In Emily Barth Isler’s second middle grade novel, The Color of Sound,12-year-old Rosie’s synesthesia causes her senses to intermingle. Frustrated by being known as only a violin prodigy, she goes on a music strike. Instead of going to music camp, she spends the summer with her mother visiting her grandmother who has Alzheimer’s. She learns more about her family history during the Holocaust and the generational trauma that has shaped her mother’s controlling personality. As in her debut, Aftermath, Isler explores how neurodivergence shapes her characters’ perspectives in unique ways. She spoke with PW about brain differences and the tension between wanting to both blend in and stand out.

Your descriptions of how Rosie sees sounds in color are so vivid, they practically jump off the page. As you state in your author’s note, this was a very personal book. How did your own synesthesia impact your writing?

This was the first time I’d tried to put the experience of having synesthesia into words, and once I opened that door, it just flowed. I was able to be as open and authentic as I wanted because it served this character and the story. But I also felt pressure to get it right and not misrepresent any piece of it. That’s why I chose to make Rosie’s type of synesthesia similar to mine but different. There are more than 80 types of synesthesia that we know about. It was very freeing to be able to say I relate to this, but it’s not my exact experience.

For a long time, people didn’t take synesthesia seriously. It’s very real, but it’s also a great metaphor for the ways in which we each have our own subjective human experience—and that can feel lonely, especially for adolescents. Like Rosie, you may think you’re the only person who’s ever felt a certain way. I wasn’t diagnosed with synesthesia until my early 30s. When I first learned what synesthesia was, it was a strange and beautiful experience to realize that so many of the things that I’d thought were just me were actually part of a larger brain type.

Both of your books explore the experience of being neurodivergent. How would you like us to think of that term more broadly than we typically do?

After I wrote Aftermath, many people asked me whether the main character Lucy has OCD. In retrospect, I realized that she does, but I wasn’t thinking about that when I wrote it. I was just putting myself in Lucy’s shoes and it didn’t occur to me to pathologize or diagnose her—in the same way that we often don’t pathologize or diagnose ourselves because we only know our own lived experience. Writing The Color of Sound was such an eye-opener about my own synesthesia and OCD.

For a long time, I was hesitant to use the term neurodivergent to describe myself because I had only heard it used to describe autism spectrum disorders and maybe ADHD. I have a friend whose daughter is on the autism spectrum and she gave me permission to think of neurodiversity as an umbrella. Lots of people are neurodivergent in some way, and by stepping under that umbrella, it has given me great empathy for all the other people under it.

I hope we can see a more expansive acceptance of neurodiversity, in the same way that we see body diversity and gender identity. When I visit schools, just as so many kids introduce themselves along with their pronouns, they’re getting comfortable talking about their neurodivergence, whether it’s ADHD, being on the autism spectrum, dyslexia, OCD, or synesthesia. When I was a kid, we were taught not to talk about mental health, but society has changed. I wasn’t diagnosed with OCD until my late teens, but now I see it as my superpower. It is such a big part of my creativity. When it is well managed with medication and therapy, it’s what makes me constantly think about what’s going to happen next in a story. It has been very freeing to come out as a neurodivergent person in my 40s, particularly after keeping my OCD a secret for so long. Our differences can be our strengths. I’ve been able to utilize my OCD to fulfill my lifelong dream of being a storyteller. I hope that some kid out there who’s just gotten diagnosed with something that may seem scary will understand that someday they may be able to harness it into making the life they want for themself.

I hope that some kid out there who's just gotten diagnosed with something that may seem scary will understand that someday they may be able to harness it into making the life they want for themself.

Rosie has a unique situation—she is a violin prodigy with synesthesia. However, all kids can relate to the feeling of wanting to be like everyone else while also wanting to be special. Is that something you hoped readers would take away?

Absolutely. If I look back on my childhood, one of the prevailing feelings I wrestled with was wanting to be special, but not wanting to be too different—the push and pull between when to stand out and when to blend in. When I was writing The Color of Sound, I realized that I felt the same way about being Jewish. Synesthesia works well as a metaphor for any kind of difference, like being a Jew in a world where we’re a minority. I did not start out seeing that connection, but it happened very organically as I wrote the book and the puzzle pieces fit together.

One reason I love writing about the middle grade years is that they’re a time of self-differentiation. You need to separate yourself from your parents a bit, and that can be both terrifying and exciting—and it’s more complicated with a parent like Rosie’s, who’s so deeply invested in Rosie’s life being a certain way. I hope readers will feel empathy for Rosie and also feel seen. It can be hard to realize that who you are may be different from the way your family has seen you previously. It takes courage to stand up and say, I think I want something different or I think I am something different. I hope the book helps readers see that we can change other people’s understanding of who we need to be.

How do you think your own neurodivergence—and identifying as a neurodivergent author—will impact your future books?

It parallels beautifully with being a Jewish author. Every book I write will be influenced by my Jewish experience, whether it’s overt or incidental. It's the same with neurodivergence. I can’t help but infuse my experience into each of my characters. But when I’m starting a book, I always think about what I can bring to the table, so that kids reading it will feel seen and understood. I would like to hope that The Color of Sound will resonate with people who aren’t Jewish or aren’t neurodivergent, but that they’ll see in Rosie that same struggle of wanting to fit into two different worlds or feeling like you’re not exactly who you thought you were and you want to explore this other part of yourself.

I always want to offer a peek into some kind of neurodivergence because those are the books I could have used when I was a kid. One of the interesting things about synesthesia is that people usually don’t know they have it. A lot of us sense there’s something about us that’s different, but we don’t know what it is. I had not read a book or seen a show about anybody with synesthesia, so I didn’t know what questions to ask. My goal is to write books that don’t necessarily have the answers, but can help readers formulate the questions that they’ve been needing to ask.

The Color of Sound by Emily Barth Isler. Carolrhoda, $19.99 Mar. 5 ISBN 978-1-7284-8777-9