Here’s what I like about A Mango-Shaped Space (2003) by Wendy Mass: The plot is extremely interesting and really, for lack of a better word, new. Mass talks about a condition that most people have never even heard of and she just runs with it.
Here’s what I don’t like: Mass is at pains throughout the novel to make sure everyone knows her narrator is young. I also have mixed feelings about it winning an award (the Kaplan award I believe) for artistically representing life with a disability.
Here’s some information so you can actually understand what I’m going on about: Okay, so the book follows thirteen-year-old Mia. Mia has synesthesia, a neurological condition that allows her to see letters and numbers in color. As the blurb on the back of the book states, Mia named her cat Mango because that is the color of his breathing. That is, you will agree, pretty cool. The action of the story starts when Mia realizes she can no longer keep her condition a secret from her friends and family because it’s starting to interfere with her schoolwork. So Mia starts going to doctors and she finally meets people just like her.
So, on one level, this story is about dealing with synesthesia. But it also has a lot more going on. Mia’s grandfather has recently died and, as readers will learn, Mango’s place in the story is intricately tied to that of Mia’s grandfather. At the end of the day, more than being about dealing with a disability (I’m not even sure I like calling synesthesia a disability) A Mango-Shaped Space is about accepting who you are and coping with the harder parts of life.
I read this book back-to-back with Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian so comparisons are inevitable. What I found really interesting is that Alexie’s narrator is only a year older than Mia, but the story is clearly appropriate for teens–I’d never give it to a ten year old for instance. Mass’ novel, on the other hand, could just as easily be cataloged as a Children’s book rather than Young Adult (left to my own devices I think I would do just that). Why? Well, like I said, Mass makes sure we know how young Mia is. Revelations like Mia never previously sitting with a boy at lunch or attending a boy-girl party abound in the narrative–sometimes unnecessarily.
At the same time, the material is just less heavy. The tone is lighter and the characters are a little less developed so that their hurts never quite hit home. I’m not sure if this is a bad thing though–it just makes it clear, while reading, that the book could be appropriate for a younger audience.
I’d definitely give this book a look though. The prose is easy to digest and the story is really interesting. And, surprisingly, the story features a lot of characters who are just as interesting to meet as Mia (with her synesthesia)–Mia’s little brother Zach is a particular favorite for this reviewer.
Possible Pairings: Just Another Day in My Insanely Real Life by Barbara Dee, The Teashop Girls by Laura Schaefer, Jungle Crossing by Sydney Salter