54 pages • 1 hour readWendy Mass
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A Mango-Shaped Space is a 2003 middle-grade novel by American author Wendy Mass. It tells the story of Mia Winchell, a 13-year-old girl living in Illinois in the early 2000s. Mia has a secret. She associates all letters and numbers with distinct colors, and when she hears sounds, she sees bursts of color across her field of vision. It turns out that Mia has synesthesia, an uncommon but harmless neurological condition where an individual’s senses are blended. People with synesthesia experience more than one sense at the same time. Although Wendy Mass does not have synesthesia herself, she consulted with neurologists and synesthetes to ensure the text’s accuracy. A Mango-Shaped Space is a coming-of-age story about the power of self-discovery. It received several awards, including the middle-grade 2004 Schneider Family Book Award from the American Library Association and the 2005 Great Lakes Great Book Award.
This guide uses the 2008 eBook publication from the Hachette Book Group.
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Content Warning: The book and this guide discuss themes of grief and loss, as well as a brief discussion of historical enslavement and suicide. The text occasionally uses outdated language to refer to neurological differences.
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The book opens with Mia’s memory of the third grade. Her teacher asks her to solve a math problem in front of the class, but Mia does not know the answer. To stall for time, she starts rewriting each number on the blackboard in its correct color, assuming that everyone sees the world the way she does. Her teacher scolds her and her classmates call her a “freak.”
The first chapter begins five years later, shortly before Mia is set to start eighth grade. She struggles with both Spanish and math, partly because her color associations make it hard to connect one word or number with another. Mia is the middle child of an eccentric family with an older sister, Beth, and a younger brother, Zack. Her best friend is called Jenna, and Mia has a pet cat called Mango. It has been one year since Mia lost her grandfather, but she found Mango on the day of the funeral and believes that part of her grandfather’s soul lives on in her cat.
At the grocery store with her mother, Mia is surprised to meet a five-year-old boy named Billy who tells her that her name has a color. Previously, she thought she was the only one who associated colors with letters. Mia brings Mango to the vet for a checkup and sees her classmate, Roger, who is there with his family to euthanize his dog. School starts and Mia is assigned a history project in the same group as Roger. In art class, she is inspired by the work of Kandinsky, who uses abstract shapes that look like the ones she sees when she listens to music. As expected, she struggles with math and Spanish. Deciding that she needs help, Mia tries to explain to her parents that she sees these colors and that they impact her ability to learn. Her parents initially believe that she is lying and then grow worried that something is seriously wrong with her.
Mia’s mother brings her to see her family doctor, who refers her to a psychotherapist. While waiting for her appointment, Mia confides in Jenna about what is happening. Jenna responds badly, accusing Mia of hiding something important from her. The psychotherapist initially thinks that Mia is lying about her experiences for attention but ultimately refers her to a neurologist, Dr. Jerry Weiss. Before her neurology appointment, Mia and Jenna talk again. Jenna explains that she reacted badly because she does not like learning that something might be wrong with someone she cares about: Her mother died of cancer a few years earlier. They do not fully resolve their conflict.
Mia meets with Dr. Weiss, who insists on being called Jerry. He recognizes Mia’s experiences as synesthesia and assures her that nothing is wrong with her. It is not possible to “cure” her. Mia is delighted to learn more about herself. Jerry gives her access to a synesthesia web forum where she befriends a boy named Adam via email. She bonds with Roger as they complete their history project, though she is often forgetful and misses deadlines. On the synesthesia forum, Mia reads about a woman whose colors become more vivid when she gets acupuncture. She starts attending acupuncture appointments with Roger, who has an injured ankle. Her colors become much more vivid after the appointments, and she even believes that she becomes temporarily able to see people’s pheromones.
At a community food drive, Mia is surprised to run into Billy’s mother, whom she remembers from the grocery store several months earlier. Mia tries to tell her about synesthesia, but Billy’s mother is clearly uncomfortable and rebuffs her. Over Thanksgiving weekend, Mia attends a synesthesia meetup hosted by Jerry. There, she meets Adam and the two share a kiss. Mia feels grown up and is happy to meet other people who understand her. She gets home late and falls asleep. In the middle of the night, thunder wakes Mia up. She realizes that Mango is not on her bed, eventually finding him outside. He has grown very cold and is clearly sick. Mia and her family are in the process of taking Mango to the vet when he dies.
The shock and grief of losing Mango cause Mia’s synesthesia to disappear. While Jerry warned her that periods of intense trauma and emotion could have this effect, she is still upset by the change and by the loss of her cat. She feels as though she has lost her grandfather all over again. Mia believes that Mango’s death was her fault because she should have checked that he was inside before bed. She reaches out to Adam, but he responds insensitively. Mia and Jenna finally make up after several fights, becoming best friends again. At school, Mia and Roger bond over their pets’ deaths, and she learns that he is color-blind. Billy’s mother visits Mia’s house, finally ready to hear more about synesthesia and support her son. At a Hanukkah party, Mia learns that Mango fathered kittens with another neighborhood cat. She considers adopting one that looks just like him, resolving to name it Mustard.
By Wendy Mass