy
Yet there is also hope. There is a beautiful depiction of a family trying to do what they can for their two autistic girls, whether it be allowing one to climb in through windows rather than doors, or making different meals to accommodate sensory issues, attending meetings at Addie’s request even if they are mortified when Keedie argues with councillors or concerned Addie is about to launch into a 3 hour lecture on sharks; and the tender nod to the irony of the neurotypical sister feeling the odd one out and her attempts to include and show affection not always landing right but the true love and pride for her sister is strong.
Another beautiful point is the blossoming of real friendship between Addie and Audrey who is open to Addie and embraces her differences, finding her own way into Addie’s life fingerhold by fingerhold to make her feel safe and valued in their friendship showing Addie what true friendship is and how different that is from the proximal attachment she had with Jenna.
And there is the empowering reframing of Addie’s neurodiversity as a power rather than a weakness, that seeing the world differently isn’t wrong, that being autistic isn’t a flaw, but instead opens up new ways of thinking, feeling, imagining and interpreting that is just as important and valid, it doesn’t require one to be a savant or wunderkind to be accepted, but is a spark that lights a different way in the dark, and sometimes that spark creates fireworks.
Basically I need you to read A Kind of Spark. People need you to read this book and pass it on to others who need to read this book.
Elle, you are brilliant I’m so pleased to be helping to launch and celebrate your wonderful book.
PLEASE check out all the other stops on the tour and if you can please check out the incredible publisher KnightsOf for their range of inclusive books by diverse writers.
A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll is published by KnightsOf
Many thanks to ed_pr for my review copy.