Worlds Where Senses Mix, Part One

Chevy Chase LibraryStaff Picks

Worlds Where Senses Mix, Part One

Explorations of Synesthesia in Children's Fiction

Young people are often taught that humans have five separate senses. However, the neurological condition of synesthesia, in which a stimulus of one sense involuntarily evokes another sense, challenges the assumed universality of distinct senses. Although once thought to be very rare, recent scientific research has found that as many as 4 percent of people have at least one of over 80 kinds of synesthesia. (Some neuroscientists, arguing that most humans experience some weak forms of synesthesia, prefer to instead view it existing on a spectrum.) Common forms of synesthesia include days and months, letters and words, numbers, or sounds evoking colors. Some rarer types include words or sounds evoking tastes, or tastes having shapes.

Until recently, many synesthetes did not discover until later in life that their perceptions had a name. Now, along with increased scientific and media attention, some recently published children's books have broadened awareness of the phenomenon. Reading synesthesia-themed fiction, young synesthetes are more likely to identify their condition and feel validated early in life. Non-synesthetes also become aware of the phenomenon and are less likely to discount the quirky experiences of their synesthete peers. Explore and appreciate the rich, kaleidoscopic worlds of synesthesia depicted in these works of children's literature (some which are written or illustrated by synesthetes too).

Children's Novels:

The Boy with 17 Senses by Sheila Grau
In this clever retelling of "Jack and the Beanstalk," Jaq lives on the planet Yipsmix where everyone has synesthesia. Sounds, emotions, words and letters have colors and tastes (the X in "Yipsmix" makes it taste light and sweet); numbers have personality. To lessen sensory input that would overwhelm residents, public spaces are even designed with muted colors, noise-canceling machines that suck up sound and silent fans that blow away smells. Jaq's troubles are multiplying: his neighbors are bullying his family, his family is hungry and their crops are dying and he is swindled into trading his cherished pet for an old key. But a map hidden inside the key leads him to a wormhole where he travels to a strange land called Earth, full of strong sensations and giants (people). To save his family's farm from his neighbor bullies, he embarks on a quest to rescue a fellow Yipsmixer on Earth. Jaq's synesthesia and the help of a young synesthete girl giant he befriends prove to be crucial to his success. The author has misophonia, which some consider a kind of synesthesia. Recommended for ages 8-12.

A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass
For as long as she can remember, 13-year-old Mia has perceived sounds, numbers, letters and words in color. She has kept her quirk a secret, even though it has influenced her life in many ways. For example, she named her beloved cat "Mango" because his meow is yellow-orange. She learns that she has a condition called "synesthesia" and connects with an online community of synesthetes. When trouble at school related to her color associations convinces Mia to open up about her different mind, people around her think she is a freak. She feels socially isolated, but ultimately a loss of someone special forces her on a journey of self-discovery and re-connection. This coming-of-age story not only deals with synesthesia, but also a best friend break-up, first romance, the death of a grandparent and the loss of a pet. Recommended for ages 10-14.

Forest of Wonders (#1 in Wing & Claw trilogy) by Linda Sue Park
A synesthesia-influenced intuition guides the apothecary work of a talented 12-year-old named Raffa. Colors, sounds and shapes appear in his mind when he mixes botanicals, helping him concoct the best poultices and tonics. When he heals an injured bat with a remedy made from a rare scarlet vine found in the Forest of Wonders, the bat suddenly can speak and becomes his close friend. But Raffa discovers the vine also has dangerous properties. He travels to the city of Gilden to warn his cousin who had taken a vine clipping. A suspense-filled adventure ensues where his botanical knowledge repeatedly comes to the rescue, but can he avoid using his knowledge to hurt creatures he cares about? This magical fantasy will delight animal lovers and those open to grappling with ethical dilemmas. Recommended for ages 8-12.

