Sunday, February 13, 2011

It's a Colorful Life

by Drew & Olympia Martin

I just finished reading a book, which my 12-year-old daughter, Olympia, recently completed and recommended to me: A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass, published in 2003. It is a fictional story told by a 13-year-old girl/character, Mia Winchell, who has synesthesia: she sees colored shapes when she hears sounds/music. Names have colored attributes and every number and letter has its own color.

The correlations Mia mentions are:

2 - cotton-candy pink
4 - baby-blanket blue

a - sunflower yellow
b - brown
c - red
d - hot pink
f - bright purple
j - shimmering green
x - ripe cherry maroon
y - gray
z - robin's egg blue

One would think math would be a thrill for her, but it's quite the opposite, especially with algebraic formulas where letters, such as x, are treated as numbers. It's quite confusing because x is maroon, but there aren't any numbers that are maroon for Mia. To save herself from flunking, Mia devises a creative way of cheating by writing formulas on her jeans as color-specific rainbows.

While color serves as a motif throughout the book and a metaphor for life, the story is really about discovering yourself and being understood by peers and parents. Synesthesia is an interesting theme to choose for a young adult book and Mass does a wonderful job weaving the condition into an out of everyday life and much heavier topics such as death, which is always present here.

The town graveyard is frequented by Mia visiting her grandfather's grave and her best friend, Jenna, visiting her mother's grave. While the death of loved ones (humans) happens before the book begins, pets are lost to teen mourning within its pages. Mia coincidentally waits in a veterinarian office as a classmate's dog is put down and the death of her cat, Mango, is both climatic and touching near the end of the book. It sounds corny and fantastic-dramatic to write here (because it's quite moving and captivating in the book) that the devoted father not only attempts to fly the dying cat to the vet in his helicopter (they live in a rural area), but he goes so far as to attempt mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the expired feline when Mango dies before take-off. (It reminded me of a time in my own youth when I was trying to revive a pet hamster, through a straw).

Mass does not seem obsessed with mortality, but has simply created a book that can help kids through such difficult moments. That being said, in all of its seriousness, death is not always so grave, Mia once quips to herself that the term supernova is "an astronomer's way of saying dying" and she and Jenna have memorized the Edward Gorey (the Master of Macabre) poster of kids, with names A-Z who meet unnatural deaths (The Gashlycrumb Tinies):

A is for Amy who fell down the stairs.

B is for Basil, assaulted by bears.

and so on...

Mass researched synesthesia for her book and gathered testimonials from synesthetes who chimed in on a website. It is hard to tell at times what is Mass' creativity and what might be a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction contribution to her efforts. This seems to be the case with a passage that includes an email from a new penpal and fellow synesthete, Adam, who is 14:

If I'm eating a piece of chocolate, I'll see a rectangular patch of pink with a green stripe at the bottom. It just appears in front of me and kind of looks like a flag waving in the breeze. If it's dark chocolate, the pink will be almost red.

The book is full of great syesthetic expressions. Baby hollers appear to Mia as...silver spears shooting across the room. Screeching chalk jagged lines in air. Principal Duner's name is the color of freshly piled hay.

Mia likes to paint. Sometimes she paints figures, such as a picture of her late grandfather with Mango on his shoulder, but other times she just puts on music (Mozart) and paints what she sees...

...glossy red-barnlike color of the violin, the silvery-bluish white of the flute, the school-bus yellow of the French horn.

The sophistication of Mia's synesthesia is best conveyed in the following passage:

On the bus I randomly open my art book to an artist I haven't seen before. I decide instantly that this is the guy for me. His name is Kandinsky, and the shapes he uses in his painting look a lot like the ones I see when I hear noises. His images are all twisted together and overlapping, like when I hear music with a lot of different instruments. The colors he uses are flatter, more primary that the ones I usually see, but they're still pretty close.

Though Mia feels unique, especially before she meets other synesthetes, many of Mass' characters are interesting, with their own special quirks. Mia's teacher, Mrs. Morris, is a germaphobe. She clears the first row of students and has two homework baskets for her marked "ill" for kids with colds to put their work in.

Mia's 11 year old brother, Zack, is superstitious. If their father walks under a ladder, he makes him walk around the house, twice, backward. He is also a little OCD and details on a chart how many McDonald's hamburgers he has eaten in his lifetime. When asked why it is bad luck to walk under a ladder Zack responds (with one of my favorite sentences in the book)...

"It's because you're disrupting the scared triangle of life formed by the ladder, the ground, and the wall."

He is also afraid that if clocks in the house are not in sync, the space-time continuum will be disrupted. Zack's enduring/annual Halloween costume is Spock.

I was going to interview Mass about the book and writing, but thought it would be more appropriate for my daughter to initiate.

Why did you make the brother, Zack, superstitious and why did he seem less superstitious toward the end?

The superstitions were part of his general quirkiness. I think by the end, he was getting older, and had dealt with some difficult issues, and maybe he didn't need the superstitions so much.

What were some ideas you wanted to have in the book but did not include?

There was originally more of the synesthesia stuff in there. I had a scene in the lab where Mia was picking out the colors of her numbers from a big color chart.

Did you have a relative who liked Star Trek, like Zack, or was there another reason you referenced it?

Another part of his quirks. I actually like Star Trek (all incarnations!), so it was fun to make him a fan, too. That's one of the fun things about writing fiction--getting to stick things I love in the books.

When I heard you speak, you said you were influenced by the book The Man Who Tasted Shapes. Were there any other books that influenced you for this book?

That was the first book I read on the subject of synesthesia, and it really inspired me to give the condition to my fictional character. I can't think of any other books that influenced the novel, other than I wanted to write for kids and teens in the first place because of all the wonderful books I'd read when I was that age.

Did you get the idea of Mia writing the math equations as rainbows on her jeans or did you think of that on your own?

I think one of the people with synesthesia that I'd interviewed told me they had done something like that when they were in school. A lot of the synesthesia-related events in the book came directly from real synesthetes.

The experience when Mia lost Mango seemed very real. Did you once lose a pet that you loved with all your heart?

Yes, I had recently lost my cat, and wanted to approach the topic in such a way that it would help others who had either lost their pets, or would eventually.