Another Column at MyShelf.Com
Babe To Teens, Past
A Youth Column
By Beverly J. Rowe

School?, An Interview with Wendy Mass, and Web Site Recommendations

Well, kids, the end of the summer is in sight, and many of you will start school again this month. I know....I really didn't need to say THAT, did I?


Molly Moon's Incredible Book of Hypnotism
by Georgia Byng

Here is one that will run some competition for Harry Potter. Molly is another English orphan who has powers beyond our imagination. What fun! And the cover is just "hypnotizing," isn't it? Look at the eyes! Ages 9-12.

Children of the River
by Linda Crew

Grade 7-10. To escape the Khmer Rouge army, Sundara fled Cambodia with her aunt. Now she is a high school student in Oregon. Reconciling American values with Cambodian traditions is difficult.

On the Bike with... Lance Armstrong
by Matt Christopher

Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France, the world's most challenging bicycle race, three consecutive times. He was the World Road Cycling Champion three times and won a medal at the Olympics. That's not what makes him such an inspiration, though. Three years before he won his first Tour de France, Lance Armstrong was diagnosed with cancer. How he fought back against this life-threatening disease and went on to take the cycling world by storm is a story that continues to amaze fans worldwide.
Children's Sports Books by Matt Christopher

Wendy Mass deals with some very traumatic events in the lives of the teen characters in the novel, A Mango Shaped Space. I had never heard of the condition, Synesthesia, and Mia's experiences were very enlightening. I almost wish I had it too! Wendy very generously agreed to answer some of my questions. Here is what she had to say:


Lisa Wheeler  Bev: Could you tell us about your growing up years, Wendy?

Wendy: I grew up in Livingston, New Jersey, about 45 minutes from New York City. I was always a big reader, the flashlight-under-the-covers type of kid. Everyone in my family liked to read so there was always something new in the house. In fourth grade my best friend and I competed to see who could read more books. For every book we read, we got to add a segment to the larger-than-life construction-paper inchworm that our teacher had cleverly coined a "bookworm." Our friendly competition turned us both into life-long readers, and me into a writer. My first story was co-written with my two younger sisters. It starred my cat Muffin who magically transformed into a goat and then terrorized the neighborhood dogs. In junior high my mother took to calling me Harriet the Spy because I was always taking notes and listening in on the phone extensions. By high school I was working at the town public library, the local bookstore, editing the literary magazine, and taking creative writing classes at universities over the summer. I was also writing the essays for my friends' college applications. :o)

 

Bev: Who were your favorite authors as a kid? And now?

Wendy: Some of my favorite authors growing up were C.S. Lewis (I must have read the Chronicles of Narnia a hundred times), Edward Eager, Judy Blume (my copy of Are you there God, it's me Margaret is held together by a single thread now), Paula Danziger, and E.L. Konigsburg. I loved the Encyclopedia Brown and Danny Dunn books, The Phantom Tollbooth, and A Bridge to Terabithia, which was the first book to make me cry. Charlotte's Web was the second. My favorite book when I was in junior high was a novel called Allegra Maud Goldman by Edith Konecky. I still enjoy reading books for young adults. Two novels that I think are very special are: Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman and Missing May by Cynthia Rylant. As for today, I read anything by Alice Hoffman, Robert Jordan, Francesca Lia Block and of course J.K. Rowling. Recent favorites: Bee Season, White Oleander, Hotel World, and Carter Beats the Devil.

 

Bev: Did any other writer inspire you to write?

Wendy: I don't know if there is one specific writer who inspired me more than another, but rather a combination of the authors above. The fact that between them they could make me laugh, cry, think, fantasize, and grow, inspired me to achieve a balance of all those things in my own writing.

 

Bev: Young adults must be the most difficult group to write for…why did you choose to speak to this age group?

Wendy: I choose to write for young adults for a few reasons. When I was that age, reading was such a huge part of my life. I wouldn't be the same person today if I didn't have those wonderful stories living inside my head. It seems to me that those years, between ten and fourteen, are when kids figure out what kind of person they want to be-both inside and outside, and how they want to live their life. You're not a kid anymore, but you're far from having the freedom of an adult, and reading novels about others the same age is a big part of how we learn that our problems, needs, desires, fears, etc, are normal and universal. We can experience things in books that we can never experience in life, but these experiences show us what is possible in our own life. I also think that at some point our internal "voice" stops aging, and I think mine stopped some time around 13! So this age range comes pretty naturally.

 

Bev: How long have you been writing? A Mango-Shaped Space is your first novel, but you have some nonfiction and other things that have been published, haven't you?

Wendy: I've been writing professionally since my late twenties. I've written a number of nonfiction books for teenagers that are found mostly in libraries, including a book on Stonehenge and a biography of author Ray Bradbury that's coming out in early 2004. The nonfiction books are fun to write because I love doing research, but fiction is really where my heart is.

 

Bev: Tell us about the magazine you co-founded for teens.

Wendy: After college, a friend and I started a teenage literary magazine called Writes of Passage. It came out twice a year in the beginning, and it was composed of poems and short stories written by teenagers across the country. It was sold in bookstores and by subscription, and was intended to give teens a forum in which to express themselves and to read the works of other teens. The kids got a real thrill out of being published, and I really loved editing the magazine and working with all the writers. But it was a nonprofit venture, which meant that we were always scrambling to find enough money to print it. Right now the journal is on hiatus, which means that we're not printing new editions until we figure out how to get some grants to support it.

 

Bev: I just finished reading A Mango-Shaped Space, What a great story! I certainly learned a lot! I had never heard of Mia's fascinating phenomenon, Synesthesia, in which ordinary stimuli results in extraordinary perceptions. Could you explain her wonderful color perception and tell us a bit about your research for this novel?

