A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass
Little, Brown and Company, 2005, 221 pages
In Wendy Mass’s novel A Mango-Shaped Space, which won the ALA Schneider Family Book Award for its artistic expression of the disability experience, school trouble leads Mia to discover that she has a rare neurological condition called synesthesia. For Mia, this means that she sees colors and shapes whenever she hears something and also that letters, words, and numbers have specific colors for her.
Mass describes synesthesia in an explanation offered to Mia by a doctor: “The word synesthesia means ‘senses coming together.’ Imagine that the wires in your brain are crossed, not literally of course. In your case, your visual and hearing senses are linked. The visual cortex in your brain is activated when your auditory cortex is stimulated.” Mass’s many descriptions of synesthesia throughout the book are all, according to reviews by actual synesthetes, very accurate.
Synesthesia is still a little-known disorder, as it is uncommon and not widely discussed. There has been, however, quite a lot of research done on it through the years. There are a variety of well-documented cases, and one can see that Mass is probably familiar with most of them. Through the character of a neurologist working with Mia, Mass mentions a couple such cases and also makes the reader aware that scientists “now believe that everyone is born with [synesthesia], but for most people the extra neural connections are pruned away.”
This is an intriguing theory; the neural connections Mass is referencing are those made between the different senses. With synesthesia, different parts of the brain that wouldn’t normally be connected are in regular communication. They are connected in a way that makes it impossible to experience, for example, a sound without simultaneously experiencing a visual interpretation of it created by one’s own brain.
Mass does a wonderful job of describing and showing what synesthesia is through the mind of young Mia, setting this neural condition as the backdrop of Mia’s personal and academic struggles. I think this is a really great book for young adults, especially those having a hard time fitting in. Mia is an unusual girl who has trouble making friends and constantly feels like a freak.
Aside from the synesthesia, this is ultimately a story of self-discovery and coming of age. When Mia finally opens up to a few trustworthy peers and finds a group of synesthetes with whom she fits in perfectly, she begins to feel like less of an outsider. Mia’s story in A Mango-Shaped Space is both unique (dealing with synesthesia) and universally relatable (the heroine’s feeling like she doesn’t fit in anywhere), and Mass does a fabulous job of telling it.