“Ever since Ms. Murphy told us about the witch trials that happened centuries ago right here in Juniper, I can’t stop thinking about them. Those people weren’t magic. They were like me. Different like me. I’m autistic. I see things that others do not. I hear sounds that they can ignore. And sometimes I feel things all at once. I think about the witches, with no one to speak for them. Not everyone in our small town understands. But if I keep trying, maybe someone will. I won’t let the witches be forgotten. Because there is more to their story. Just like there is more to mine.” –Addie, in A Kind of Spark
Reading A Kind of Spark, I felt a part of myself represented and explained on the page that I’d never seen anywhere else before. I feel so much for Addie, the 12-year-old autistic main character: How she puts herself in the historical stories of witches, and how the injustice of their history upsets her, while others seem detached. I get that on such a visceral level. I often try to convey in my writing how much I feel about history or objects—or well, anything—but often have been told my characters feel “too young” or that they “can’t quite connect to my characters.” I’ve had professors ask, “why do you care about this subject?” I hear from other neurodiverse writers that they’ve heard similar comments, so I’ve come to translate these comments to really mean “as a neurotypical person, I can’t relate to your quirky neurodiverse characters or ideas.”
I’ve found that it seems easier to write about my autism in middle grade because for some reason, it’s more acceptable for kids 8-13 to “feel” so much, but less understandable or relatable for teenagers or adults.” All that said, I am so thrilled, and feel so heard, seeing how McNicoll successfully portrays this deep intense empathy, and it gives me hope that we’ll see more and more authentic neurodiverse stories out in the world that debunk the incredibly harmful stereotype that “autistic people can’t feel or have empathy.”
This book is not afraid to be upfront in talking about concepts like autism, masking, burnout and ableism, with lots of great character conversations explaining and correcting misconceptions about autism, as well as modeling great allyship. Addie and her big sister Keedie, also autistic, are such lovable fantastic characters, and I love seeing characters that (like me) love being autistic. This is so well said in: “It’s not my brain that makes me break down. It’s the pretending. The hiding. The way the world isn’t built for us.” I wish I grew up with someone like Keedie to explain my autism to me!
McNicoll uses sharks and witches as metaphors for being autistic, which is so relatable and powerful. She says so many things that I feel as an autistic person, and I’m so happy to see this book existing in the world. I wish so badly I had this book when I was growing up. This is a book I am going to be recommending to anyone and everyone.
My only critique is that some of the adults in this book—especially Mrs. Murphy the teacher— are so over-the-top horrible. I absolutely believe these people exist, but I think it would be even more powerful if we had more subtle examples of ableism. It’s easy to look at Mrs. Murphy and see her behavior as completely unacceptable. But what about more culturally accepted forms of ableism? How do we help neurotypical people understand that many ways we talk about and handle autism are incredibly harmful?
Maybe that’s just something I’ll have to write about in a future book.
I had so many favorite sections and lines in this book. Some of my favorite quotes are:
“I live my life desperately trying to make other people feel at ease. To show them I’m normal. That I can be just like everyone else.”
“ ‘…Why is it important?’ ‘Because it is!’ I snap. ‘Because it scares me, Keedie. If they don’t see it’s wrong, if they don’t say it’s wrong, it can happen again. It could happen to you; it could happen to me. It’s already happened to Bonnie!’”
“ ‘You have…no idea what it is like to be punished for something you cannot control. You can’t, or you wouldn’t ignore the importance of this.’”
“ ‘Because that’s not a past to be proud of. it’s not pretty. It’s not nice. They like nice things here in Juniper. Being nice is more important to them than being good.’”
“ ‘Addie, nowhere is built for people like us,’ Keedie murmurs.”
“ ‘ They didn’t sound dangerous at all to me; they sounded scared. Different and scared.’”
“ ‘ Neurotypical people,” Keedie sighs, finally looking at me with a grin. ‘So lacking in empathy. It’s terribly sad.’”
“ ‘No, Addie. Other people’s minds are small. Your mind is enormous. It has room for everything and everyone. You don’t want to be like other people.”
“ ‘If…if I were one of those women, I would want somebody to remember me.’”
On Keedie being told her autism is “mild”: “ ‘…it’s not mild to me. It’s not mild to Addie! It’s mild to you because we make it so, at great personal cost!”
On explaining masking as an ASD person: “Keedie told me it’s like when superheroes have to pretend that they’re regular people.”
Previously published at A Novel Mind.
Thank you to Crown Books for Young Readers for sending me an eARC of this novel through NetGalley.