Meet Marie Harris – Author of The Girl Who Heard Colors PLUS A Giveaway!!!

Happy Monday, Folks!

Before I forget, let me quickly mention that I’m visiting my friend Debby Lytton’s MG writer blog today and I would love it if anyone wanted to go visit.  She is a very talented author and her book JANE IN BLOOM is not to be missed!  SO good!  The link is HERE.

Now then.  To stave off the Olympic withdrawal that I know you’re all feeling, I have such a treat for you today!  First we get to talk with accomplished author Marie Harris, and afterwards one lucky person will have a chance to win a signed copy of her newest picture book, THE GIRL WHO HEARD COLORS!

Let’s dive right in, shall we?

First, allow me to introduce Marie:

Marie Harris, author and poet

Marie Harris was NH Poet Laureate from 1999-2004 when she wrote her first children’s book:
G is for GRANITE: A New Hampshire Alphabet (Sleeping Bear Press). She lives in the woods with her photographer husband, Charter Weeks, and together they run a marketing business.  She loves birding, sailing, and swimming in the Isinglass River.

Marie is also the author of PRIMARY NUMBERS: A New Hampshire Numbers Book (Sleeping Bear Press) as well as several books of poetry for older readers: RAW HONEY (Alice James Books), INTERSTATE (Slow Loris Press), and WEASEL IN THE TURKEY PEN (Hanging Loose Press).  Her website is

SH: Welcome, Marie!  Thank you so very much for joining us today.  I recently had the pleasure of reading THE GIRL WHO HEARD COLORS (Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Books, 2013).  The book addresses an unusual subject: synesthesia.  I wondered what inspired you to write a picture book about it?

MH:  When I went in search of a new story to write, I “consulted” my own picture book—G is for GRANITE: A NH Alphabet Book—for ideas. I was looking for a New Hampshire woman who had not gotten the attention she deserved…at least not lately. I looked at the list on the “H” page (featuring Sarah Josepha Hale, the first editor of a women’s magazine in America) and discovered I’d mentioned in passing Amy Beach, America’s first female composer. So I set about learning everything I could about her. This turned out to be surprisingly easy, since the Beach archives are housed at the University of New Hampshire, a few miles from my home, and there are many recent recordings of her wonderful music. I fell in love! And I set about writing a novel for young readers with Amy as a character.

My agent sent out the first chapters and I was contacted by Nancy Paulsen at Penguin who, though not interested in the novel, was charmed that Amy had a wonderful “special sense” called synesthesia. (Her parents seemed to take their daughter’s sound-color sense in stride, much as they did her gift of perfect pitch.) She felt that this subject would make a fine picture book. I agreed, but asked if I could change the protagonist to a contemporary little girl and give her a few difficulties that Amy Beach didn’t have. And that’s how I came to write THE GIRL WHO HEARD COLORS.

SH:  Can you tell us a little bit about synesthesia?

MH:  Synesthesia is quite a special gift to possess. Nonetheless, it does qualify as something that makes a person “different,” and that’s sometimes uncomfortable. My little girl, Jillian (named after the first synesthete I met when she was in 4th grade), discovers that telling people that she “hears colors” causes her playmates to make fun of her and grownups to worry. However, she also discovers that talking about her special extra sense can result in a happy outcome.

As I visit classrooms as writer-in-residence or visiting writer, I have been astounded at the number of children who have an immediate answer to my casual question: ”What color is seven?” (Of course most kids look at me as if I’m a bit odd.) And once we agree that the student does, in fact, experience the “mixing” of senses (seeing letters and numbers in color, experiencing colors, and even tastes, with sounds) she can usually describe her gift in great detail. And she’s usually pleasantly surprised at how interested her classmates are at this surprising bit of information.

I’ve become fascinated with the phenomenon, and so ask individuals (adults) and kids (usually in classrooms) a simple question or two that prompts a synesthete to reveal her/his gift. Someting to the effect of: What color is eight? or What do you see when you hear rock music?  or  Does anyone taste something when they hear a sound?  And here are some responses…
(from my ten-year-old pen pal in England)  One of my teacher’s voices tastes like raspberries and tea; but another’s voice tastes like spoiled cheesecake.
(from the ‘real’ Jillian)  Classical music is blue. Country music is olive green, and I hate country music and I hate olive green!
(from an 8th grader)  All my letters are in color. When I read, each sentence becomes a single color, then the paragraph does too, then the whole book ends up being a certain color. When I’m reading and my mind wanders, all the letters turn to black. When I start paying attention again, the colored letters reappear.
(from a 5th grader) Your voice is deep green with bubbles and sparkles.
(from an older woman who came to a library presentation) The other day, as I was slicing beautiful green and yellow and red bell peppers, I said to my husband: Can you hear those colors? He looked at me strangely. I think I’ll stop saying those things out loud!

SH:  Do you do school visits?  What do they involve?

MH:  Because I work with students from K-12, I tailor my presentations accordingly.

