#MGTakesOnThursday: A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

This is a weekly meme started and hosted by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog.

To take part, the steps to follow are:

  • Post a picture of a front cover of a middle-grade book which you have read and would recommend to others with details of the author, illustrator and publisher.
  • Open the book to page 11 and share your favourite sentence.
  • Write three words to describe the book
  • Either share why you would recommend this book, or link to your review.

Author: Elle McNicoll

Illustrator: Kay Wilson

Publisher: Knights Of

Favourite sentence from Page 11: This sentence is how the main protagonist Addie introduces us to one of her older sisters, Keedie:

“Her voice is all one colour, a beautiful molten gold”

This book in three words: Autism – Bullying – Solidarity

This week, instead of my usual policy of looking back to a book or series that I shared with one of my own children, I am reviewing a book which I only read last week as it was the #PrimarySchoolBookClub choice for July.

A Kind of Spark is an important #OwnVoices book about autism, highlighting the value of being true to yourself and also of standing in solidarity with those who are persecuted just because they are perceived as “different” in some way. The author Elle McNicoll is autistic and parts of the book are based on her own experiences – both good and bad – at school. I was delighted to see the publisher, Knights Of, winning awards last week because they are giving us all a huge empathy boost by bringing diverse voices to our attention and encouraging us to re-evaluate our attitudes and behaviour.

The main protagonist, Addie, is in her final year at primary school and feeling very lonely as her best friend has deserted her for spiteful Emily who delights in bullying her and horrifyingly the class teacher Miss Murphy contributes to, and it would appear, encourages the bullying behaviour of certain pupils. Fortunately Addie has two allies at school, the librarian Mr Allison who is kindness and patience personified, and Audrey who has recently arrived from London and therefore seen as an outsider by the close-knit community of a small village outside Edinburgh.

The “outsider” theme is expanded as Addie becomes intrigued by the stories of women from the village who were tried and executed as witches several hundred years earlier. At a subconscious level Addie feels some kinship with these women and the theme of her determination to have a memorial plaque erected for them in the village is cleverly interwoven with her daily battle to “mask” her behaviours and fit in at school.

The third strand of the story is based around the dynamics of Addie’s family. Her mother and father are both working long hours and are incredibly supportive of her needs. She is also cared for in contrasting styles, by her older, twin sisters Keedie and Nina. I thought that Keedie was the absolute heroine of this story, autistic herself, she had obviously experienced an even harsher time at school than Addie and does her best throughout to protect her younger sister from the slings and arrows of ignorant bullies. despite being exhausted by trying to cope with her university challenges. Nina is not neuro-diverse and as such sometimes feels left-out in the family unit. Although at times she is less patient and less considerate of Addie’s needs, there is no doubt about her love for her two sisters.

One of the most striking things for me about the writing was Addie’s description of the sensory assaults that everyday situations caused for her. So for example the school bell is described as “screeching loudly” and other loud noises “feel like a drill against a sensitive nerve.” The power of this kind of writing to help you walk in someone else’s shoes for a while and understand just how differently they experience and therefore react to external stimuli is so valuable for us all and I am immensely grateful to Elle McNicoll for inviting us into her world. Additionally, the story makes clear that autism should not be seen as a disability, rather that the ability to experience the world differently provides unique opportunities for creativity and should be celebrated.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone of 9/10+, children and adults alike.

Review: Do You Know Me? by Rebecca Westcott and Libby Scott

Do You Know Me? book cover, published by Scholastic

This incredibly moving and thought-provoking novel is a collaboration by Teacher/Author Rebecca Westcott and teenager Libby Scott, who is autistic. The power of Libby’s voice, expressed through the diary entries of protagonist Tally, calls out to all readers to empathise with those who have so much to teach us about neurological difference.

Twelve year-old Tally has suffered from bullying previously in the school year and now faces the prospect of a week-long Year 7 residential trip, which she has only considered attending because Mrs Jarman, her trusted, understanding Drama teacher will be there. In the preceding week’s assembly Mrs Jarman says:

“You’ll be learning to face your fears. You’ll discover that strength and courage come in many forms, and most of all, you’ll learn that your are capable of doing far more than you ever thought you could.”

Unfortunately for Tally she has to start learning these lessons immediately as at the last minute Mrs Jarman cannot attend the camp, and instead of sharing accommodation with her kind best friend Aleksandra, she is allocated a cabin with three of the girls who have bullied her previously and two girls from another school. Of these two strangers, she realises that Skye is the kind of “popular” girl that everyone is afraid to cross despite her appalling behaviour, and the other Jade is an outsider with many similarities to herself.

As the week’s activities and dramas unfold, your eyes are opened to the incredible challenges faced by people with autism as Tally tries to mask some of her behaviours, avoid stimming and read the vocal and facial signals of strangers which are often incomprehensible to her. The bullying plot is crafted beautifully to examine the behaviour of all the teenagers and to show the gradual acceptance and celebration of differences. It is not only Tally who discovers strength and courage during the week.

This is an absolutely essential book for everyone working in schools to help gain empathy for those with autism and also general tween and teenage behaviour. I would highly recommend it as a story for Year 6 pupils in preparation for their transition to secondary school as it would spark many discussion points about what to expect and how to deal with new situations for the entire cohort. I loved the portrayal of Tally’s family, demonstrating the gentle, choice-giving manner with which those with autism need to be treated, whilst also recognising the stresses and frustrations felt by the entire family. The scene where Tally is expected to open her twelfth birthday presents, with its palpable feeling of tension taught me a valuable lesson in empathy which I am determined to remember.

An absolutely essential book to add to any school library. I am most grateful to my fellow members of the Primary School Book Club for voting for Do You Know Me? as May’s book choice!