While most authors experience second book nerves, children’s author Elle McNicoll is feeling them more than most. After all, her 2020 début A Kind of Spark is a tough act to follow. It won Blackwell’s Book of the Year and was a Waterstones Children’s Book of the Month pick, and it is currently longlisted for the Branford Boase Award.
McNicoll says of this success: “When the pandemic hit last year, proofs were going out and I remember thinking at the time ‘Well, that’s it, Covid’s put a bullet in its head’. When it started to do well, it was incredible. I think it really speaks to word of mouth and how great people who love inclusive kids’ books are. They really got behind it.” She feels that preparing for the upcoming publication of her new novel, Show Us Who You Are (Knights Of, 4th March), is “much scarier than the first time around... it’s arrived very quickly, and expectations are high.”
The book is set around 40 years in the future, and sees protagonist Cora strike up a friendship with a boy called Adrien and become drawn into the mysterious projects at his father’s company, Pomegranate Institute. Pomegranate is using AI to re-create real people in hologram form, and at first Cora, whose mother has passed away, is intrigued. But as she digs deeper, she uncovers a darker side to it.
McNicoll came up with the sci-fi element of the story a while ago after hearing about plans to create a hologram of late music artist Prince for a “performance”. She expands: “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if Madame Tussauds was digital and you could meet famous people in their digital forms?’, and then that became about being able to meet people who are no longer around and the digital footprints that we leave behind.” The story began to take a slightly different direction thanks to the pandemic. “With lockdown, it became much more about grief and about really needing connection, maybe because I was seeing everybody virtually,” McNicoll explains.
Her own experience of contracting coronavirus also impacted on the narrative. She says: “In March, I had Covid and it was really frightening. I was having hallucinations and a lot of those ended up in the book, so it was a very different way of writing. The book devel- oped a lot through lockdown, it was very influenced by the isolation.” Bereavement is also touched on in the novel, through the figure of Cora’s late mother. Though these seem dark subjects for a children’s book to tackle, McNicoll believes that young people can handle tougher topics than they are often given credit for. “People can be very overprotective, but I think kids are really tough and they appreciate not being spoken down to and themes being explored honestly.”
McNicoll drew some inspiration for the book from Elizabeth Holmes, founder of now-defunct health tech firm Theranos, which falsely claimed to have revolutionised blood testing. Pomegranate Institute’s Dr Gold is initially charming and encouraging towards Cora, but it soon becomes apparent that her work is less concerned with comfort- ing grieving relatives than it is with using AI to “correct” nature. For McNicoll, the theme of “digital perfection and who decides what that is” is central to the book. While she does not want to spread a negative message about technology, she does warn: “Technology needs to be egalitarian and not something that becomes oppressive. It’s a great filler for the real thing, but the real thing is something to be valued and appreciated. I think Covid has brought that home for everyone.”
Like McNicoll, Cora is autistic, and the book is very open about the prejudices she faces in the form of bullying from her peers and assumptions made by teachers and Dr Gold, who is “completely unable to appreciate the many brilliant flaws of being human”. The author says she hopes that one message that readers take away from the story is that “some people need to re-examine what their ideas of perfection are”. She continues: “A lot of the things that Dr Gold says in the book are things I’ve heard a million times over in publishing rooms... I don’t really understand what ‘perfection’ means, but I do know it’s a word that gets weaponised against people that don’t fit the majority mould in whatever sense. I hope the book says, ‘Imperfection is great but also, what some people consider imperfection is not imperfection.’”
This is reflected in the book’s title. McNicoll explains: “It means do not hide parts of yourself that are completely acceptable and natural... if it’s something that is your identity, then you must show it. You must be wholly who you are without any reservations, because there is no joy to be found in pretending you are somebody else.”
McNicoll is a passionate advocate for representation of neurodivergent characters in books, as well as Own Voices publishing to combat inaccuracies spread about minority groups. She says: “I don’t want to police what anybody writes, but when we discuss margin- alisation, I want to see marginalised voices be the rule and not the exception. Storytelling is so powerful that if a story is told badly with misinformation, and it’s told again and again, it has huge negative repercussions. I think Own Voices is a way of taking back a little bit of control in that narrative and humanising people who have been stereotyped.”
Considering the role that the publishing industry has to play in this, she says: “I wish publishers would realise that you have to empower communities to tell their own stories to get the gold dust. It might feel comfortable to go to a white writer who is writing about Black characters, but nine times out of 10 that’s not the right thing to do, and that’s not where the most interesting story is. There’s so much untapped great stuff there from a storytelling point of view, as well as the moral and ethical imperative.”
While the book covers complex themes, McNicoll feels it is ultimately “a platonic love story” between Cora and Adrien, who form a strong bond almost instantly, in part because Adrien is also neurodivergent. With Adrien by her side, Cora is “empowered by his open- ness and his willingness to be exactly who he is”, and gains confidence in herself. McNicoll says: “Without getting too sappy and silly, I think when you have a really difficult time connecting to people because of a neurodevelopmental disability, you really cling on to connection. It becomes something very precious. Adrien saves her life, in a way; it’s that friendship that comes along when you really need it. [The book] is definitely an ode to friendship.”
Considering her ambitions for the novel, she says: “I just really hope for the neurodivergent kids who were so empowered by A Kind of Spark, and who are really important to me because they have reached out, [I hope] that this is the next step in their childhood of being seen in multiple different ways. I hope I’ve done my job right.”
Show Us Who You Are (9781913311131) is published by Knights Of on 4th March. The paperback costs £6.99.