A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll. Crown Books, 2021.
Addie is a young autistic girl who learns her small Scottish town used to burn witches – and her empathy for these misunderstood forebears spurs her to petition the town to put up a memorial for them.
“Ever since Ms. Murphy told us about the witch trials that happened centuries ago right here in Juniper, I can’t stop thinking about them. Those people weren’t magic. They were like me. Different like me. I’m autistic. I see things that others do not. I hear sounds that they can ignore. And sometimes I feel things all at once. I think about the witches, with no one to speak for them. Not everyone in our small town understands. But if I keep trying, maybe someone will. I won’t let the witches be forgotten. Because there is more to their story. Just like there is more to mine.”
– Addie, in A Kind of Spark
Reading Elle McNicoll's middle grade novel, A Kind of Spark, I felt a part of myself represented and explained on the page that I’d never seen anywhere else before. I felt so much for Addie, the 12-year-old autistic main character: how she puts herself in the historical stories of witches, and how the injustice of their history upsets her, while others seem detached. I get that on such a visceral level.
I often try to convey in my writing how much I feel about history or objects—or well, anything— but often have been told my characters feel “too young,” or that readers “can’t quite connect to my characters." I've had professors ask, "why do you care about this subject?" I hear from other neurodivergent writers that they’ve heard similar comments, so I’ve come to translate these comments to really mean, “as a neurotypical person, I can’t relate to your quirky neurodivergent characters or ideas.”
I’ve found that it seems easier to write about my autism in middle grade, because for some reason, it’s more acceptable for kids 8-13 to “feel” so much, but less understandable or relatable for teenagers or adults. All that said, I am so thrilled, and feel so heard, seeing how McNicoll successfully portrays this deep intense empathy, and it gives me hope that we’ll see more and more authentic neurodivergent stories out in the world that debunk the incredibly harmful stereotype that “autistic people can’t feel or have empathy.”
McNicoll's book is not afraid to be upfront in talking about concepts like autism, masking, burnout and ableism, with lots of great character conversations explaining and correcting misconceptions about autism, as well as modeling great allyship. Addie and her big sister Keedie, also autistic, are such lovable, fantastic characters, and I love seeing characters that (like me) love being autistic. It's so well put, when Keedie says: “It’s not my brain that makes me break down. It’s the pretending. The hiding. The way the world isn’t built for us.” I wish I grew up with someone like Keedie to explain my autism to me!
McNicoll uses sharks and witches as metaphors for being autistic, which is so relatable and powerful. She says so many things that I feel as an autistic person, and I’m so happy to see this book existing in the world. I wish so badly I had this book when I was growing up. This is a book I am going to be recommending to anyone and everyone.
My only critique is that some of the adults in this book—especially Mrs. Murphy, the teacher— are so over-the-top horrible. I absolutely believe these people exist, but I think it would be even more powerful if we had more subtle examples of ableism. It’s easy to look at Mrs. Murphy and see her behavior as completely unacceptable. But what about more culturally accepted forms of ableism? How do we help neurotypical people understand that many ways we talk about and handle autism are incredibly harmful?
Maybe that’s just something I’ll have to write about in a future book.
Click here if you'd like to read Elle McNicoll, in her own words, discussing the writing of A KIND OF SPARK.
Meg Eden Kuyatt is a 2020 Pitch Wars mentee, and teaches creative writing at Anne Arundel Community College. She is the author of the 2021 Towson Prize for Literature winning poetry collection, Drowning in the Floating World (Press 53, 2020), and children’s novels, most recently Selah’s Guide to Normal (Scholastic, 2023). Find her online at www.megedenbooks.com, or on Twitter at @ConfusedNarwhal.