By Tamara Ellis Smith
Today we’re pleased to welcome Elle McNicoll to the WNDB blog to discuss her middle grade book A Kind of Spark!
What inspired you to write A Kind of Spark? How did you find the plot for the story—Addie’s quest to create an acknowledgment and a memorial for the women accused of being witches in her town?
I vividly remember being small in Scotland and learning about the witch trials in our city. It was such an incredible history lesson, and I spent weeks afterwards imagining it. I related so much to the notion of being othered in bad faith. Of being hounded. I was badly bullied and isolated as a young person, because of being different. Both by adults and my peers. So that was the first very clear scene of the book in my mind. I also felt that the UK children’s publishing scene was not centering neurodivergent girls enough, in their own stories. So, Addie is very much the driver of her own narrative.
You’ve got some amazing recurring images and objects in the story: sharks, Addie’s thesaurus, and library books in general. Can you tell us how they connect to and support Addie’s quest to make the memorial?
The thesaurus was something that I always saw her carrying around in my mind. She’s hyperlexic, meaning that words are just something she naturally gets. So many ND children are shown to have an affinity with mathematics, and that’s never been my experience. She likes to read non-fiction more than story books, so the library was a natural basecamp for her. It’s also where she feels less overwhelmed, in a sensory way. As for sharks, I find them to be incredibly auspicious creatures. I always have. Like the witches in the story, they are incredibly maligned and they are too often vilified. All of these things are there to reflect Addie’s goodness, her curiosity, her intellect and her ability to see nuance. But in a subtle way. No one likes a goody-goody on paper, including me, so I wanted her to have hidden depths.
What do you think about the idea that HOW we tell stories is as important as WHAT we tell? Another way to ask that, perhaps, is to ask: how much did you think about FORM as opposed to CONTENT as you wrote A Kind of Spark?
The first draft of A Kind of Spark poured out of me in two days. I think, while the characters were part of a fictional world I created in my head, there were personal truths that had to come out after decades of hiding. I knew A Kind of Spark had to keep that thread of authenticity. It’s my story when it comes to the lens. The characters are fictional, the events have not happened, but that lens is the one I have had my whole life. It’s truthful, it’s painful and it’s what so many readers connect with, as well as the action of the story. I was tired of stories about us that were written without us. Where we are burdens. Where we are secondary actors, whose inner lives do not seem to interest the narrator. Addie is the main character. Without question. She has agency and strength and power. It was what I did not have at eleven, and what I wanted to see in books.
I’m imagining your choice to tell Addie’s story in first person was a fairly easy one. (I love the choice.) We needed to get into her head to understand her and to, as best as we can, feel what it’s like to be her. But what made you decide to tell the story in present tense?
That first scene, where Miss Murphy rips up the work, is based on something that did happen to me. It’s one of the few scenes in the book that could maybe be called autobiographical, and when I sat down to begin writing it, present tense came naturally. I almost always wrote in past tense, and third person. But I felt more able to honestly connect to Addie’s voice this way.
The way you weave the language of living with autism into the story—words and concepts like masking and stimming—is brilliant, I think. It’s organic and seamless. How intentional was that? How hard was it to do? How did you do it?
I wish there was a more concrete answer to give other than “I just did”. It’s language I use every day, it’s the sort of articulation I would have appreciated knowing as a young person. Addie has learned it all from Keedie so it was organic for it to be a part of her speech. If there was something hard about it, it was perhaps knowing that people might be judgmental or dismissive. But being true to the character and their pride in their individuality was more important in the end.
I absolutely love that you explore the idea of “good” versus “nice.” Can you talk a little bit about it?
As a neurodivergent child, I think I saw sides of people (adults definitely) that neurotypical people did not. I would watch their niceness slip away some of the time. If your manners and supposed compassion are only put on in certain situations, to make yourself look good, I think that falls under niceness rather than goodness. I’ve always felt strongly that there is a distinction. Two-facedness is hard for some ND people, really hard. I myself may not always remember to be smiley and easygoing, but that’s usually because I’m focusing on being good. Which is more important.
What do you think about balance? Do you need it in your life? How do you achieve it, if you do? (I’m also thinking about Keedie’s need for balance as I ask you this question. She becomes way off balance at university, tipping too far into masking and, as a result, compromising her health.)
Balance is essential for good mental health and wellbeing. I always tell young readers in the UK, when they ask questions during school visits, that a flat battery is no good to anyone. There is no point blasting through your own health and ignoring boundaries in the name of pleasing other people or trying to get something completed, if you end up with a car that cannot run. Keedie is going through something that so many neurodivergent people, of all ages, understand. That burnout from masking, that exhaustion, it’s not sustainable. I want ND readers, myself included, to remember that they are allowed to take care of themselves. They are allowed to say no. To ask for an accommodation or a boundary. You deserve it. I just try to do this myself in my own life, but it is easier said than done, certainly. I end up saying yes to tons of things because I want to do right by my community. But I also know I’m no good to them if I’m a husk.
How much do you write for yourself? How much do you write for the young adults who read your books?
I write for myself now and for who I was at eleven. A molecule inside has never really grown up so I write for both of us. I always say my books are for eight and up, because I love my adult readers so much. I would hate to put an upper age limit on the books.
What other books do you recommend?
I just love Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty. It’s a really special book.
Elle McNicoll is an award-winning writer. Her debut, A Kind of Spark, won the Blue Peter Book Award and the Overall Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, in the UK. She is an advocate for better representation of neurodiversity in publishing, and currently lives in East London.
Tamara Ellis Smith is a children’s book author who lives in Vermont with her pretty large family—consisting of humans, dogs, cats, chickens, and a mouse. Her middle grade novel Another Kind of Hurricane was a Bank Street Best Book of the Year and a Vermont Book Award Finalist. Kirkus kindly suggested that her picture book Here and There is “needed everywhere.” Her second picture book Grief is an Elephant is coming from Chronicle Books in 2023. When Tam isn’t writing, she can be found running on a river trail with her dogs. Visit her online at tamaraellissmith.com or on Instagram at @tamaraellissmith.