A Kind Of Spark by Elle McNicoll

Values: Empathy, Acceptance, Positivity, Pride and Friendship.

A Kind Of Spark is a great class reader or bedtime story (read aloud or independent) for pupils in Years 5 and 6 upwards. It oozes with empathy, compassion and positivity as well as humour and entertainment.

This is the story of Addie who is autistic. She has two older twin sisters, one of whom is also autistic, and lives in Scotland. Addie loves sharks, using her thesaurus and going to the library at lunchtime. When she learns about the witch trials that used to happen in her village, and how misunderstood women were treated badly (eventually being killed) under allegations of witches, Addie knows she has to do something. She feels the pain of these women and understands what it is like when people treat you as an outsider. Addie goes on a mission to create a memorial for these women and experiences her own journey of self-discovery along the way.

This is a really uplifting and entertaining book. More than that though, it is written by Elle McNicoll who is a neurodivergent author herself and this means the book feels genuine and authentic. I have been teaching for nearly ten years, with many autistic children in my classes, and have never read a book that opened my eyes so much to the joys and complexities of autism. This book could teach so many staff, parents and pupils what being autistic is like (for some of course, I realise and this is acknowledged frequently in the book, that being autistic is not a generic label). Elle sensitively educates her readers on saying 'I am autistic' as you would say, 'I am colourblind' rather than 'Addie has autism'; the message is clear that autistic people's brains work in different ways, but this does not mean they are not intelligent or empathetic or able to socialise, as some damaging stereotypes have portrayed in the past. This, along with carefully-explained information on stimming, masking etc, make this book so valuable for children and adults in developing empathy and acceptance towards autistic people. The only reason I have suggested it may be for older children is some of the information about witches being tortured may be upsetting for younger children - but that is your call to make. Equally, if you have autistic children in your class, you may need to consider whether and how to sensitively use this book. I believe it could give children a powerful voice, but how you approach this would need to be your professional judgement.

Empathy is a theme that runs throughout this book. Addie shows empathy towards her sisters, her classmates and the witches. We also see examples of empathy towards Addie - her family, Mr Allison, Audrey to name a few. In an astonishing lack of empathy, we see how bullying classmates provoke Addie and her teacher the same. Discussing how we treat others is such a major theme in this book. Elle McNicoll writes so empathetically that we can all imagine Addie as a little girl in our class and understand what she can bring to the classroom. We have all known autistic people and this book really helps readers to understand some of the qualities and challenges some autistic people have and face.

I would also weave the Value of acceptance into our discussion of this book as we were reading it. There are examples of when Addie is not accepted by society, and even by one of her sisters. There are clear examples of how some women were historically treated, and tortured, because they were different. The Value of acceptance means we openly look for the positivity in people and work to get to know them better; it is more than tolerance. This book beautifully depicts the importance of acceptance in building an inclusive society.

Positivity and pride are Values that can also be highlighted. Addie describes being autistic as a superpower that means she can see details that other people often cannot. After a bumpy road trying to convince the community that a memorial to the witches should be installed, Addie is proud of herself and this is such a heart-warming end to the story. She knows the road will not always be easy, but equally, she knows that she has a lot of good to bring to the people around her too.

Another Value you could discuss is friendship. Audrey proves to be a great friend to Addie - asking her openly about being autistic in order to learn more - and sticking by her when others don't. We also meet the character of Jenna who rejects Addie as she is 'different' and worries what others will think of her. This breaks your heart as a parent and teacher to witness, and we all hope our children will take the path Audrey did, rather than Jenna. Children need 'real' examples of these scenarios to understand them and this book can provide a good stepping stone in building empathy and understanding the meaning of true friendship.

I hope you can see how much rich talk this book could bring to a classroom or home, and how much it could teach both adults and children about the joys and challenges of being autistic. Even developing a correct understanding of some of the vocabulary - neurotypical, neurodivergent, stim, mask, etc - would be a great outcome from this book. I also hope I have done it even the tiniest ounce of justice in writing about it!

If you would like to get hold a copy for someone you know or for yourself, you can find it at Blackwell's Oxford. You can also follow Elle McNicoll on Twitter @BooksandChokers and the book is published by a great inclusive publisher based in Brixton: @_KnightsOf. I know Elle is happy to connect with her readers, so grab the opportunity if you are reading this book to your class or your own child! What a role model for all of us.

You can also see other books with similar Values that I have written about: