Elle McNicoll chats neurodiversity in Like a Curse and other children’s books

We chatted with Elle McNicoll about her newest Middle Grade fantasy duology, Like a Charm and Like a Curse.


We chatted with Elle McNicoll about her newest Middle Grade fantasy duology, Like a Charm and Like a Curse. Like her previous works, the duology explores neurodiversity and celebrates people’s differences in a delightful way.

Like a Charm and Like a Curse follow Ramya Knox as she finds herself being able to see the Hidden Folk when no one else can. Tasked with the duty to fill a guidebook with accurate descriptions of the Hidden Folk, Ramya is about to learn that there is more to her powers than she ever imagined.

The duology is set in Edinburgh, near Elle’s own hometown. Edinburgh proves to be the perfect setting for the duology not just because of it being supernatural-adjacent, which makes everything believable, but also because it has a Jekyll and Hyde energy. With lots of tourists in the day but almost no light and no sounds at night, Edinburgh in itself is a character for Elle to play with in the books.

The other characters in the book, namely the Hidden Folk, also provides a lot of interesting research as Elle has the goal of not being influenced by Hollywood’s descriptions. Hence, gone are the vampires that are thin, gaunt, and pale. Instead, vampires, as according to traditional mythology, have very red cheeks. This proves to be a success as the vampire in the books turns out to be one of the kids’ favourite characters, simply because it does not look the ‘typical’ vampire. In fact, Elle tries to keep the descriptions of her characters to a minimal such that children’s imaginations are allowed to roam free. To her delight, all the fan arts she has received of her characters look highly different.

To Elle, another joy of having children as the main audience is that children are enormously empathetic and emotionally intelligent. While adults often DNF, or at least struggle to get through a book, if they don’t gel with the main character, children readers fully embrace Ramya, even if she might at times be a little difficult. In fact, they love that Ramya is expressing their frustration towards adults and they enjoy that the adults are (sometimes) portrayed as villains.

Elle is also an advocate for better neurodiversity representation in publishing. Growing up, many books she read discuss neurodiversity in a negative context, which often is worse than it not being talked about at all. Neurodiversity became a very stigmatised condition in her head until she found Anne of Green Gables and Jo March from Little Women to be kindred spirits. However, she does not blame the writers. While the writers kept telling the single narrative of disabled people being deficit, she does not believe they did it maliciously. She believes that there was a true belief 10 or 5 years ago that disabled people did not write. Thus, many writers tried to be a voice for the “voiceless” when in fact no one was voiceless.

To her, writers should feel free to write whatever they want. Instead, it is the responsibility of publishers to assess who they are publishing and what stories they are telling. When there are hundreds and thousands of submissions, publishers need to understand why a particular story is being told, especially as they have the power to choose harmless ones. And they shouldn’t stop there — staff should be diverse, and from all backgrounds; there should also be multiple editors, and freelancers are a good way to ensure honest feedback.

She set up the Adrien Prize last year, which is a literary award celebrating “commercial children’s fiction that explores the disability experience”. The criteria to be considered is simple — the book needs to feature a disabled protagonist and they cannot die in the book. The Prize was met with huge support, with many teachers and librarians offering help. In order to ensure that the Adrien Prize is assessed fairly and that it is not bringing any harm to children, she asked Amy from @GoldenBooksGirl, who is a disabled blogger, to help guest judge. She also asked child judges to select the final winner. Setting up the Prize also revealed something interesting about the publishing industry — the majority of books featuring disabled characters are Middle Grade novels. Perhaps it is about time for more disability representation in YA books.

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