Book review: The Spark: a Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius by Kristine Barnett

by , under book reviews, books and reading, family, illness, LibraryThing, television

{I’m adding this note on Feb. 7, 2024.

Last month, one of my co-workers was talking about a series she’d watched called The Curious Case of Natalia Grace — I think that’s what it was, or something close to that. I didn’t listen too closely at first, but then the details got more and more weird, and I was drawn in. This was right after the second part of the series aired, with the subtitle Natalia Speaks. My co-worker’s short version led me to agree with her that Natalia Grace was certainly abused by her adoptive parents.

Eventually, my co-worker said that the adoptive mother had actually written a book about parenting a child on the autism spectrum, and the book was fairly successful. I had one of those lightbulb moments, and after a bit I asked her, “Was it called The Spark?” She was pretty sure it was! She said that an earlier version of the book included a lot of things about Natalia Grace, but the publisher was like, You need to take all of that out. As I listened, my mouth was just hanging open — maybe for a full minute, maybe even longer. I’m surprised neither of my colleagues commented on it.

I looked up some info online after our discussion, but I still haven’t watched the TV series, so I don’t know what’s true. There doesn’t seem to be any dispute, though, that the Barnetts had Natalia Grace legally “re-aged” so she was “old enough” to live independently, then put her in an apartment by herself in Indiana, while the rest of the family moved to Canada. Her age was uncertain, but only by a matter of a few years at the most; she was still obviously less than 18, and she was physically disabled! So instead of being eight years old, she might have been 11 or 12, with a disability, but the Barnetts said she was 22, got the court to believe them, put her into her own apartment — I have to say it again — and then took their three sons and moved to Canada.

No memoir can be absolutely 100% true, because our memories are less than perfect and we’re all experiencing the world from our own perspectives. When I read a memoir, though, I expect that the author is mostly telling the truth, trying to be as accurate as their memory and perspective allow them to be. I’ve heard and read enough about the family’s experience with Natalia Grace that I feel duped, and seriously pissed off. I’m leaving up my original review — I mean, it WAS for an Early Reviewers book, and LT gives credit for that — but I’m embarrassed at how effusive my praise was. I do think Jacob is a genius, and knowing that he appears in the TV series makes me even more curious to watch it all. Anyway, if you read further, please take a lot of this review with a whole container of salt. Shame on me for expecting a memoir to be mostly true.}


I received an advance reader’s edition of The Spark: a Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius, by Kristine Barnett, through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. The quotes in my review are from that advance copy, and might differ slightly from the published book. The back cover gives a good overview:

Kristine Barnett’s son Jacob has an IQ higher than Einstein’s, a photographic memory, and he taught himself calculus in two weeks. At nine he started working on an original theory in astrophysics that experts believe may someday put him in line for a Nobel Prize. Last summer, at age twelve, he became a paid researcher in quantum physics. But the story of Kristine’s journey with Jake is all the more remarkable because his extraordinary mind was almost lost to autism. At age two, when Jake was diagnosed, Kristine was told he might never be able to tie his own shoes.

It took a while for the book to arrive, and then it took ME a while to work it into my reading priorities, but when I finally got started on it, I was completely absorbed. In the first twelve to fifteen months of his life, Jacob Barnett was a normal, happy, affectionate baby, with occasional hints of above average intelligence: Kristine writes, “He learned the alphabet before he could walk, and he liked to recite it backward and forward” (p. 13). But around 14 months old, Kristine and her husband Michael began to notice small changes in Jake. He talked less, smiled less, and became generally less interested in other people. Kristine ran a home daycare, and the other children treated Jake as their younger sibling. During that first year, he loved interacting with the other kids, and trying to do the things they did, but by the time he reached about 15 months old, they could barely get his attention. Instead, he was fascinated by shadows, by the play of light and dark on the walls.

Kristine describes how Jake is gradually swallowed up into autism, to the point where he stopped speaking for a couple of years. Kristine and Michael initially resist the diagnosis, but not for long: all the signs are there. The first formal evaluation results in a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, but after the second evaluation, before Jake’s third birthday, the diagnosis is revised to “full-blown, moderate to severe autism” (p. 32).  The therapist who conducted the second evaluation explained that “Jake had likely been diagnosed with Asperger’s (a mild form of autism characterized by relatively high functioning) instead of full-blown autism because his IQ was so high — a shocking, off-the-charts 189 on the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children” (p. 32).

Chapter after chapter, the story of this amazing boy, and this incredibly resilient family, held me enthralled. In many ways, the Barnetts are an “ordinary” family — while Kristine ran the home daycare, Michael worked at Target, then later at Circuit City, until his store was closed early in the recession. Kristine’s anecdotes about toddler Jake include Matchbox cars and crayons. They’re hard-working, generous people, who love their kids and want to do what’s best for them, and try to help others who are facing difficulties too.

In short, the Barnetts are a lot like most other American middle-class families. But, they have a son who is profoundly gifted. Kristine writes, “According to Miraca Gross in her book Exceptionally Gifted Children, there is less than one profoundly gifted person per one million” (p. 230). This boy essentially stopped interacting and communicating with other people when he was a toddler, and his parents were told by experts that Jake might never speak again. We know from the back of the book that Kristine decided to follow the “spark” she saw in Jake, to help him pursue his passionate interests, and this helped him eventually overcome the symptoms of autism, so he could come back into “the regular world,” yet still be himself. Jake’s story is worth reading on its own, but Kristine’s story, and that of the whole family, just adds to the richness of the book. The back cover doesn’t mention that Kristine and Michael’s second baby had a rare and potentially fatal condition; that Kristine herself was later diagnosed with another serious health problem; that in addition to the regular daycare, the Barnetts created a charitable program for autistic children, run out of their home. Kristine writes:

So every morning, I’d open the day care as usual and work a full nine-hour day there. But twice a week, after the day care children went home, I’d vacuum the room and set up a mock kindergarten for autistics kids. I called the program Little Light.  …  [I]nstead of hammering away at all the tasks these kids couldn’t do, I thought we’d start with what they wanted to do (p. 68).

I can tell you that The Spark is inspiring, a testament to the power of love and family, and also the value of going with your gut, especially with regard to what’s best for your kids. But I’d rather say that Jake and his family, and the journey they’ve taken so far, is just fascinating. I feel like I know them, yet I also believe that Kristine is a superwoman. If you have kids, or want to have kids, you should read this book. If you know someone who is autistic, have an interest in autism, or enjoy any kind of “medical memoir,” you should read this book. If you’re an educator of any kind, you should read this book. If you don’t fall into any of those other categories, but you just like any story about people facing obstacles and working to overcome them, then for heaven’s sake, JUST READ THIS BOOK.

I am grateful to LibraryThing and Random House for the chance to read and review this advance edition, and for the privilege of meeting Jacob and his family. To author and supermom Kristine Barnett, who wrote that this book is “the chance to share Jake and his gifts with the world” (p. 243), thank you, thank you, thank you!

© All the parts of my life 2008-2015.

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