Lost — and Found — in a World of Color and Sound

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The Lost Property Office (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, November 8, 2016) opens a new series of adventures filled with secret societies and stern-faced old spinsters, trackers and dragons —elements of plot and milieu that were loads of fun to create. But it is the character of Jack that is most important to me. I want Jack’s unique way of seeing the world to open a conversation.

Jack Buckles is a new take on the hyper-observant detective. He has synesthesia, although he doesn’t realize it, much like I didn’t, and much like thousands of kids today, because no one knows to tell them. Synesthesia is a lack of walls between senses, sometimes poorly described as a lack of neural development. Sounds might invoke colors. Smells become textures. My own synesthesia has been debilitating at times and empowering at others. As a child, it sent me fleeing from the smell of onions in my mother’s kitchen, squeezing in on me like a black bog. But as a Predator drone commander years later, my synesthesia helped me chase down terrorists, enabling me to “hear” the shadow of a gun or the heat signature of explosives on a silent screen. Knowledge is what shifts the balance between birth defect and superpower.

For an extreme example, imagine young Clark Kent, struggling to fit in at Smallville Middle School. Other kids have no trouble keeping their feet on the ground. How do they do it? Clark’s teacher calls his parents in for a conference. “I have to pull little Clark off the ceiling twice a day,” she says. “Literally. If Clark doesn’t quit leaping the language annex in a single bound, I swear I’ll put him in the special class.”

Special? If she only knew. But Clark doesn’t yet know how to capitalize on his abilities. Once he learns why he’s different—if he learns—that knowledge will open up a whole new world.

Now imagine a child with synesthesia. Old Mr. Guthrie fires up the lawnmower outside the classroom window, and immediately the child’s battle for focus is lost. A bumpy gray-brown mass creeps in and closes around her, thumping her about the head and shoulders. How can the other kids ignore it so easily? She has no clue what the teacher is saying, and the teacher knows it. Mrs. Smith shoves her horn-rimmed glasses up the bridge of her nose and moves in for the kill, asking a question the girl can’t answer, making her look as stupid as she feels.

Of course, life for the little synesthete girl isn’t all bad. She’s brilliant at memorization and math. Letters and numbers have colors and textures that never change, flying around her head in purple wisps and gold ribbons. And the school nurse swears she is some sort of audio-prodigy. The hearing test is so easy—all those tones popping up as blue and yellow balls as real as the polka-dots on her blouse. Then again, the girl has seen that same nurse three times this week for throwing up in the lunchroom. Wading through the slimy bog caused by the smell of peas and onions is too much for her. She tries to explain her nausea, but no one believes her. Ever.

If only someone could tell that little girl why these things are happening—help her cope with the bad and capitalize on the good. If only her teachers and parents could learn about synesthesia.

This is the life of an undiagnosed child synesthete, as I was. This is Jack’s life too. But it’s not called synesthesia, not in my world. Jack Buckles is a tracker. He’s a hero. With a little knowledge, child synesthetes can leave behind the confusion and become the heroes of their own stories. I hope The Lost Property Office will start that conversation.




As a former stealth pilot, James R. Hannibal is no stranger to secrets and adventure. He has been shot at, locked up with surface to air missiles, and chased down a winding German road by an armed terrorist in a beat-up Opel. He is the Thriller Award nominated author of the Nick Baron covert ops series from Berkley Books and the 2016 BEA Buzz Book, The Lost Property Office from Simon & Schuster Young Readers. The Lost Property Office is one of three middle grade books on Publishers Weekly ShelfTalker’s Top 20 list of books to give as gifts this holiday season. You can find him at stealthcommand.com.

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