Reviews

Book review: A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll

 

KoSpark

I heard about A Kind of Spark a few weeks ago, as I’ve followed its publisher, Knights Of, since they first formed some years ago. Knights Of are an independent UK publisher looking to boost the voices of marginalised writers and artists, so it came as no surprise to me that they took on this book, which is an own voices by a neurodivergent author.

The story is about 11 year old Addie, who is autistic, and her campaign to get a memorial made for all the ‘witches’ trialled in her small village in Scotland in the 1600s. She can’t help but see the parallels between those who were accused of being a witch and herself – both she and they are seen as other by everyone around them, and she longs to right that.

Before I started this book, I thought it might feature Addie going around different sites and compiling facts about the witches to use for her case, but it’s actually more about how everyone in the village treats her, and her older sister who is also autistic, Keedie.

This made it a very difficult read for me, because the teacher Addie has is truly horrible to her – tearing up her work, humiliating her in front of the class, accusing her of copying, trying to tell her parents that she’s a problem and shouldn’t be in that school – and when I was in Primary School, in the infants class, I had a teacher who bullied me just like that and scared me so much that I got ill and couldn’t physically go in. So for a lot of those scenes, I was in tears trying to squash down my own memories. Added to that were much newer memories that came up in the scenes where Addie would talk to Keedie (who is also the twin of Nina, a neurotypical girl who clearly loves her sisters but doesn’t understand them the way they do each other).

Keedie is about 18, and in the first few months of university. She’s able to commute, so she comes home every night, but it’s clear that it’s taking a toll on her, especially when she tells Addie that she hasn’t told anyone there that she’s autistic and is constantly masking. I connected just as much with Keedie as with Addie because of this, as I masked so much while I was at college and then when I tried working. There’s a scene where Keedie can’t take it anymore and gets thrown into burnout, and it really resonated with me. Well, the whole book did, but these parts were the most intense.

I won’t give away any more of the story, but I will say that reading from Addie’s perspective (it’s written in first person present tense, so it’s a very close narrative style) completely echoed the sensory and social experiences and difficulties I have, along with what it’s like to get wrapped up in a special interest and the strong urge to right things that are clearly wrong. So, if you want to know what it’s like to be autistic, this is the book you should pick up. In fact, I encourage everyone to, as it contains many of the things I want others to be aware of while saying them in a more coherent way than I think I ever could.

I will say, though, that if you’re a neurodivergent person with similar traumatic experiences to mine, then to be gentle with yourself reading this. It’s hard. Things bubbled up in me that I thought I’d buried long ago. However, I spoke with the author, Elle, about it (she’s very active on Twitter and open to DM’s) and she said that she used a lot of her own experience for this, and it shows.

Also, on a side note, a lot of the people who worked on this book are neurodivergent too. I’m very hopeful that A Kind of Spark will be the start of a big change in the publishing industry, where opening doors to neurodiverse creators is the norm, not the exception.

Once again, please take a look at this book!

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My first author visit at a school

This may be a brief post as I’m so worn out I can barely stay awake, as my energy was taken up entirely by the day – and by the absurd levels of anxiety I’ve had for the past few weeks leading up to today – but it was a great experience and so I wanted to share a bit about it.

So, in partnership with the Isle of Wight Literary Festival Story Festival, which will take place in February 2020, I was invited to go into two schools and visit years 4-6. Lots of other children’s authors were invited to do the same, both local and from the mainland, and everyone I spoke to about it was very excited.

I was too, but as my anxiety runs riot with anything new that’s going on, and knowing my energy often gets spent very quickly when around people, I was terrified. To help ease some of that terror, I ended up scripting out what I wanted to do (even my introduction of who I am) and rehearsing it in my living room a few times until I was fairly confident that I wouldn’t forget any of the major points I wanted to make. I also made sure I had a copy of said script with me in case I lost my train of thought or my words decided to cease up.

I was very pleased with myself when neither of those actually happened, and I didn’t have to refer to my script once. And though I was nervous at the start of every class (I met with a total of five classes), as I got into what I was saying and my reading, my confidence came back. I also taught a mini workshop on where to get story ideas and how to progress them, and I was blown away by the level of creativity the students had, along with their enthusiasm.

I had a lot of fun, and the day really enforced the reason for why I write –  to share my stories and inspire people as other authors have inspired me.

Now, I may not be able to leave the house for a few days while I recover, but I have to say that all that anxiety and uncertainty was worth it, and I hope I get the chance to do it again next year.

Poetry

It’s not always winter

I take the knife and carve away a slither.

The exposed skin reddens at the touch of cold air

and regrows its protective casing.

I try again, carving away another slice,

yet still the ice seeps in and forces retreat.

Moons change and the casing grows thin,

I cannot depend on it for support much longer.

