Show Us Who You Are by Elle McNicoll

One of the things I love most about reading is being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Sometimes we can relate to the character because we’ve had similar experiences or felt the same way. Sometimes the character can be completely different from us, which allows us to see the world from a different point of view. It is those characters, who are different from us, whose stories teach us empathy. This is the reason that I love Elle McNicoll’s books so much. In her debut middle grade book, A Kind of Spark, Elle introduced us to Addie, a neurodivergent girl who sees injustice and stands up to it. In her new book, Show Us Who You Are, Elle introduces us to Cora, a neurodivergent girl who must fight to make herself heard and stop those who would erase the thing that makes her unique.

When Cora goes to a party hosted by her brother’s boss she doesn’t expect to enjoy it. As someone with Autism, being around a whole lot of people that she doesn’t know is something that she hates. While exploring the garden behind the house Cora meets Adrien. She isn’t looking for a new best friend, but this is quickly what Adrien becomes. Adrien is different, like her. He’s unpredictable, fun and funny. The more time her and Adrien spend together, the more Cora learns about the mysterious Pomegranate Institute, run by Adrien’s father, Magnus. Cora becomes captivated by the Pomegranate Institute and their holographic technology that can bring people back to life. Magnus and the head scientist, Dr Gold, offer Cora the chance to help with their research on neurodivergent people. They want to interview her so that they are able to make it easier to create a neurodivergent hologram. When tragedy strikes, Cora is left with little choice but to participate in the interviews, as Pomegranate offers her something that no-one else can. However, Cora soon uncovers secrets lurking behind the shiny façade of Pomegranate, secrets that those in charge will do anything to keep hidden. Cora will need to fight to make her voice heard and show the world that who she is, matters.

Show Us Who You Are is a powerful, incredibly moving sci-fi story about individuality, grief and standing up for what is right. You feel a connection with Cora straight away and this grows stronger throughout the story, as you experience the joy and pain right beside her. This story makes you laugh one moment and bawl your eyes out the next. It makes your heart race and your heart break. I was a complete mess after finishing the book and I had to take some time to just take in everything that had happened and enjoy the perfect ending. The last part of the book is really nail-biting too, as you can’t guess what is going to happen next. Elle takes us inside the head of her autistic character and helps to give us a better understanding of what it is like to be neurodivergent. The experiences of Elle’s characters encouraged me to find out more about Autism Spectrum Disorder in order to better understand it.

Elle’s writing is so stunning that she makes you feel completely connected to her characters and captures emotion so perfectly. I stopped lots of times throughout the book to write down passages that I loved. I love the way that Cora explains grief:

‘Grief is like rain. When you’re standing in the street, drenched and freezing cold, it’s hard to remember what it’s like to feel warm and dry. It’s hard to imagine feeling warm and dry ever again. But some people are umbrellas. And they keep away the worst of the storm.’

The relationship between Cora and Adrien is one of my favourite in middle grade fiction. I love the way that they have fun together and can truly be themselves around each other. They are there for each other when it matters most. The thing I like the most about their relationship is that they are just really good friends, without romantic feelings getting in the way.

The other character that I really loved was Cora’s dad, because of his perspective and acceptance. Cora’s dad is the opposite of Adrien’s dad. While Adrien’s dad is too wrapped up in his work and never has time for him, Cora’s dad says ‘I’ve got all the time in the world for you, kid. Don’t ever forget it.’ Adrien’s dad never really accepts him for who he is, while Cora’s dad tells her:

‘I would never, ever change you. Not for anything. You see the world so differently. While everyone else sees sepia Kansas, you’re in technicolour Oz.’

Show Us Who You Are is one of my top books of 2021 and is a must-buy for intermediate and high school libraries. It would be a great read aloud or a class set for Years 7-9 as there is so much to unpack in the story. The idea of creating holograms to help us live forever is an interesting moral and ethical issue to discuss with students.

Check out this video of Elle McNicoll talking about Show Us Who You Are:

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!