A Mango-Shaped Space

A Mango Shaped SpaceThere are a lot of issues dealt with in A Mango-Shaped Space. It won the ALA Schneider Family Book Award which honors “artistic expression of the disability experience.” Mia has synesthesia, which means that she sees sounds, numbers, and letters in colors. The novel covers the several months during Mia’s 8th grade year when she’s finally diagnosed and begins to come to terms with something she’d been trying to keep secret since she learned other people don’t see the world the way she does.

Mia is definitely not a perfect protagonist—she makes some questionable choices and it’s up to the reader to decide if those were a good or a bad idea. She doesn’t face consequences for most of them, either. My girl has shown an ability to form her own opinions about a protagonist’s choices, so it’s probably fine. But as a mom, I’ll admit I wish Mia got called on some of this stuff!

SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid


Death plays a significant role in the story. Mia’s grandfather died before the book opens, and she thinks part of his soul lives on in her cat Mango, a kitten who showed up at the cemetery when they were burying her grandfather. Mango is sick, requiring medicine every day. He dies near the end of the book (which surprises Mia, but won’t surprise readers who are paying attention). Mia has some interesting ideas about the afterlife.

Mia’s friend Jenna is dealing with the death of her mother due to cancer a few years ago. Jenna’s mother entrusted Mia’s mother with birthday gifts and notes for Jenna that Mia’s mother delivers every year, so in some ways Jenna’s mother lives on.

A classmate, Roger, has to put his old sick dog to sleep. Months later, a dog bowl and toys are still out at his house—his family keeps the reminders around. When Mango dies, Mia’s family quickly clears out all of this stuff, getting rid of the reminders. Mia takes this pretty hard. She also blames herself for Mango’s death and forgets that other members of her family loved him, too.

Mia loses her colors when Mango dies. They start to come back as she heals, but in losing her colors and her grandfather/cat at the same time, she loses a huge chunk of her self identity. She grieves that as much as anything else.

Being Different

Through a flashback, we find out how Mia painfully learned in 3rd grade that none of her classmates saw numbers in color. Memories of “Freak!” still linger. She’s learned to hide her synesthesia, although it makes it particularly hard for her to learn math and Spanish. She’s relieved and intrigued to find out that there’s a label for what she’s experiencing and that other people deal with it, too. As she learns about it, her parents and Jenna find out that she’s been hiding something from them for years. At first her parents see it as a disease and are seeking a cure for her, but they finally come around. Her parents feel guilty for not figuring it out sooner. Jenna is hurt that Mia never confided in her, and feels shut out as Mia focuses on her synesthesia at the expense of pretty much everything else.

Mia encounters a 5 year old boy in her neighborhood who has synesthesia, too. His mother isn’t dealing with it well, coming down on him for making things up. Eventually, Mia gets through to her and Billy will grow up in a more informed and supportive environment than Mia did.

As Mia becomes better friends with Roger, she learns that he’s colorblind—they form a bit of a bond through their very different views of the world.

Mia’s siblings have their own quirks. Rather than being understanding, she more or less calls them freaks. This makes her hypocritical in my eyes, but she never sees this in herself. I hope readers will notice that, though.

Religion (sort of)

Mia embraces whatever makes sense to her. Her grandfather lives on in her cat. She says “Hail Marys” when she feels guilty. She sends prayers of thanks to the god of Thanksgiving school assemblies.

Mia’s older sister gets into “magic”—she grows herbs, follows rituals, etc. Mia’s brother calls her the Voodoo Vixen. There’s no judgment from the family aside from sometimes thinking she’s being kind of silly.

The Opposite Sex

A classmate grew breasts over the summer which she’s showing off with a tight tank top. The boys notice, and her friends get kind of jealous. Mia’s brother Zack, about 11 years old, starts vocally noticing girls. Roger has a crush on Mia. It takes her a while to figure this out and longer to figure out what to do about it, and in the meantime she kind of takes advantage of the crush by getting him to do favors for her.

