A great many things can change in a year.
This time last year, July 2019, I was a graduate student at University College London, writing a dissertation on why the children’s publishing industry needs more neurodiversity. Finding sources to back up my argument was incredibly difficult as not much is written on the subject. When I compiled a list of all the latest releases in children’s books, the picture was not good. Disabled children in general were not represented in any significant way, and neurodiversity was exceedingly rare.
Why was this so important to me? Because I am neurodivergent. I loved books more than anything as a child, still do, and I don’t think I'm special in that regard. I know there are more and more ND kids, and they deserve books that are written for and by people like them. That was my motivation for writing my thesis, and sadly the results of my research left me more dejected than ever.
So, I decided to write my own book. No one would publish it, of course. I had spent many interviews for jobs in the industry being told disability rep was a step too far in the diversity conversation, something that is both sad and alarming. But I wanted to get all of my thoughts, feelings and frustrations down and so I did.
A Kind of Spark was written in August of 2019 and told the story of Addie, an autistic girl who takes on her town council in order to fight for a memorial that honours the victims of the Scottish Witch Trials. I wrote about things I cared about: valour, compassion, Scottish history, family and, of course, neurodiversity.
I was satisfied. I put it in a drawer and thought no more about it.
While searching for editorial jobs in the industry, I remembered an incredible publishing house that I had heard of earlier in the year. Knights Of, an inclusive publishing house for children’s books. I used their accessible website to tell them I was a neurodivergent editor and about my research. A meeting was quickly scheduled.
I never mentioned my book.
However, when the time for the meeting finally came, I thought why not? I’ll just mention the book and they can tell me that they don’t want anything like that on their list and I’ll put it back in the drawer.
Instead they read it, bought it and got me an agent.
A month after the book was announced, I published my first Bookseller article on neurodiversity rep in the industry and the importance of Own Voices. People were supportive, my publishers and others in the inclusive Indy scene especially. But a few familiar voices whispered that it just didn’t have a market or an audience.
Then came the ND community to the rescue. Proof copies were sent out and early reviews were in. ND readers supported the book like it was their own. Which, in a way, it is. They echoed what all of my research had found. That there was an audience for books like mine and that they had been waiting a long time.
Then, like the sound of a record scratch, lockdown began. I was defeated, on a personal and professional level. The book seemed so far-away and unimportant compared to what was happening on a global scale. The light dimmed and I waved goodbye to the dream of becoming an author.
But when publication day arrived in June, Waterstones sold out. Amazon sold out. Hive sold out. Blackwell’s sold out. Rocketship Books, an incredible independent bookshop sold 41 copies in a day.
Something was happening.
It was announced book of the week in The Times, and then again in The Sunday Times. It began popping up in other newspapers, blogs, online reviews and social media. I began to get used to waking up every day to find my inbox full of long, beautiful, detailed letters from people telling me how much the book has moved them and made them feel seen.
That will always be the most incredible part of this experience. That and the amazing words of support from teachers, librarians and parents. The pictures of ND kids holding copies of the book and smiling.
When the book became an Amazon bestseller, I knew it was a moment to just smile and be grateful. But the category said “Bestselling in Books About Special Needs,” an outdated term for disabled people.
I raised this point, needing to let new followers and my community know where I stood on the term.
It was changed the next day. And that makes me well up every time I think about it.
A month after publishing, I am so grateful to each and every reader. Everyone who has had a hand in the book’s success. Sure, it’s still small success as we’re a small publisher and I am no celebrity. But the book has smashed targets and proven one thing, something I have been fighting on for years.
ND people read books written for and about them. And the community of people who support diversity in publishing and inclusive books for children are the greatest community there is. They show up each and every day, in a hundred different ways and make sure these books reach the kids that need them.
And I’ll never be able to thank them enough.
Elle McNicoll is a Scottish and Neurodivergent children's author. Her debut novel, A Kind of Spark, published by Knights Of, stars two autistic heroines and has been chosen as Waterstones' Book of the Month for October, and has been nominated for a Books Are My Bag Reader Award for Best Children's Fiction. She lives in London.