With the very youngest kids, I read my book (s) leaving lots of time for the fantastic free-association offerings & questions that the words and pictures evoke. I try to give the teachers a few “ways into” the text and ideas as to how to pursue some of the ideas presented in the story.
Once students are reading and writing and talking more or less fluently, my visits take several shapes. I talk about how I came to writing. I tell stories about how the book(s) morphed from my notebooks to print, with lots of digressions and stories about the illustrators, the mistakes I made, the surprises I encountered, the things I learned.
With high school students, I work with their teachers to complement whatever projects they’re involved in.
Often (depending on what the school wants and the time frames) I create writing projects with students at all levels.
What I try never to get enmeshed in are presentations to large groups in auditoriums. I explain to principals (who, understandably, want every kid in their school to be “exposed” to the visiting artist) that I’m not a puppet show or a string band. I feel I’m at my best (as are the kids) when we’re working with me in relatively small groups with lots of opportunities for conversation.
All that said, I’m flexible and will work with every school to create a program that best fits their needs.
(Teachers, or parents who are active in their PTAs, Marie is available for school visits and you can contact her via her website or by email at marie[at]marieharris[dot]com.  Though she has yet to do a Skype visit, she is open to the possibility!)

SH:  What do you hope to accomplish with this wonderful book?

MH:  Jillian has one of a range of types of synesthesia. I hope that her story prompts parents and teachers to learn more about the phenomenon and to celebrate this and all the fascinating differences among their children.

SH:  Thank you so much for coming to chat with us today, Marie.  It’s been such a pleasure!

Marie was kind enough to offer a signed copy of THE GIRL WHO HEEARD COLORS as a giveaway.  All you have to do to qualify is leave a comment below.  We would love to hear about any experience you’ve had with synesthesia, either because you have it yourself, know someone who does, or have met someone with this unusual perception along your life travels.  If you have no experience with synesthesia, you can tell us about any other unusual perception traits you’ve encountered, or just tell us who you’d like the book for (and yourself is a perfectly good answer :))  Please leave your comment by Thursday February 27 at 5 PM EST.  A winner will be chosen by and announced after Perfect Picture Books on Friday (where I will be sharing THE GIRL WHO HEARD COLORS :))

I have no experience with synesthesia, but I do have experience with unusual vision.  I have bilateral “wandering” eyes (which means both eyes can stop focusing and “wander”, though 9 times out of 10 it’s the left one that does because it’s significantly weaker) in addition to rotary nystagmus (rapid, uncontrollable spinning of the eye) with the result that I am rarely able to focus both eyes at the same time and have very poor depth perception.  Ask anyone in my family – they will tell you how often I overflow cups thinking there’s more room before the top, and fall up or down stairs because I misjudge the distance.  But don’t worry – I might look a little funny, but I’ve learned to compensate pretty well most of the time and am able to drive a car and jump horses 🙂  What’s a little spilled coffee between friends? 🙂

So, please share your stories and/or who you’d like to win the book for!  And if you have any questions for Marie, ask away.  She will be traveling this week, but I’m sure we can prevail upon her to answer any burning questions when she returns 🙂

As an added bonus, Marie is also visiting Tina Cho and Laura Sassi today, with advice for writers at Tina’s and her “unlikely” story of how she became a children’s writer at Laura’s, so please hop over and see what she has to say on their blogs!  Tina also has a giveaway of the book!

Have a marvelous Monday everyone!!!  And please visit Debby’s blog if you have a minute – she would love to meet you all!

75 thoughts on “Meet Marie Harris – Author of The Girl Who Heard Colors PLUS A Giveaway!!!

  1. Tina Cho says:

    Wonderful, full interview, Susanna and Marie! I love this kid's answer to your question, Marie: “One of my teacher's voices tastes like raspberries and tea; but another's voice tastes like spoiled cheesecake.” That's a riot!

  2. Cheryl Secomb says:

    This is such a fascinating interview and topic! It makes me think of how my daughter (who is now 19) has always thought of colors as having different personalities. It doesn't sound like quite the same thing, but I'm going to send a link to this interview to her. I'd love the book for my own picture book collection, but I definitely want to share the book with her. Thank you, Marie and Susanna! And Susanna, I'd love to have coffee with you any time, spilled or not! 🙂

  3. Iza Trapani says:

    What a great interview and I am so intrigued by this book and about synesthesia- of which I was unaware. I think I would love to hear colors! As for unusual perceptions, I get occasional ocular migraines. They are benign and painless, but they come out of nowhere and for a half hour or so I will see wavy flashes of silvery light. They started many years ago and only happen a few times a year at most- so I am lucky about that. Thanks, Susanna and Marie!

  4. Melanie Ellsworth says:

    What a great topic for picture books which appeal to so many of our
    senses! I hadn't heard of synesthesia, but now I'm intrigued and will
    definitely be reading Marie's book.

  5. Wendy Greenley says:

    I have no experience with synesthesia but I'd love to win the book to learn more about it! I don't have any unusual perception traits (other than a wacked sense of humor)

  6. Julie says:

    Cool! I've not heard of synesthesia! It makes me wonder about more subtle gifts we take for normal in our own lives. Thanks for introducing us to Marie and her work!

