Book review: A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll

ELS librarian Samantha reviews Elle McNicoll’s debut novel, A Kind of Spark.

A Kind of Spark tells the story of 11-year-old Addie as she campaigns for a memorial in memory of the witch trials that took place in her Scottish hometown. Addie knows there’s more to the story of these ‘witches’, just like there is more to hers. Can Addie challenge how the people in her town see her, and her autism, and make her voice heard?

A Kind of Spark opens with a scene that will make your blood run cold. Miss Murphy – Addie’s new teacher – snatches Addie’s story from her desk, rips it up and throws it away. She shouts at Addie, calling her handwriting ‘utterly disgraceful’, ‘like a baby’s’. When I first read this passage, I wondered if Miss Murphy was being set up as a Miss Trunchbull-type figure, the mean teacher who would eventually get her comeuppance. Rather than being a cartoon villain, however, Miss Murphy is the worst kind of teacher. She plays favourites, fostering an environment where bullies can thrive. She refuses to accept Addie, an autistic child, actively disregarding her needs and diminishing her identity. She exhibited the same behaviour when teaching Addie’s older sister, Keedie, years before. She is cruel, a teacher who, as Keedie tells her, ‘[has] no business being anywhere near children, let alone autistic children’. She is also not alone. As the story makes clear, adults can be bullies too. The kind of people who turned on their neighbours hundreds of years ago, killing innocent women for suspected witchcraft, still exist. People still judge – or fear – what they don’t understand.

While A Kind of Spark explores difficult issues, such as bullying and discrimination, it holds fast to the better part of ourselves. Addie’s quest to honour the women killed in her village’s historic witch trials, challenges the preconceptions of those around her, the people who deem her too “different” to count. As a neurodivergent person herself, author Elle McNicoll’s writing is both powerful and believable, with seemingly small details – such as the impact of a flickering light or loud noises – giving neurotypical readers an insight into Addie’s feelings, the strain of having to continually mask her behaviour. The inherent unfairness of this is also made clear – why should Addie have to change? Who gets to decide what, or who, is acceptable?

Rather than assume all readers have an awareness of autism, McNicoll creates a space where questions can be asked. This is seen most clearly in the character of Audrey, Addie’s new friend. Although Audrey occasionally worries about saying the wrong thing, she genuinely wants to know Addie – exactly as she is. The novel’s openness, its essential kindness, makes A Kind of Spark the perfect text to share with children and young people.

In short: told from the perspective of 11-year-old Addie, A Kind of Spark is an immensely compassionate and honest exploration of autism, identity and family. It is Addie’s difference, her brilliant, unique and unchanging self, that the book most celebrates. An essential addition to KS2 and KS3 empathy collections (and bookshelves everywhere).

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