The crushing air outside is still strong…but wait!

Is that a warm spot approaching in the distance?

I can last just a little longer. A fraction more.

I reach out

and it takes me with it.

The memory of warmth becomes real,

I shed my casing without worry.

Poetry

Flashbacks

It smelt like school this morning.

The first light of the first day of a new school year,

walking down the paved path, satchel in hand, wondering what the day would bring,

what misunderstandings would happen,

what scolding I’d earn for fidgeting or not doing my work

because I didn’t understand yet again.

The other kids, all so at ease, until I try to join in.

They lie to each other, say I’ve stolen this, hogged that,

and not let me play.

Not that I understood how to play, anyway.

But that’s not the point.

When the seasons turn

and give off their scent, that crisp to September air,

it fills my head with these visions

and all the textures, sounds and emotions

that go with them, and even after all these years

I can’t turn them off.

Poetry

A likely story

Ursula stole my voice, though

I made no contract and wasn’t singing.

She latched onto my legs with her tentacles,

tripped me into the deep

where I drowned

despite breathing.

The last bubble of air popped into a scream

that people mistook for a siren’s call

and left its echo to die in my chest.

Poetry, Short Stories

I thought my executive function was on holiday, turns out it’s missing in action

I need to do the housework today, but now I’ve had a knife shaped letter prodding me in the ribs, there’s no room in my brain for anything else. What am I doing? Cleaning the birds? Emptying the bins? I seem halfway through both, but how did I get here? Oh, look, the laundry, I’ll do that today. Time to hoover. Mind is racing, letter thoughts stabbing, stabbing, what way am I facing? Oh, yes, the hoover. Move all the things. It’s raining outside. Why am I in the kitchen again? The hoover is in the lounge. Oh look, the laundry, I must do that today. What about the washing up? Ah, those plastic pots in the sink are recyclable, I’ll just put them in the…oh, I forgot to get the bin bags from the other room. I’ll just go and get them–no, hoovering first. Done! Now I can do the washing up and put those pots in the bin…once I get the bags. Finally, I’ve finished. Phew…

Oh look, the laundry.

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Processing my autism diagnosis – watching home videos

So, as I mentioned in previous posts, I was diagnosed as autistic in January this year. So far I feel I’ve done a pretty good job of processing it and letting myself recover from all the strains of masking throughout my teenage years and well into adulthood. (For those who don’t know, masking is a way for neurodiverse people to act so as to fit in with society, but it’s intensely draining and goes against all our natural instincts, causing anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. Think pretending to be a movie character for your whole life without ever getting chance to be yourself for fear that you won’t be accepted/judged/bullied etc – I’ve pretty much made a vow that I’ll only mask if it’s absolutely necessary to preserve my future mental health.)

However, one of the things I wanted to do was to watch old videos my family took of me as I was growing up to see if I could see any autistic traits, mainly because I’ve seen lots of vlogs by families with autistic kids and wondered if I acted the same as they did. I knew my nan said I flapped my hands and made other stimming/self soothing gestures when I was less than a year old and that she suspected I was autistic (sadly, not much was known about girls on the spectrum in the 90s, so I was dismissed by the doctor, a story I know is only too familiar for women my age who are only now being diagnosed), and I remember feeling on the outside of a lot of social stuff like birthday parties and playgroups.

After speaking with my awesome mother, she dug around and found some tapes of past Christmases, birthdays and holidays for me to watch. When I put the first one on, within minutes of watching myself and noting my body language, where my focus was, how I spoke and interacted with people around me, I knew that the signs I’m autistic have always been painfully obvious, the only problem back then was that no-one knew what they were looking for.

And it hurts that something so obvious was missed. But seeing myself so natural was also liberating, because I’ve spent all these months post-diagnosis trying to relax myself and not worry about being judged enough to drop my mask, especially regarding stimming – knowing that how I stim now is the same as back then makes me feel that I’ve found myself again. I didn’t lose myself in the masks I’ve had to wear.

I cried because of this, and rocked and flapped and did all the things that help me express my emotions.

Of course there will still be times when I don’t feel my difficulties are valid, because there’s always going to be people who don’t understand, don’t have patience and some who just don’t care, not to mention my own thoughts of feeling completely fine until I have to be social, but this has definitely helped me to realise that though I might have hidden things well as a teen and adult, I have always had these difficulties.

And if I need more time to think when I’m asked a ‘simple’ question, need help doing everyday tasks, or if I need my ear defenders just to walk down the street because the world is so loud, it’s perfectly okay.

(Side note: along with my difficulties, there are many cool things about being autistic, and I’d never want to change how my brain comes up with all the crazy ideas I have.)

Anyway, that’s my ramble for today. Time for dinner.