  7. Kim Pfennigwerth says:

    What a great interview! I've already read Laura Sassi's and now I'm off to Tina's. This is so intriguing. I love that Marie is on all 3 blogs at the same time! And the book would be for my grandsons. One has had a love for music since he was only a few months old. He wouldn't reach for or play with the toys with children's music. Only the toys with classical music. It has been amazing to watch.

  8. Cheryl Secomb says:

    Iza, I get those, too! The first time it scared me and I went to ER. But once they explained it was a migraine aura caused by a blood vessel spasm, now I just wait it out. I'm glad it doesn't happen too often! 🙂

  9. Kirsten Larson says:

    That's such an amazing topic for a picture book. I can't wait to read it. And I think the idea of mining our own work for future story ideas is a good one. Thanks!

  10. Kim Pfennigwerth says:

    I know – we have looked all over finding things with classical music. As he is getting older he is taking in some of the other toys but he is picky 🙂 And yet he is such a boy! Bashes and crashes with the best of them, lol. So much fun!

  11. Sara says:

    My daughter is a synesthete. She perceives letters and numbers in color, gender, and personality. Music and language also represent in color for her. The more I explore it with her, the more we discover. I think that's part of what makes it so fascinating– we all have our own wildly different norms in how we experience the world.

  12. Michelle Heidenrich Barnes says:

    Really fascinating stuff! I will sometimes try to describe sounds with color and texture, but it doesn't come to me spontaneously as in Marie's examples. It's a shame that some children should be teased for having this gift. I would consider it a blessing. Thanks to Marie for writing this book and to Susanna for spotlighting it today.

  13. Kathy Halsey says:

    Hi Susanna, this sounds like a great book! I would love to win it! I also have a wandering eye that acts up only when I'm very tired. As a person who writes pb nf & ficiton, this sounds like a perfect mentor text, too. It's so importnat to have books that celebrate kids' differences!

  14. Clarbojahn says:

    Wow! This is a first exposure for me. I never heard of these qualities. pretty neat!

    I'd love to have a copy of her book because I love her bio and answers to this interview and I would keep the book and buy one for my youngest grand nephew. He's pretty special but I don't think he would appreciate signed copy near as much as I would. 🙂

  15. Joanna Marple says:

    How fascinating! I would love to have a discussion now with an adult or kid who has synesthesia. Most definitely want to read the book and I am glad the editor suggested transforming the story into a picture book.

  16. Catherine says:

    What a great subject to put into a pb. The cover is awesome and great interview, Susanna.
    I know a little boy who had surgery on his eyes for the same as you've got the other day. Poor little chap is so throng it took four of them to pin him down and he's four!

  17. Mike Allegra says:

    Oh, I've had several “spoiled cheesecake” teachers, that's for sure!

    This is a fascinating subject. I am heading off to B&N to get me a copy.

  18. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Oh, my! I hope it all works out for him. As I said, I'm in a weird area – not the typical case of anything. I actually have close to perfect vision in my left eye – if I can just get it to focus! – but it gets tired SO FAST!

  19. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    I know, wasn't that brilliant, Joanna? Because I'm sure there are lots of kids who experience this and wonder about it. I find the whole topic so interesting. I wish I could experience the world as a synesthete for a day to see what it's like!

  20. Rosi says:

    This is a fascinating subject I've learned about only recently. What a great way to help children become more accepting of the differences among people. Thanks for an interesting interview. I look forward to reading this book and sharing it with my grandchildren.

  21. Patricia Tilton says:

    I want this book to read and review. Since I was a child I associated colors with numbers and it saved my math grades, but I never knew people could hear colors. Sounds outside sometimes become a rhythm for me, but I have to tune in. Synesthesia is an interesting topic. What a great post.

  22. Beverly Snedecor says:

    This is amazing, thank you Susanna and Marie! I am so happy to hear that Amy Beach inspired you. I wrote my master's thesis on her use of folk music in her compositions. She was a true genius. In her time there really wasn't room for women to be so brilliant… fortunately her husband allowed her to continue composing after their marriage. Reading about your book made my day!

  23. pennyklostermann says:

    I just finished Tina's interview with Marie and hurried on over to read more. I sold books for a while to school libraries and I loved Sleeping Bear Press state alphabet series. They are very well done. I haven't read G is for GRANITE: A New Hampshire Alphabet yet but will have to get my hands on it. I only learned about synesthesia today by reading about Marie. I would love to have the book to read and then donate to my library.

  24. Marie Harris says:

    Thank you all so much for your comments! It's wonderful to know that the book and the subject has touched people in so many ways! Oh, and I completely forgot to tell you all this: when my extraordinary illustrator, Vanessa Brantley Newton, finished the pictures, she wrote me a short e-mail simply saying “You don't know what illustrating this book has meant to me.” Turns out, Vanessa has been a synesthete al;l her life and she never knew that her gift had a name or that other people had it as well. In fact, she had never told a soul! Only by making the pictures for the words did she discover the name for her own synesthesia. How amazing and wonderful is that?? (Check out Vanessa's other books. You'll love her work!‎ )

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