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Elle McNicoll on the Inspiration Behind A Kind of Spark

Posted on 14th October 2020 by Mark Skinner

One of the most remarkable novels of the year, Elle McNicoll's groundbreaking A Kind of Spark places a neurodivergent character front and centre of a children's book to tell a compelling tale of difference, understanding and compassion. In this exclusive essay, Elle discusses the process that led to the crafting of the formidable Addie and why it was so important for her to represent neurodivergent people in children's literature.     

I grew up in a small Scottish village where it was eternally autumn.

Leaves strewn across the muddy paths, rain on the windows and a dark history that was rarely ever spoken about.

I turned this into the subject matter of my debut novel, A Kind of Spark. The story takes place in October, in a small, cosy Scottish village called Juniper. The residents hold local meetings to argue about immaterial matters, the elders strive to make the village a perfect tourist attraction and Addie Darrow, eleven years old, knows that she must fight to get everyone to recognise the sinister past of their otherwise cheerful home.

Witchcraft.

In the lead up to Halloween, Addie discovers that Juniper hunted and tried hundreds of women for witchcraft. She is fascinated and horrified by the secret and vows to campaign for a memorial to be set up in honour of the victims. The town elders, however, have other ideas.

I always wanted to write about a heroine fighting for justice, and have been haunted by Scotland’s past with witches for many years. Everything about A Kind of Spark was in place. The plot, the setting and the secondary cast. There was just something not quite there yet.

A heroine.

While rereading some archived records of the witch hunts in Scotland, something was coming up again and again. Many descriptions of the victims were striking a chord in me, as a neurodivergent person. 

Some of them reminded me of myself.

I thought to myself, what would have happened to me if I had existed during those terrible times? I have great difficulty fitting in nowadays, and struggle greatly with sensory processing. So, what would I have done then?

While researching the witch trials, I was also growing increasingly frustrated by the distinct lack of neurodivergent characters in children’s publishing. When they did appear, they were siblings that the protagonist was ashamed of or irritated by. They were background characters, perceived as burdens or challenges to overcome. Or inspirational martyrs.

Suddenly, the two projects collided.

And Addie appeared. She was fully formed and ready to go. She had an objective, a mission and a huge heart. 

She was also autistic.

Everything clicked into place so easily after that. The story also had added layers, where Addie questioned her own place in the world and what it meant to be considered different by the majority. 

The novel is a love letter to the tenacity and courage of neurodivergent people. It’s a David and Goliath story, with huge empathy. It’s one girl trying to change the cosy, rainy village that she lives in, mostly by herself. She is the quiet voice of change against centuries of tradition.

It’s also about family, friendship and standing up to bullies. No matter what unexpected forms they take.

It has been the pride and joy of my life to write this book and see it published by a wonderful press like Knights Of, and supported by incredible booksellers. Getting daily messages from people saying that Addie is the first time they or a loved one has seen themselves represented in fiction is not only what I set out to do, but an overwhelming joy.

It’s a story of sisterhood because I wanted to write about a family with more than one autistic member, where autism is barely mentioned at the dinner table. I wanted a relationship at the heart of the story, between two autistic girls, that demonstrated the power and pain of unconditional love and loyalty. 

In a literary landscape that treats neurodiversity like a dirty secret, a disease, an affliction or a challenge that must be overcome— I vowed to write a character who embodied the strength, bravery, compassion and out of the box thinking that I see and admire in autistic children and adults. I channelled a lot of my own experiences from childhood, and I wrote the heroine that I felt was missing in the world of fiction. 

The one that I needed to see when I was a young reader.

A Kind of Spark is an October book of witches, autumn leaves, woodland secrets and a cosy village with a grisly past. As the nights draw in and become darker, I hope to have written a book that engages, enlightens and entertains. 

I really hope you enjoy meeting Addie. And I’m so overwhelmed at the wonderful friends she has made so far.

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