#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: Patina written by Jason Reynolds

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The second book in the “Run” series by Jason Reynolds is in my opinion, even better than the first book, Ghost, which I also loved.. 

This time the story focuses on Patina (Patty) who projects a surface sheen of cool coping to conceal the boiling anguish inside. Patty is the fastest 800m runner on  the track team, needing to win at all costs as she pushes through life with an almost unimaginable weight on her young shoulders. As her tragic family history is revealed I found my heart breaking at the thought of this teenager trying to contain the unimaginable pain of losing her beloved father to an early death followed by watching her mother develop “the sugar” (diabetes), necessitating radical amputations. Patty’s care for Maddy, her younger sister, and the guardianship provided by her exhausted aunt and uncle are described with gentle domestic details making you realise that this family is held together by self-sacrificing love. 

Before I give the impression that this is a misery-fest, I ought to say that such is the power of Jason Reynolds’ writing, he can combine heartfelt emotion with zinging humour and contemporary teenage put-downs. His style segues from trackside banter to poetic descriptions like an elite athlete moving up through the gears. The short chapters and kinetic writing, power you through the story at a pace The Defenders track team would be proud of!

Patty has had to move schools, joining the elite Chester Academy which is closer to her aunt’s house, where she feels like an imposter amongst the rich kid “hair-flippers”. The description of her doing laps of the cafeteria whilst eating her lunch because she has nobody to sit with will tug at your heart strings. 

The athletics track is the venue for Patty to release her anguish, and where she has to win. Here she pushes her legs until they are screaming with pain, feeling that she is running with four legs: her own and her mum’s missing ones. The scenes where she develops teamwork and understanding with her new relay team are both hilarious and touching; the reliance on everyone performing their role reflecting Patty’s domestic situation. Imagery of the baton of care and responsibility being passed from one family member to another permeates the story, so that we see the extended family unit functioning like a well-coached team of athletes, each member stepping up as another exhausts their role. 

This is a book which will live long in my heart and I don’t mind admitting that at one point I “cried me a flood”. I cannot recommend it highly enough as a thoroughly gripping story to add to your “read-for-empathy” collections for anyone of 10+.

 

Review: High-Rise Mystery by Sharna Jackson

 

High Rise MysteryMeet the new fabulous, fictional detective duo, Nik and Norva, who join Wells & Wong, Taylor & Rose and Wolfe & Lamb on the roster of whip-smart MG sleuths. This is a really fresh take on the genre, with sisters Anika “Nik” and Norva Alexander living with their single-parent father, Joe, on the 22nd floor of a South-East London tower block. They are a complementary team. Nik is 11 years-old; factual, precise, methodical, the story is narrated in her voice. Norva is 13 years-old; imaginative, emotional, creative. They describe their method as “gut and nut” and in turn are described by their cool, music-mad, neighbour George as “NSquared” which Nik loves because it’s “mathematical and logical”!

On the hottest day of the summer the girls know that something is wrong when antique-dealing resident Hugo Knightley-Webb, an absolute stickler for punctuality fails to show up for the Art Class he runs for residents of the estate in the community hub. Following their noses leads them to the terrible discovery of his corpse in the rubbish skip at the bottom of their tower block. From this moment, Nik and Norva are on the case, using their tech-savvy skills and natural curiosity to track down his killer. The plot unfurls as we are introduced to various residents of The Tri: Charity Jane – fundraiser in chief, old but surprisingly strong Mrs Kowalski, Serena the “consciously-uncoupled” sister of the victim, Mark Walker – described by Nik as young, dull and broke, who assists Joe in his caretaking duties and former resident Katie Smythe, now a police officer working on the case. Unfortunately, the mounting evidence is pointing to Joe; can Nik and Norva uncover the motive and perpetrator to clear their father’s name?

The final chapters see the girls racing against time to identify the real murderer, ending with a perfect Agatha Christie-style denouement. Once I had caught my breath I was able to reflect on what I had enjoyed about the book.The description of the run-down, underfunded estate “The Tri” baking and festering with unpleasant smells in the hot July heat was so vivid that I was transported back to my 20s living in the capital. I loved the contemporary setting, the girls’ smart use of technology and social media and their authentic vocabulary. The author Sharna Jackson has cleverly told the story through an 11-year-old narrator, who thinks she is absolutely precise in her reporting, but misses some subtleties of communication. Therefore she is a slightly unreliable witness, leading to natural red-herrings for the MG audience. The short, snappy sentences and dialogue leap from the page, and the combination of short chapters peppered with charts and updated telephone notes will be appealing to reluctant readers.

I know that the publishers, Knights Of have a mission to issue books which represent everyone in our population and this book is a great example of that intention. I recommend this story for anyone age 10+ who enjoys a good “whodunnit”!