One + One = Blue by Mary Jane Auch
After being home-schooled by his grandmother, Basil starts seventh grade and struggles to make friends. When he reveals his color associations with numbers, his classmates think he is a freak. Life changes when Tenzie, the new girl in school, befriends him. He learns that she too has number-color associations and later they discover there's a name, "synesthesia," for their shared quirk. The return of Basil's estranged mother complicates his life, but Tenzie helps him through this tumultuous time. This book also includes a conversation between the author and editor, both synesthetes, comparing their own synesthetic experiences. Recommended for ages 10-14.

Blue Like Friday by Siobhán Parkinson
Olivia, the humorous narrator of this story, which is set in an Irish town, has an eccentric best friend named Hal, who sees the world very differently than her. A synesthete, he associates things like days of the week with color and taste. For example, Friday is a specific hue of blue and tastes like tangy lemon sherbet. Still grappling with his father's death, he has trouble accepting his mother's boyfriend Alec and comes up with a plan to get rid of him. After much persuasion, Olivia reluctantly agrees to help. Their plan backfires and instead of driving away Alec, his mother disappears. Ultimately, they resolve the mess and Hal finds peace with his absent father and Alec's presence. Recommended for ages 9-14.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

Milo finds life boring. One afternoon, a tollbooth mysteriously appears in his room. Having nothing better to do, he drives through with his toy car and enters a strange fantasy land inhabited by many odd characters. As he embarks on a quest to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason, he learns how exciting life is.
Along with abundant wordplay and allegorical wisdom, this brilliant children's classic contains synesthetic features. For example, Milo visits a word market and nibbles letters for sale. An "A" tastes "sweet and delicious," but not all letters taste so good: "Z" tastes "very dry and sawdusty" and "X" like "a trunkful of dry air." Another synesthetic experience occurs when he meets Chroma, a conductor of an orchestra that plays the colors of the day from sunrise to sunset. Milo gets a chance to conduct the orchestra in a series of vibrant sunrises. Chroma remarks, "What a dull place the world would be without color? But what pleasure to lead my violins in a serenade of spring green or hear my trumpets blare out the blue sea and then watch the oboes tint it all in a warm yellow substance." The author is also a synesthete who associates numbers with colors. Recommended for ages 9 and up.

Picture Books:

The Girl Who Heard Colors by Marie Harris and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
For every sound, Jillian hears a color. A dog's bark is red, her bike bell rings silver and her teacher's voice is green. One day when a lunchbox topples to the floor, she blurts out "yellow!" Her classmates laugh at her peculiarity and she feels sad and alone. When a musician visits her class, she discovers that he, too, hears colors and this trait even has a name. Upon hearing this new blue word "synesthesia," she feels happy about her special extra sense. This book's illustrator has sound-color synesthesia, too. Recommended for ages 3-7.

The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky's Abstract Art by Barb Rosenstock and illustrated by Mary GrandPré
This vividly and creatively illustrated work of historical fiction tells the story of one of the first painters of abstract art. As young Vasya Kandinsky mixes colors from a paint box, he hears an orchestra tuning up for a symphony. He continues to experience colors as sound and sounds as colors throughout his life. For a while he lives the life others expect of him, painting pretty houses and flowers like everyone else in his art class, later studying and teaching law. His life changes courses one evening when he listens to an orchestra at the opera and hears the vibrant array of colors of his paint box. He begins a journey to authentically express himself, experimenting with painting music and evoking feelings in abstract art. This Caldecott Honor book also includes additional information and resources on the Russian artist and synesthesia. Recommended for ages 4-9.

Le Piano des Couleurs written and illustrated by Laure Massin  
Johnny is an unusual child because he hears colors and sees sounds. At home he even complains that the red tablecloth hurts his ears and the telephone rings too bright a yellow. Doctors examine him but find nothing wrong. Inspired to nurture Johnny's special gifts, his father builds him a strange piano. For each piano key he plays, the corresponding color appears on a screen above. At a young age Johnny pursues a musical career and enchants many audiences. He also speaks at conferences about his language-color associations. This book also includes a brief history of the influence of "colored hearing" in various arts. Those readers who don't understand the French text can still appreciate the vibrant pictures of sculpture and collage. Recommended for ages 5-9.

Interested in explorations of synesthesia in adult and teen fiction? Check out Part Two.
— Rachel W.