A Kind of Spark: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicollAddie has always known that she’s different. But she’s also always had her older sister Keedie to help her figure out how to navigate a world that doesn’t always know what to do with her.

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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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, Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin, Tune It Out by Jamie Sumner

Rose Under Fire: A Chick Lit Wednesday

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth WeinRose Justice is a poet and a pilot. Even though she has hours and hours more flight time compared to many male pilots, Rose finds herself working as an ATA pilot transporting planes that other (men) fighter pilots will eventually use.

Rose is an American with high ideals who wants to help. The war is terrifying, much worse than she ever could have imagined back home in Pennsylvania, but doesn’t that make it even more important that Rose help however she can?

Her course changes abruptly when a routine transport goes horrible wrong and Rose is captured by Nazis and sent to Ravensbrück–a notorious women’s concentration camp.

In the camp Rose finds unimaginable horrors and obstacles but also small moments of hope through the kinship and bravery of her fellow prisoners. Even as friendships are forged amidst small moments of resistance, Rose and her friends are unsure who among them will make it out of Ravensbrück alive in Rose Under Fire (2013) by Elizabeth Wein.

Find it on Bookshop.

Rose Under Fire is a companion to Wein’s novel Code Name Verity and set about one and a half years later. Rose Under Fire is completely self-contained but readers of both will recognize familiar characters.

Like its companion, Rose Under Fire is an epistolary novel told primarily from Rose’s journal. Snippets of famous poems (notably from Edna St. Vincent Millay) are included as well as poems Rose writes throughout her time in England and Ravensbrück.

Although this novel doesn’t have the same level of suspense as Code Name Verity it remains extremely well-plotted and poignant. And that is really all that can be said about the plot without revealing too much.

Wein once again delivers a powerhouse novel about World War II in this case shining a light onto the atrocities of the Ravensbrück concentration camp while highlighting the strength and persistence of the women who were imprisoned there.

As you might have guessed, Rose Under Fire is an incredibly hard read. The novel looks unflinchingly at the heinous “experiments” Nazi doctors committed against the Polish political prisoners known as “rabbits” from their time in Ravensbrück to the war trials in Nuremburg. While the story is important and powerful, it is not to be taken lightly and readers should be mindful of that before they pick it up.

Readers who are up to the task of a difficult read with darker subject matter will find a powerful story in Rose Under Fire with an incredibly strong and inspiring heroine at the center of its story.

Possible Pairings: Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie,  A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, Traitor by Amanda McCrina, Tamar by Mal Peet, The Shadow Society by Marie Rutkoski, Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill, Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff

*This book was acquired for review from the publisher at BEA 2013*

Wonderstruck: A Review

Wonderstruck by Brian SelznickIn 1977 in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota Ben’s mother just died. Ben has to share a room with his annoying cousin who makes fun of him for being born deaf in one ear even though his old house–the cottage he shared with his mom–is right down the road. Ben is drawn back to the cottage as strongly as he is to the wolves that chase him in his dreams. When a clue about the father he’s never met points to New York City, Ben knows he has to follow it.

In 1927, Rose is suffocating at home with her father in Hoboken, New Jersey. All Rose wants is to be able to go out by herself, like the other kids, and to watch Lillian Mayhew in silent films. When Rose learns that sound is coming to the movies and that Lillian Mayhew is starring in a play right across the river in New York City, how can she stay away?

Will New York City reveal its secrets for Ben and Rose? Will either of them find what they’re searching for in Wonderstruck (2011) by Brian Selznick?

Find it on Bookshop.

Wonderstruck is Selznick’s second book told in words and pictures like his Caldecott winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret. In this book Ben’s story in words intertwines in surprising ways with Rose’s story told through pictures.

Although the format is still brilliant and the story is once again clever and utterly original Wonderstruck lacks some of the verve and guileless charm of Hugo Cabret. The story is messier with a more immediate sense of loss and details that never tie together quite as neatly as they did in Selznick’s earlier novel.*

New York’s American Museum of Natural History plays a prominent role in this story adding a nice to dimension to the story that will make it especially appealing for some readers** but Wonderstruck felt very busy as though it was tackling too much in one book.

That is not to say that Brian Selznick is not a genius. He is–that fact is beyond debate. He combines words and pictures in a new way reinventing the whole idea of printed stories and blurring the line between prose fiction and picture books. His books are also always filled with historical details and facts that are well documented in a bibliography at the end of the story. Wonderstruck is a particularly find pick for anyone with an interest in New York City or museums.

*I’m thinking particularly of Jamie’s behavior in the book. Also the fact that Ben never felt much of a loss after the lightning strike. Did anyone else find that odd?

**Like everyone who went to my grade school in 1993. Our building had asbestos so for a few months while it was being removed my entire school was bussed to the AMNH and we had classes there. We ate lunch under the whale every day. True story.

Possible Pairings: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler by E. L. Konigsburg, Holes by Louis Sachar, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli

A Mango-Shaped Space: The difference between a teen narrator and a tween one

A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy MassHere’s what I like about A Mango-Shaped Space (2003) by Wendy Mass: The plot is extremely interesting and really, for lack of a better word, new. Mass talks about a condition that most people have never even heard of and she just runs with it.

Here’s what I don’t like: Mass is at pains throughout the novel to make sure everyone knows her narrator is young. I also have mixed feelings about it winning an award (the Kaplan award I believe) for artistically representing life with a disability.

Here’s some information so you can actually understand what I’m going on about: Okay, so the book follows thirteen-year-old Mia. Mia has synesthesia, a neurological condition that allows her to see letters and numbers in color. As the blurb on the back of the book states, Mia named her cat Mango because that is the color of his breathing. That is, you will agree, pretty cool. The action of the story starts when Mia realizes she can no longer keep her condition a secret from her friends and family because it’s starting to interfere with her schoolwork. So Mia starts going to doctors and she finally meets people just like her.

So, on one level, this story is about dealing with synesthesia. But it also has a lot more going on. Mia’s grandfather has recently died and, as readers will learn, Mango’s place in the story is intricately tied to that of Mia’s grandfather. At the end of the day, more than being about dealing with a disability (I’m not even sure I like calling synesthesia a disability) A Mango-Shaped Space is about accepting who you are and coping with the harder parts of life.

I read this book back-to-back with Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian so comparisons are inevitable. What I found really interesting is that Alexie’s narrator is only a year older than Mia, but the story is clearly appropriate for teens–I’d never give it to a ten year old for instance. Mass’ novel, on the other hand, could just as easily be cataloged as a Children’s book rather than Young Adult (left to my own devices I think I would do just that). Why? Well, like I said, Mass makes sure we know how young Mia is. Revelations like Mia never previously sitting with a boy at lunch or attending a boy-girl party abound in the narrative–sometimes unnecessarily.

At the same time, the material is just less heavy. The tone is lighter and the characters are a little less developed so that their hurts never quite hit home. I’m not sure if this is a bad thing though–it just makes it clear, while reading, that the book could be appropriate for a younger audience.

I’d definitely give this book a look though. The prose is easy to digest and the story is really interesting. And, surprisingly, the story features a lot of characters who are just as interesting to meet as Mia (with her synesthesia)–Mia’s little brother Zach is a particular favorite for this reviewer.

Possible Pairings: Just Another Day in My Insanely Real Life by Barbara Dee, The Teashop Girls by Laura Schaefer, Jungle Crossing by Sydney Salter