A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll

I’ve had Elle McNicoll’s debut middle grade book, A Kind of Spark, on my TBR pile for a while. I know that when I see lots of reviewers, whose opinions I trust, raving about a book, I need to read it. I finally had a chance to read it and it is every bit as wonderful as I hoped.

Elle puts you in the shoes of Addie, a girl who sees the world as brighter and louder than those around her. Addie is autistic (or neurodiverse) but often finds herself ‘masking’ or pretending to be neurotypical to fit in. When she gets overwhelmed her hands fizz and flap and her limbs become restless, which she calls stimming. Addie has twin older sisters, Keedie and Nina, and Keedie is autistic too. Keedie and Addie understand each other but Nina doesn’t understand them. Addie’s friend, Jenna is now friends with Emily and doesn’t want to hang out with Addie anymore. Addie finds a new friend in Audrey, the new girl at school, who has come to their quiet little Scottish village from London. Audrey understands Addie in a way that Jenna never did. She asks questions about the things that Addie is interested in and tries to understand what it’s like to be autistic. Addie is fascinated by sharks and her school librarian, Mr Allison, is always finding books for her to read. One day in class Addie’s teacher tells them about the historic witch trials that took place in and around their village of Juniper. Addie is fascinated and horrified that something so terrible could happen and she sets out to find out as much as possible about the witch trials and the women who were killed during this time. Addie decides that these women need to be remembered and she makes it her mission to get a plaque placed in her village to commemorate them. The village council try to stop her idea from coming to fruition but the more Addie learns about the so-called ‘witches’ the more determined she becomes to make sure they are remembered.

I absolutely love A Kind of Spark! It is a stunning story that reminds you how important kindness and empathy are. Elle McNicoll takes you inside the head of Addie so that you not only walk in her shoes but also understand how she thinks and feels. We see what makes Addie different but also unique. We see how horrible and intolerant adults and other kids can be to someone that they can see is different. This is a story that will make you smile, laugh, shout and cry. I read this book in a day and I wanted to go right back to the start and read it again.

The things that make this story so great are Elle’s characters and their interactions. Addie is such an interesting character and you gain a real insight in to what it is like to be autistic. Some people, like Audrey and Mr Allison, take the time to get to know Addie and understand what she needs, while others, like Miss Murphy, just write her off as not being worth their time. I love the relationship between Addie and Keedie, as they understand each other. They can talk about how they’re feeling and the frustrations of being autistic (like not being able to easily read facial expressions) because they both understand what it feels like. One of my favourite characters is the school librarian, Mr Allison, because he knows what kind of things Addie is interested in and keeps books aside for her. He also comes to Addie’s aide when she needs him.

As with many kids who are seen to be different, Addie is bullied, both by a girl in her class and her teacher. Emily, the girl that is now friends with Addie’s ex-best friend, is nasty to Addie at any given opportunity. It gets so bad that there is a horrible thing that happens in the classroom that leads Addie to have a meltdown. Miss Murphy also bullies Addie, by doing things like ripping up her writing. Miss Murphy is intolerant of Addie and her differences and has a grudge against her from the start. Seeing the way Emily and Miss Murphy treat Addie make you feel horrible and want to shout at them.

A Kind of Spark is a perfect read aloud for Years 6-9 and makes a great alternative to Wonder. The themes are similar and the story will grab the whole class. This is also a great book for a class set for the same ages as there are some good themes to discuss and relatable characters. Elle McNicoll’s next book, Show Us Who You Are, is due out in March and it sounds AMAZING, so I can’t wait to read it!

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Books have that amazing power to shape how we see the world.  They put us in other peoples’ shoes so that we can see the world from different points of view.  The books I read while I was in high school were some of those that had the greatest affect on me and taught me a lot about the world.  They taught me about empathy because there seemed to be plenty of teenagers with lives that were completely different and far worse than mine.  All these years later I still discover books that have a real effect on me and make me look at the world differently.  R.J. Palacio’s new book Wonder is one of those books.

August Pullman (or Auggie to his friends and family) wants to be an ordinary ten-year-old.  He does ordinary things like eating ice cream, riding a bike, and playing Xbox.  He feels like an ordinary kid on the inside, but outside he’s very different.  He was born with a facial abnormality and he says ‘I won’t describe what I look like.  Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.’  Auggie has been home-schooled for most of his life but now he’s being sent to a real school, and he’s petrified of it.  Some kids will be kind, some will be horrible, but will they accept August for who he is, a normal kid just like them?

Wonder is a funny, touching, and thought-provoking story of an extraordinary boy who just wants to fit in.  The majority of the story is narrated by August who is a really cool kid.  R.J. Palacio has got the voice of a 10-year-old boy spot on and he comes out with some interesting observations.  Through August’s eyes you see what life is like for a boy who looks very different from those around him, even though he’s just a normal kid on the inside.  You experience August’s pain, anger and humiliation, as well as joy and laughter.  The thing I liked most about Wonder is that, as well as August’s perspective, you also get the perspective of some of the other characters, including August’s sister Olivia (or Via) and his friend’s Summer and Jack.  R.J. uses lots of foreshadowing, so something that August might mention in passing is a significant event to one of the other characters, or you’ll notice little details that make more sense later in the story.  The different perspectives also helped to explain a character’s behaviour, especially in the case of August’s friend, Jack Will.  I also really liked the way that adults were portrayed in the book.  August’s parents were very caring and loving, and so were the teachers at his school, but some of the other parents had quite different attitudes.

Wonder is a book that everyone should read and that everyone will take something different from.  It should come with one warning though – have a box of tissues close at hand while reading.  It would also make a great read-aloud to share with an intermediate class and would lead to lots of discussion.

5 out of 5 stars