Wendy: To put it simply, Synesthesia is a condition that some people have where the different senses--touch, taste, hearing, vision, and smell--get mixed up instead of remaining separate. The most common variety is called Lexical Synesthesia, which is where letters and numbers each have individual colors. For instance, someone with this condition might say that the letter "A" has a sunflower yellow tint with a crumbly feel to it. The number 2 might be the color of wet cement. There are other pairings, like sound-to-vision, where the notes of the violin could cause the listener to see small silver balls raining down in front of them. For others, their synesthesia takes the form of sound-to-taste. The word "cat" might taste like peanut butter, or the name Michael might be hot buttered popcorn. These perceptions feel very real to the person having them. Most people who have Synesthesia think that surely everyone else sees the same things they do. At some point they inevitably find out that's not the case--usually by the blank stares they receive when they talk about it. Scientific researchers have known about it for over a hundred years, but only recently has it been getting the attention it deserves. One out of every two thousand people are now believed to have some form of Synesthesia, and the numbers may be even higher than that. I read as many articles on the topic as I could so that I'd be prepared to write about it. I also interviewed many synesthetes and attended conferences organized by the American Synesthesia Association. Everyone has been very open and happy to explain the way they see the world. It was important to me that I get the details in the book as accurate as possible.

 

Bev: Are you a synesthete? Tell us about developing the idea into a novel.

Wendy: I'm not a synesthete, although after writing this book I wish I were. It would add such an interesting layer to the way I see the world with my boring ol' five senses! I chose to use synesthesia in the novel for two reasons. First, to share information on such an interesting condition which had never been written about in this form before, and second, I wanted it to stand as a kind of metaphor for the way that kids want to be like all the other kids while holding on to their own identity. Mia's struggle between feeling like a freak and feeling normal is something that all kids go through at one time or another.

 

Bev: What writing project are you planning next?

Wendy: I have a novel coming out in February 2004 called Leap Day. It's about a girl named Josie who turns 16 on Leap Day, February 29th.  The story all takes place on that one day, which made it really fun to write. Each chapter alternates between Josie's point of view and the points of view of the people she comes into contact with. I wanted to show that by going through our day, by interacting with our family, friends, schoolmates, and strangers, we affect people in ways we would never imagine.

 

Bev: Will Mia be a character in another book?

Wendy: I have no plans right now to put Mia in another book. I'm toying with the idea of writing a book starring Mia's best friend Jenna.

 

Bev: What is your advice for our young readers that want to write?

Wendy: My advice would be that it's never too early to start collecting story ideas. Find a notebook that you love (I use those black and white composition notebooks) and start filling it with your own experiences, snippets of overheard conversations, quotes that you read which affect you in some way, funny/sad/moving stories that you've heard about other people's lives, and descriptions of people and places that you find captivating. That way, when you're ready to sit down and write a story, you'll have all this background to draw from. I'd also suggest taking creative writing classes whenever possible. If your school doesn't offer them, there are after-school and summer programs, and even classes through the Internet. Or form a writing group with like-minded friends where you can comment on each other's work in a supportive environment. Perhaps the most important thing to do if you want to be a writer is to learn how to be a good reader. Read everything you can get your hands on, especially within the field that you think you'd want to write. See how these other authors create their characters and weave their plots. More goes into it than you'd think, and when you start looking at stories closely, you'll see how they all have the same building blocks in common. I'd also recommend getting on the staff of your school newspaper or literary magazine.

Bev: Do you have any other thoughts you would like to share with us?

Wendy: I hope that your readers enjoy A Mango-Shaped Space. They can feel free to email me their thoughts at mangobook@aol.com


REVIEW

A Mango Shaped Space
Wendy Mass

Little, Brown - 2003
0-316-52388-7 0 Hardbound
Children/Fiction [ Ages 8-14]

Reviewed by Beverly Rowe, MyShelf.Com
Buy a Copy

     Can you imagine mentally seeing numbers and letters in color? How about silver balls cascading through the air when you hear violin music? Thirteen-year-old Mia has always seen colors in sounds, numbers, and letters. She doesn't talk about it to anyone since she’s discovered that other people don't have this ability. She has a rare condition called synesthesia, which means that the visual cortex in her brain is activated by the sound of numbers, letters and other sounds. Her "difference" causes her to struggle with math and French in school.

     When she finds that there are research and support groups of other synesthetes, she eagerly attends these meetings and devours information about the condition. Her schoolwork and personal relationships suffer as she becomes more involved with the compelling world of fellow synesthetes and the unique things only they can experience. Her brief experimentation with a feigned illness to receive acupuncture treatment to heighten her color perception is well done.

     Then her beloved cat, Mango, who has always been prone to wheezing, becomes deathly ill. Mia's trials, which include a break with her best friend and grief over her grandfather's death, provide an exciting story. It was a glimpse into a whole new world for me, and one that I enjoyed thoroughly.

     Wendy Mass shows sheer genius in her fast moving plot with unexpected developments and she beautifully integrates information about synesthesia with Mia's coming-of-age story. References to a comprehensive Web site and bibliography about synesthesia are included.

SYNAESTHESIA: www.users.muohio.edu/daysa/synesthesia.html
pet bereavement site:www.pet-loss.net/


Web Site Recommendations:

WonderKorner: The Question/Answer Place for Curious Kids
Kids' Turn Central - Hey Kids! It's Your Turn! Laugh, learn and play online.
Children's Book Nook/Activity Center


2003 Past Columns

Wendy Mass
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