It may come in a small package, but is no small thing that Marie Harris has done. Her new children's book for Penguin, THE GIRL WHO HEARD COLORS, may be a short, beautifully rendered illustrated story, on one level. But in the grander scheme, she is intervening in the lives of young synesthetes and their peers at a very impressionable age through the book. Reinforced by her book tour and classroom visits, the message is one of tolerance.
In the story, young Jillian is teased and bullied by her classmates when she accidentally reveals her cross-sensory impressions. She suffers until a special visitor to her school—a musician—teaches all the children that having synesthesia is an amazing and positive gift.
I recently had the pleasure of asking Marie a few questions. These are her eloquent responses.
What made you write the book?
MH: I was nominated for the position of New Hampshire Poet Laureate in 1999. When I was 'crowned" (alas no living laurel wreath), I cast about for projects appropriate to the honor, and stumbled upon one that ended up with my writing an alphabet book for my state (G is for GRANITE; Sleeping Bear Press). The book's pages featured a poem and illustration for each letter, and a sidebar that expanded upon the topic. For "H" I chose Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of America's first ladies' magazine. A couple of years later, searching for a new project, I revisited that page and realized that I'd mentioned another extraordinary woman: Amy Cheney Beach, America's first female composer.
I spent the next four years researching her life and work. One of the projects that emerged from my investigations was the idea for a contemporary novel for young readers in which Amy played a part. My agent sent around the first few chapters. Nancy Paulsen, an editor at Penguin with a new imprint, called me to discuss the book. But it wasn't the novel that struck her; it was the fact that Amy Beach had synesthesia and that gift would, in her enthusiastic opinion, make a terrific children's picture book. I agreed, but asked if I could transform the story of Amy-the-synesthete into one about a present-day little girl (leaving the sweep of Amy's career for a longer work.) Nancy agreed. And when my words were honed to her liking, she chose an illustrator. The book was launched.
I hear there was an amazing synchronicity with your illustrator…
as an arc upon which I am traveling.
MH:As some people may know, the writer of a picture book has little say in the choice of her illustrator, and she isn't encouraged to communicate with her (probably, I realized, so that she doesn't inflict her often misguided opinions on the artist). Nonetheless, Vanessa Brantley-Newton and I had a lovely on and off correspondence, at the end of which she sent me this note: You have no idea what this project meant to me. It turned out that Vanessa had been a synesthete all her life, and never knew what it was or what to call it until she made the pictures for my words! Needless to say, we forged a new bond. My only brush with synesthesia has been to realize that I see the months of the year
Please talk about the kids you are meeting on the road and the incidences of synesthesia in their classes…
MH: I've been a visiting artist in classrooms for decades and I'm always in conversation with my eager student writers. Lately, I've added this question to my introductions: Boys and girls, what color is seven? And inevitably a hand, two hands, even three hands go up, and so begins a lively discussion among those few students about the colors of numbers and letters. This often leads to anecdotes about sounds and tastes, sounds and colors, and endless varieties of "sense mixtures." There's the girl for whom my voice is a green river with bubbles. The girl whose teachers' voices elicit tastes in her mouth ranging from 'raspberries and tea" to 'spoiled ham and spoiled cheesecake.' The boy for whom all the days of the weeks have colors, and the fourth grader for whom country music is olive green…And I hate country music and I hate olive green! Their classmates listen, enthralled.
I have come to realize that in writing my small story, which includes elements of experiences and emotions that all kids encounter, I've highlighted not only the extraordinary range that this 'special sense' can span, but the variety of responses it elicits in friends, parents, teachers. Sadly, most of the reactions are negative. Puzzled. Worried. Annoyed. Dismissive. Even derisive. On one level, I find this quite odd. For example, when Amy Beach was a little girl in the late 1800s, her mother Clara discovered that her daughter heard certain keys in various colors. She didn't give it much more attention than she did to the fact that her daughter had perfect pitch. In fact, Clara turned it to her maternal advantage, playing a piece on the piano in the minor key—a key that was for Amy black and terrible—in order to put an abrupt end to her little girl's rebellious behavior!
My student synesthetes had almost never talked about their gift until I raise the issue. If they're very little, I imagine it's because they think everyone has it. If they're older, well…in the words of a young girl in response to my asking why she hadn't told me of her synesthesia earlier, in front of her classmates, (imagine facial expression and implied "duh!") I'm in 6th grade!" Differences. They can be the sources of all sorts of misunderstandings among groups of children. Or the sources of genuine admiration. I can't count the number of times kids have bragged about one of their peers who's the best draw-er or a great singer or the greatest goalie. I think kids love to celebrate their friends' specialness. And, although I didn't consciously set out to make that point about synesthesia, perhaps I've created a kind of celebration.
What are your goals with this project?
MH: THE GIRL WHO HEARD COLORS can simply be read as a story. The implicit lessons, from the folly of bullying to the wonder of differences, are embedded in the narrative, as they are in the best stories, speaking for themselves.