Mia meets Adam online. He also has synesthesia and they talk a lot about their similar experiences. She develops a crush on him. When they finally meet in person, he seems to think that talking online means he has the right to kiss her. It’s her first kiss and she’s not sure what to think about it. If they weren’t interrupted, he was likely to push things into uncomfortable territory for her. He seems mad when she won’t act the way he wants her to—he’s self-centered and seems to feel entitled. She’s not mature enough to know how to deal with this, so it’s only portrayed as weird in the book, as opposed to really creepy and WRONG, which is certainly the impression I had of the situation.

New Experiences as Drugs

As Mia learns about her synesthesia, she hears about experiences like really hot candle lit baths and acupuncture as incredibly intense. The bath is easy enough to try out, and she starts spending too much time doing this, at the expense of her school work and her relationships. She manages to convince Roger and his mother to take her along to his acupuncture appointments. She lies her way into an appointment several times and it is really intense. She starts trying to figure out how she’s going to get her next fix. This sent up all kinds of parental red flags, as well as reader red flags (can a kid really get an acupuncture appointment without parental consent?). However, she never faces any consequences for this. It could have been an interesting exploration of how some activities can become like addictions, but instead it’s just a step in her learning about her synesthesia that her parents never find out about. It made me uncomfortable.

Lying and Cheating

Totally focused on herself and her exploration of her synesthesia, Mia starts lying and cheating in school. Again, she faces no consequences for this and manages to justify it in her own mind by saying she’ll make up for it later. She knows what she’s doing is wrong, but she keeps doing it anyway.

Family and Friends

There are a lot of different kinds of parental relationships portrayed in the book, all doing their best in their own ways, and all failing and succeeding in their own ways. Mia’s family really does try to support their individual and interesting kids, but without knowledge and with Mia hiding lots of stuff, they don’t do particularly well.

Jenna and Mia have been best friends for years. This year is particularly rough on them, but they survive. They need to learn to be honest with each other and trust each other again.


I’m definitely not the target audience, but I had issues with Mia as a protagonist. I thought she was self centered and rarely sympathetic. I do think most older tweens (probably 10 and up) can be critical enough to not view Mia as a role model, so I don’t think this is a major reason to not let your kid read this, but I just couldn’t identify with her.

I was really interested in the first hand account of synesthesia, because I know a few people who are synesthetic. I wonder very much how realistic this portrayal is.

It bugged me a little that at the end, to get more information about synesthesia, the author suggested doing a web search, oh and here are two books you could read, while she provided lots of websites and books and other resources for dealing with pet death. It felt like she thought the book was more about grief than synesthesia, which was certainly not my interpretation of it. And I feel like we need more books about the different ways people might view the world a whole lot more than we need additional books about pets dying.


A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass
Published in 2003 by Little, Brown and Company
Borrowed from BooksFree


  1. I am surprised that synesthesia is treated as a disability. I have always seen numbers and letters in color (and with gender); and though I knew most other kids didn’t seem to share this, I never thought it caused me any problems or saw it as something to “deal with.” So I think this book would immediately lose me with the premise that synesthesia prompts all the ensuing drama and soul-searching.

    • ayvalentine says:

      I’m not surprised to find out that you’re synesthetic! (Now I have vague memories of maybe having talked about it like 30 years ago?) The book, for what it’s worth, fights against the idea of it being something that needs to be cured. Mia wouldn’t get rid of it if she could, even if it does make some things more difficult for her. But it does totally freak her parents out and her mom wants her to be “normal.”

      I, too, cringe at the idea of synesthesia being labeled a disability because from talking to friends who are synesthetic it seems like a really cool dimension added to the world – of course, I say this without any first hand experience.

  2. Jocelyn LaFrance says:

    I think this book is amazing in every way. It not only expresses the struggles of those who live with synesthesia, It demonstrates that everyone, no matter their unique differences, has their own way of showing they belong. Basically, this book provides a journey through the lives of people with disabilities, and expresses the value of friends and family. In my opinion, this is an exceptional book that is wonderfully written and is appropriate for all ages to read.

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