Alice Tonks is an 11-year-old autistic British schoolgirl. She is about to join an elite boarding school colloquially known as Pebbles. Alice’s deceased mother and her living grandmother (who acts as her parent) are both former pupils of the school. Alice is nervous about going away to school. She knows that she doesn’t easily make friends. She has a ritual that she uses to calm herself down when she needs to – she calls it ‘stimming’ – but she knows it will look weird to casual onlookers.
On the day Tonks joins the school she has a strange experience, a conversation with a seagull. The bird recognises her as Alice Tonks and informs her that the animal community around the school needs her help. It seems that animals are going missing. Not only can Alice completely understand what the seagull is telling her, but she can also communicate with any animal in that creature’s own language. This rare talent marks Alice out as a ‘switcher’. The novel now asks whether Tonks can learn to make full use of this exceptional talent and manage to survive the difficulties it entails.
Emily Kenny, who is herself autistic, has managed to blend a number of different elements into this novel. It is of course a boarding school adventure like Malory Towers. But its dramatis personae include not only schoolchildren and teachers but also animals. The everyday drama of the school is shot through with magical events. And the protagonist of the story has a disability. A disabled figure in a fantasy is in itself something of a rarity.
The skill with which Kenny draws together these diverse threads is truly impressive, making a book not easily to be forgotten.