A Kind of Spark, by Elle McNicoll, (Oct. 2021, Crown Books for Young Readers), $16.99, ISBN: 9780593374252
An award-winning debut middle grade novel that debuted in the UK last year, A Kind of Spark is the kind of book the educators, parents and caregivers, and kids need to read and discuss together.
Addie is an autistic girl with a teacher who loves reading and learning, but she’s stuck with a teacher who sees her neurodivergence as being rebellious and lazy. She’s verbally abusive to Addie, as she was to Addie’s older sister, Keedie. Addie is targeted by both Mrs. Murphy, her teacher, and by Emily, a fellow student; her fellow students, including her former friend, all look the other way during these painful bullying sessions, but new girl Audrey arrives and befriends Addie, enjoying her for who she is. When the class learns that their small Scottish town once tried and executed a number of young women as witches, it sparks a visceral reaction in Addie. What if these women were misunderstood? What if they were like her? The lesson becomes a personal crusade for Addie, who campaigns for the town to install a memorial to these misunderstood women, with Keedie and Audrey providing the support she needs.
There is so much in this book. At times painful and enraging, it remains a book that needs reading and discussing. Told from the point of view of a neurodivergent character, written by a neurodivergent author, A Kind of Spark encourages empathy and understanding by providing a first-person perspective. It addresses the bullying and abuse that neurodivergent people are susceptible to, but it also points the finger at bystanders who don’t speak out and takes on those who should be there to support and protect students – like caregivers and educators – who are lacking. The bond between Keedie and Addie is heart-warming, and their discussions on “masking” – acting neurotypical in order to fit in – are thought-provoking and a wake-up call. An incredible book that is a must-add, must-read, to all collections.
A Kind of Spark has a starred review from School Library Journal. There are a wealth of autism and neurodivergence resources available: the NEA has a guide for educators; the Organization for Autism Research has a Kit for Kids to help create allies rather than bullies and a Teacher’s Corner for educators; the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network has resources and an article on what makes an ally, and Autism Classroom News and Resources has a free resources library with materials and webinars. Author Elle McNicoll’s website has links to her blog and more information about her books.
The BBC is going to be bringing A Kind of Spark to the screen – now, we folx in the U.S., wait.
Uncle Shawn and Bill and the Almost Entirely Unplanned Adventure, by A.L. Kennedy/Illustrated by Gemma Correll, (March 2018, Kane Miller), $5.99, ISBN: 9781610677400
Recommended for readers 7-10
Bill is a peaceful badger who finds himself kidnapped by two awful sisters, who intend to make him fight (even though badgers hate wearing prizefighter shorts) in their badger fighting ring. Turns out the awful sisters are the McGloones, relatives of the awful McGloone family. Seriously, the entire family is just awful; they’re filthy, rude, and all-around mean! Farmer McGloone and his wife also have four llamas held captive, and since they’re depressed and stressed (and ill-fed), they’re not producing enough yarn for the McGloone luxury socks that Mrs. McGloone wants to knit, so they plan to make the llamas into PIES. Such despair! What’s a friendly badger and four depressed llamas to do? Thank goodness for Uncle Shawn, a lovely eccentric who happens to love animals. He comes up with a plan to save everyone and live happily ever after (unless you’re an awful McGloone).
This book is bananas, and I mean that in the most loving sense of the word. Orginally published in the UK in 2017, it’s loaded with madcap, black Scottish humor (come on, they’re making a badger fight in a fight club and threatening to bake llamas) that will make readers laugh out loud when they’re not cringing. Seriously, some of the descriptions of the McGloones are pretty stomach-churning. Black and white cartoons throughout the book add to the laughs. Uncle Shawn and Bill and the Almost Entirely Unplanned Adventure is the first in a new series, so there’s more to come: the second book, Uncle Shawn and Bill and the Pajimminy Crimminy Unusual Adventure, just hit shelves in the UK. Give this to your Roald Dahl and David Walliams fans and expand their global literary palate!
Toward a Secret Sky, by Heather Maclean, (Apr. 2017, Blink YA), $17.99, ISBN: 978-0-310-75474-9
Recommended for readers 12+
Seventeen year-old Maren Hamilton is an orphan; her father dead for years, her mother, the recent victim of a freak accident. Sent to Scotland to live with grandparents she’s never met, she discovers much more about her parents than she could ever have realized. They weren’t systems analysts, as she’d always thought; they were members of a secret organization that fought demons. Real demons. Now that she’s discovered her mother’s secret journal, she’s a target for the demons – and so is everyone around her. Luckily, she’s got Gavin, her literal guardian angel, to help her, but against all the rules, she finds herself falling in love with him and is pretty sure the feeling is mutual. When Maren’s friends and grandparents find their lives in danger, it’s up to Maren and Gavin to save them all.
I thoroughly enjoyed Toward a Secret Sky. There’s some DaVinci Code-level action, with secret societies, code-breaking, and angels fighting demons over the United Kingdom skies. It’s also got a solid set of characters and good world-building, and an ending that left me excited for another installment. YA romance fans will love the burgeoning forbidden love between Maren and her angel, the gorgeous, Scottish, Gavin (and I don’t even have to feel like a cougar because he’s over 200 years old). The book teases us, giving little hints about not only The Abbey; the secret organization Maren’s connected to, but about Maren’s own heightened abilities. It’s the perfect amount of information to keep us guessing and reading. It’s a fast-paced, wild ride that YA fans will love, and it’s a solid book to put in your more conservative readers’ hands, too.
Definitely add this to your Summer Reading TBR, and match it with proper romances like Duels & Deception and Jacob Gowans’ A Tale of Light and Shadow duology. There’s also a good 2016 article from Bustle with YA DaVinci Code readalikes that fit nicely with this one.
Seeker, by Arwen Elys Dayton (2015, Delacorte BFYR), $18.99 ISBN: 9780385744072
Recommended for ages 14+
Quin Kincaid has been training to be a Seeker since she was eight years old. She and her cousin, Shinobu, finally complete their training take their oaths, only to discover that they have been lied to by their families. This is no honorable profession; they have been duped into becoming pawns of Quin’s awful father, Briac. This is only the first secret Quin uncovers about her father – there is so much more, including what really happened to her boyfriend, John’s family, at Briac’s hands.
Seeker could be an epic YA series. There is time travel, intrigue, and layer upon layer of character backstory and world-building. My main issue with the book is that there is so much plot that the story gets muddled. For instance, just grasping what time the main story takes place in can be a frustrating exercise: there are references to airships and cell phones, horses and lands. Is it a post-apocalyptic universe? A steampunk universe? The time travel aspect is introduced late into the story, so I spent a good portion of my reading wondering what was going on and where. I’m still not sure what the relics, called athames, that a good chunk of the plot involves, really do.
The story is told through the viewpoints of four characters. We don’t always get a lot of motivation, with the narrative being told from four points of view. I found one character’s actions seemingly coming out of nowhere, another character’s background making very little sense, and two characters having a massive portal shift erase 18 months of storytelling time.
All in all, this one isn’t my book. It’s got promise, and perhaps the second book in the series will answer some of these questions.