Addie and Keedie are autistic. Their family, including Keedie’s twin Nina, have learned how to help make things easier for both girls offering them space to process feelings and deal with sensory overload. But the rest of Juniper is far less accomodating–something Addie is learning firsthand as her best friend drops her to be more popular and her new teacher constantly bullies and belittles Addie.
Addie suspects Keedie isn’t doing very well at college herself where she is struggling to “mask” as neurotypical. But no one wants to talk to Addie about that.
When Addie learns about the witches who were hanged in Juniper during a witch trial, she immediately recognizes kindred spirits. The more she learns, the more clear it is that these witches were women who were a lot like Addie and her sister–women who didn’t quite fit the mold for what the town considered “normal”, women who had no one to speak for them.
Addie’s campaign for a memorial to the Juniper witches draws ire from her teacher and local officials. But it also brings a new solidarity with her family, new friends, and a chance for meaningful change in A Kind of Spark (2021) by Elle McNicoll.
A Kind of Spark is narrated by Addie (whose voice is brought to life, complete with Scottish accent, in the audiobook by narrator Katy Townsend) and set in a small Scottish town. All characters are presumed white. This title received an honor for the Schneider Family Book Award which is awarded yearly by ALA to “honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.”
Addie’s first person narration is great and, as written by neurodivergent author McNicoll, authentic as she navigates everyday problems like making new friends alongside bigger challenges like campaigning for a memorial for the witches.
While it adds a lot of tension to the story, and leads to a dramatic conclusion with both Keedie and Nina rallying around Addie, the bullying Addie faces from her teacher feels over the top. The abuse is so extreme it had me questioning if I was actually reading historical fiction (even with Nina being a beauty vlogger) because it felt like the kind of treatment a character would face decades ago. I’ll add that I have no familiarity with Scotland or small town life so that might be part of the problem. But it also also felt very strange to have Addie tell her parents about how mean her teacher is (the book opens with Addie’s classwork being torn up because the handwriting is too messy) and they laugh it off and remark that Addie’s grandfather “got the strap” in school and he turned out fine. First of all, it’s hard to believe parents presented as being attentive and caring for Addie (and Keedie) would shrug that off–especially when the threat of forced institutionalization looms over both autistic girls after Keedie’s best friend was forced into a care facility. Second of all, my grandfather also had similar abuses in school–but I am at least twenty years older than Addie which again points to a dated portrayal. My best guess is that the author translated some of her own experiences as a neurodivergent young person to this modern book without fully factoring in changes to social norms/behaviors. And, again, maybe this is more of an issue in small towns that my urban self realizes.
A Kind of Spark expertly weaves Addie’s personal journey with her research and advocacy for the witches creating a multi-faceted and compelling story. The inter-family dynamics with Keedie trying to attend college without requesting accomodations and Nina choosing to pursue content creation instead of college add another layer to this story that, ultimately, reminds readers to celebrate what makes them different.
Possible Pairings: The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, Alice Austen Lived Here by Alex Gino, Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin, Tune It Out by Jamie Sumner