Birth Defects and Superheroes

So you might have seen my posts on Twitter and Facebook.

Big black cover.

Enormous clockwork beetle.

The Lost Property Office is a new children’s adventure coming this fall from Simon and Schuster. It will also be highlighted this May as one of 5 middle-grade trendsetters at Book Expo America—a blessing I am exceedingly grateful for. But there is another side to this story that is, perhaps, less obvious.


Jack Buckles, the thirteen-year-old tracker in this London adventure, is a character I poured my heart and soul into, particularly in the way Jack experiences the world. He is, if you will, a new take on the hyper-observant detective, because of something Jack and I share—a “birth defect” known as synesthesia.

I never use the word synesthesia in the book. The Lost Property Office is written in Jack’s point of view, and he doesn’t know he has it—much like I didn’t know for three and a half decades, and much like a good number of kids today who are misidentified as inattentive or ADD don’t know they have it. 

To give you a quick definition, synesthesia is a lack of walls between the senses. It can be debilitating at times and empowering at others. Knowledge can mean the difference between the two.

Let’s take a look at a well-known kid whose friends and teachers might have considered him “different.”

Imagine you are young Clark Kent, and you have no idea why you struggle so hard to fit in. 

You see the other children at Smallville Elementary easily keeping their feet on the ground. They don’t have to work at it like you do. Their pencils never snap in their hands, and their deskwork never spontaneously combusts.  

Maybe they’re all just smarter than you are.

When you finally get up enough courage to ask another boy how he makes it all look so easy, he stares back at you like you’re crazy. Soon, all the little girls point and giggle when you walk by.

The coach likes you, as much good as that does. 

“Clark? Sure, he’s a little rowdy. Always moving. Head in the clouds. But you should see him boot that kickball!”

Your teacher is constantly calling your parents in for a chat, and it’s never good.

“We love little Clark,” she tells your mom at their latest impromptu conference. “But he’s practically bouncing off the walls. I literally have to pull him down off the ceiling twice a day. If you can’t get him to quit leaping over the annex in a single bound, we’re going to have to put him in a special class.”

You overhear. You know what “special class” really means.

Now try to see yourself as a child with synesthesia. 

You’re trying your best to concentrate on the teacher. A bird chirps outside the window, soft and sharp at the same time. Pinkish-white spikes the fly across the left side of your vision. You can’t suppress them, even though you can see the teacher eyeing you. 

How do all the other kids do it so easily? Why doesn’t the chirping bother them? You look down at your hands, willing the bird to shut up, then back up at Ms. Moore. One eye is still locked on to you. She’s waiting for you to crack.

Then old Mr. Gufford drives by on his rickety lawnmower. 

It’s all over. 

Resistance is futile.

Some of the other kids are distracted, too, but your vision is completely taken over. Your mind’s eye fills with a bumpy gray-brown mass. Not because you’re imagining things. It’s there, out of your control. You feel every thump, thock, and crack of the motor in the back of your neck—real, but not real at the same time. 

How can you, a ten-year-old, explain such a concept to Ms. Moore, the scariest creature the Fifth Grade Teacher Factory ever spat out?

At the same time, you’re absolutely brilliant at math and memorization. You know it, but you have no idea why. Letters and numbers, words and concepts, have colors and textures for you that are always the same. You don’t have to think about them to recall them. They just fly around your head in purple wisps and rainbow ribbons. But isn’t it the same for everybody else?

And the school nurse thinks you’re some sort of audio-prodigy. She’s tested your hearing nine times and its always off the charts. You don’t see why it’s so hard. How could anyone miss those pink, brown, and blue blobs on the left or right side of the mind’s eye. You don’t have to hear the tones. You can see them.

Then again, you’ve been in the nurse’s office three times this week for throwing up when the lunch lady tossed peas and onions onto your tray. “You’re not sick. You have no temperature,” she tells you.  “If you keep making yourself vomit for attention your going to really hurt yourself.”

You’re not making yourself do anything. 

The smell of those onions is like wading through slimy black mush. Real, but not real. There, but not there. You can’t tell that to the nurse. She’ll have them put you in the special class.

“I don’t know,” Ms. Moore tells your mom with yet another sigh at yet another parent teacher conference. “He tests so well, but his listening comprehension is”—she glances your way, then leans toward your mom and whispers— “abysmal,” as if you can’t both hear and see the word. “He simply has no focus.”

This is very much how Jack’s life went before he came to London in search of his father—before Jack discovered his gift had a name.

And the name for that gift is not synesthesia.

Not in my make believe world. 

Jack Buckles is a tracker.

You can have a “birth defect” or you can be a super hero. 

Your choice.



From the THE SYNESTHESIA PROJECT at Boston University with Dr. Veronica Ross:

Synesthetes, on the other hand, do not know that anything is “wrong.” They recognize their synesthesia early in life but without external input, they will not realize that what they are experiencing (colors, tastes, sensations) is unique. In the eyes of a color-graphemic synesthete, her synesthetic percepts are shared by the whole world. When the synesthete does recognize that he or she is doing something unusual, he or she may be reluctant to discuss what’s going on for fear of being labeled a freak, shunned, misunderstood, accused of lying, or even diagnosed with a mental illness. It is common for a synesthete to remain silent about his or her synesthesia for decades until a magazine article or radio program makes the synesthete realize that she’s not alone and he’s not crazy.

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