Waterstones prize winner Elle McNicoll: ‘I never saw autistic girls in books’

When Scottish author Elle McNicoll was first trying to enter the publishing world, she was repeatedly told that people didn’t want to read about an autistic heroine. “In job interviews, I was saying that I wanted to see more books with disabled characters in them that were not traumatic, boring or educational, but fun and full of life. A lot of the reactions were, ‘Waterstones don’t like books like that’,” she says.

Now McNicoll’s debut novel A Kind of Spark has won the Waterstones children’s book prize. Published by tiny independent Knights Of, it follows Addie, an 11-year-old autistic girl, as she campaigns for a memorial to the witch trials that took place in her Scottish village. The novel has been praised by Waterstones’ booksellers as “eye opening, heart-wrenching, sad [and] inspiring”.

McNicoll, who is autistic herself, wasn’t looking for a book deal when she first met Knights Of; she was offering her services as a proofreader for books that involved disability. “The meeting started with me venting about job interviews that had been very soul destroying,” she says. “And they said, ‘We don’t have an autistic character, if you would like to write one’.”

By then, McNicoll had already written two thirds of A Kind of Spark, with Addie shaped by her frustrations with publishers. “I’d been working on a draft for a couple of years, but I was missing the main character. As I was going to these interviews and getting more and more disheartened, Addie started to form. She was definitely born out of a kind of defiance – the more that the industry pushed back, the stronger she got,” she says.

She is a character McNicoll would have loved to read as a child: “I was a voracious reader, but I never saw the word autistic written in a book, or autistic girls. We had [Mark Haddon’s] The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, but we never saw neurodivergent girls.”

Published last summer, A Kind of Spark has already won the Blue Peter prize for best story, and was named as Blackwell’s book of 2020. Now Waterstones booksellers have picked it as the overall winner of their £5,000 children’s books prize, with the chain’s children’s buyer, Florentyna Martin, calling McNicoll “undoubtedly an outstanding new talent in children’s books [who] will inspire readers young and old for generations to come”.

“We have fallen in love with Addie, whose courage and determination are a guiding light, often reminding the world that kindness must prevail wherever we go,” added Martin.

McNicoll called her win “completely staggering”. “I will never say ‘I can’t’ again,” she says.

Previous recipients of the award, which is unique in that it is voted for solely by booksellers, include Angie Thomas, Katherine Rundell and Rob Biddulph.

McNicoll’s A Kind of Spark was up against Bethan Stevens’s “pitch-perfect and extremely entertaining” The Grumpy Fairies, which won the prize’s illustrated books category, and Darren Charlton’s Wranglestone, winner of the prize’s older readers category. A love story about two boys set in a post-apocalyptic America overrun by the undead, Wranglestone was described by booksellers as “epic, eerie and seriously scary”.

Charlton said he hoped his win would prove “there is a readiness in readers for the LGBTQ+ experience to expand into genres still dominated by their heterosexual counterparts.”

“Ultimately, this is a win for LGBTQ+ teenagers by showing you that your story can be for the many and not just the few,” he said. “I am so touched and so very grateful that my two boys ever found such an open-hearted tribe to champion them.”

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