top of page

Emily Barth Isler: The Color of Sound (Synesthesia)

In The Color of Sound, the main character, 12-year-old Rosie, can see music as colors, and can hear colors as music -- one of the more commonly talked-about and depicted forms of

synesthesia. Like Rosie, I have synesthesia, too, though not this exact type. There are over 80

known 'varieties' or types of synesthetic experiences that brain scientists have identified, and I purposefully chose to give Rosie a different kind of synesthesia than the kinds I have.

It felt awfully intimate to put the truest, most specific contents of my brain on the page and to try to describe the ways that my mind processes the world, so I made some slight changes from my experience into Rosie's. After all, it's fiction!

But of course, as a writer, many pieces of me seep into each of my characters-- as I imagine is

true for most authors in one way or another-- so although the details of Rosie's synesthesia are slightly different from mine, the feelings and consistency (and more-than-occasional overwhelm) are very similar!

When I first got the seed of an idea for The Color of Sound, I knew that if I chose to actually

write and publish it, my own neurodivergence would inevitably become a big part of the

conversation around it. Honestly, I thought for a while about the pros and cons of talking openly about my own brain, my own way of thinking, and how it shapes my life, and obviously I eventually decided that I wanted to jump in.

Here are some things I want readers to know about synesthesia.

1. It’s real!

More than one reader has asked me if I made up synesthesia for this book. I did not

(though that would’ve been kind of cool!). Synesthesia is defined by The Cleveland

Clinic as “ when your brain routes sensory information through multiple unrelated

senses, causing you to experience more than one sense simultaneously. Some

examples include tasting words or linking colors to numbers and letters.”

2. Some people don’t know they have it.

My determination to keep writing Rosie’s experience with synesthesia in this book and to

take it all the way to publication was partially because I never read anything like this

story when I was a kid. I had no idea that synesthesia existed -- let alone that I HAD it!--

until I was in my 30s! I think a lot of people will relate to this -- whether specifically about

synesthesia or another neurodivergence or just any ways that their brain or perception is

colored by a unique quirk of chance or genetics or lived experience. We often don't

realize or appreciate the ways in which we are unique or different because we have no

idea that not everyone else sees things the way we do! I wanted some kid like me to

read the book and think, wait, that way that I feel, that's special? That's different? And

yet, I'm not alone?! It's equal parts wanting kids to know that they're unique and also that

they aren't alone! Being different-- even like in Rosie's case, as a musical genius- - can

be lonely.

I think I would’ve realized I had synesthesia a lot sooner if it were more widely written

about! So I want to provide that for kids today who might read this book and get curious

about synesthesia and other ways our brains can operate that are considered “not

typical.” I just always assumed that the way my brain worked was the way everyone’s

brains worked. We don’t have the opportunity to get inside other peoples’ heads in real

life, to see how they experience the world, so I love that books can provide a simulated

peek into someone else’s thoughts, and maybe inspire curiosity and learning about how

much of what we experience is similar to others, and how to express and explain the

things we experience that are perhaps less typical.

This applies to life outside of neurodivergence, too-- the practice of learning that other

people experience the world differently is a great way to exercise empathy in general!

3. We need to talk about all things Mental Health, Neurodiversity, and Social/Emotional

Learning more!

I grew up in a time when admitting I had a pretty severe anxiety disorder and OCD was

not looked upon as an option. I was definitely taught by culture and society at large that

these were things I should hide. I’m not sure what the messaging would have been

around synesthesia for me when I was a kid, because I didn’t realize I had it until I was

an adult. But both of those realities drove my desire to write this book the way it is and to

disclose some of my own experience in a safe, yet relatable way.

I feel so lucky, both as an individual and as a parent, that we are living in a time when it

is becoming more safe and normalized to be open about our mental health and the fact

that many, many people experience conditions like OCD, anxiety, and depression.

Without wanting to pathologize them -- I’m not a therapist! -- I think both Rosie from The

Color of Sound and Lucy from my first book, AfterMath, experience forms of anxiety

disorders, and as a writer, I strive to normalize that. If it allows readers to gain language

around neurodiversity and start asking questions or developing empathy, then I have

done my job.

4. You probably know someone who is neurodivergent already!

I want people reading the book to empathize with Rosie about what it's like to be

different, to feel like you have to be one specific thing to please your parents, and to

know that maybe you don't fit into that mold anymore. If people reading the book see

similarities to Rosie's way of perceiving the world and either learn of or feel positive

about their own neurodivergence, that's wonderful.

But if Rosie's neurodivergence doesn't feel familiar to the reader, I feel certain they already know or will soon meet someone with some kind of neurodivergence, and hope that they'll be able to empathize with that person more easily for having read the book and gotten a peek into Rosie's brain.

5. There’s no one definitive experience of synesthesia, or of any form of neurodiversity

Most of all, I definitely want people to see that neurodivergence is a wide and varied

experience. There are so many great books out there about other forms of

neurodiversity -- Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, etc., and even some other synesthesia

stories! -- and I hope this one offers a peek into the ways it makes Rosie's life great and

the ways in which it can make her life more difficult at times.

Synesthesia is a particularly subjective condition. I would guess that even people who

have the same 'type' of synesthesia might experience its effects differently, and even

more so, might describe the experience differently. Since we can't ever really get inside

someone else's brain, we can only assess the objective markers of synesthesia, like

what part of the brain is being alerted to stimulation, but not the experience of it, like

what it looks like to the person experiencing it.

I am by no means an expert on synesthesia, or the definitive voice of it! I’m not a neurologist or psychologist, and I certainly cannot speak with any authority about how brains work, other than my own! The way I wrote about synesthesia in The Color of Sound is mostly from my own

experience with it, as well as from some research I did for the purpose of writing the book.


hope that there are more and more stories brought into the world in the coming years featuring

characters with synesthesia and all forms of neurodiversity, so that we can keep learning and

empathizing and understanding. After all, there are as many unique experiences in the world as there are people! And I want to read all their stories!


Emily Barth Isler is the award-winning author of the middle grade novels AfterMath and The Color of Sound, and forthcoming picture book, Always Enough Love (Nancy Paulsen Books, Spring 2026).

Emily is a passionate advocate for gun control in America, and has written extensively on the topic for publications like Publisher's and She also writes regularly about sustainability and organic/eco-friendly skincare products for Oprah Daily, Allure, Organic Spa, and more. Born and raised in Columbia, Maryland, Emily earned a B.A. in Film Studies from Wesleyan University, lived in New York City for almost 20 years, and now lives in Los Angeles, California, with her husband and their two kids. Find her at


bottom of page