A Kind of Spark

Authored by Elle McNicoll
Published by Knights Of

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I love what the indie publisher Knights Of are doing in the world of children’s books. Championing and celebrating diversity should be a hugely important part of we teachers do day-to-day, making this a priority in every classroom. Knights Of began their booklist two years ago with the publication of Knights and Bikes and have gone on to present Key Stage 2 and 3 children with Jason Reynolds’ ‘Track’ series, two outstanding mystery stories with the first black detective duo in children’s literature history, as well as many other exciting and trailblazing reads. My classes have enjoyed my reading Knights Of books to them since the publisher’s inception; every time I have done this, the children have been hooked immediately and I, in turn, have been wowed by the quality of the writing and determination of the voice in each.
The latest treasure from Knights Of is a brilliant firecracker of a novel, A Kind of Spark, which tells the story of Addie, an autistic girl who discovers that her comfortable town of Juniper hides a dark history, one of involvement in the burning of ‘young women’ during the witch trials of the seventeenth century. Addie is incensed and intrigued by this and sensing a connection between herself and these innocent victims of prejudice and fear herself, she becomes ever more determined to celebrate them by lobbying the town council to put up a plaque to their memory.

Although perspective and ‘what it means to be different’ are both clearly major themes of this book, I should point out first and foremost that this is quite emphatically a superb story. There are so many woven threads to this tale – from Addie’s developing friendship at school, her sister Keedie’s secrets, the campaign to raise the plaque – that the book whip-cracks along with the pages almost turning by themselves right up to the end. The plot is so satisfying, the story told so eloquently, that the reader will reach the end completely spellbound (and, like me, very eager to read more from Elle McNicoll).

But as if this were not enough, the book has a unique and compelling voice. Told in the first person, we explore Addie’s passions and interests, from sharks to the injustice of the witch-trials themselves. In her recent conversation with Lizzie Huxley-Jones for Blackwells Bookshops, Elle McNicoll) (herself autistic) drew attention to the necessity of ‘Own Voice’ writing: books where the author from an under-represented group (relating to ethnicity, sexuality, or disability, for example) writes about their own experiences or from their own perspectives. In A Kind of Spark, we share Addie’s frustrations, excitements, joys, sadnesses; they complement, shape and colour the narrative with true authenticity. We ultimately have not only a great story, but a novel that leaves the reader a different person, appreciating more the diverse ways in which autistic people see the world.

There is also a strong message given about those who choose not to listen to those voices. Miss Murphy is Addie’s teacher; she is also a horrendous character, picking at Addie’s inability to be like the others in the class: I was just appalled at the way she stands over the poor girl at the start of the book, criticizing Addie’s difficulties with handwriting. Keedie, in her turn, faced the wrath of Miss Murphy and the way in which those injustices that were meted out still lives with her ten years on is testament to the indelible frustration caused by prejudice and complete lack of understanding. Elle McNicoll raised the hope in the Blackwells interview that the book, having been read by teachers, might develop the empathy that is needed when working with young autistic people.

I cannot recommend this book enough to teachers and to classes, perfect for Year 5 upwards. Because of the strong voice and the compelling storyline, it would naturally lend itself very well to being read aloud and prompt much wonderful, necessary discussion. I also think that autistic children would feel very much supported by reading and talking about this book too; there is much that will speak directly to them, that will offer them a hand of companionship, and in a gentle, nurturing voice will say to them: ‘I get you. And I’ve got you.’