The sickening smell of burning plastic permeated my nostrils; regretfully, I dragged myself away from the novel I was engrossed in to investigate the source of the smell. My eyes darted around the room before settling on the white reading lamp clipped to the headboard of my bed. I had covered it with a fuzzy purple scarf to dampen the brightness of the light and prevent my dad from realizing I was still awake reading. I frantically pulled off the scarf, accidentally touching the molten lampshade and burning my hand in the process. I restrained myself from crying out so as to not alert my dad in the next room.
My thoughts raced: “Oh no, oh no, oh no! I’m gonna be in so much trouble! My dad is gonna kill me; I could’ve burned the house down! Is there any way he won’t notice?” My gaze switched back and forth between the gaping hole with blackened edges in my favorite scarf and the now badly warped lampshade. “I’m dead.” I ran my fingers through the soft fuzz of the scarf to try and calm myself, but my fingers hit the crusty edges of the hole. “I ruined it! This just keeps getting worse!” Tears popped into my eyes and I used all of my ten-year-old strength to try and fight them back. I took a deep breath in and release it slowly, just like my mom taught me to do when I feel myself getting worked up. “Everything’s going to be okay; it’s not the end of the world.”
“This too shall pass,” I imagined my mom saying to me, repeating the words my Nana always said to her. I placed my bookmark in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and set it on the bookshelf, crammed six shelves high with all of my favorite books, and set about hiding the evidence.
Growing up, reading had always been my favorite thing to do. Before my parents divorced, every night he was home my dad would climb under the covers with me to read to me before I went to sleep. I would snuggle up to him and listen to him recount tales of Harry, Ron, and “Her-moan.” Sometimes I would scan the pages, reading along with him, but others I would just close my eyes and listen to the different voices he’d put on to read the dialogue of various characters and the rise and fall of his voice during suspenseful scenes. Often times, being tired after a long day, his voice would suddenly go quiet as his eyes continued to scan the pages.
“Daaaddyyy you forgot to read again!” I’d say giggling ,and together we’d scan the page to figure out where we left off. After reading a couple chapters, he’d put in a bookmark and close the book. I would inevitably beg him “Just one more Daddy, pleeeeaaase?” and more often than not he would succumb to my pleading and read at least a few more pages. Then he would give me a goodnight kiss, his whiskers tickling my cheek, and turn out the light.
After my parents split up when I was seven, there wasn’t always someone available to read to me at night; so I took over the job and would read to myself. I would read until someone came in to turn off the light and then I would lie there and wait for the crack of light coming in from under the door to go dark, signaling everyone was in bed, and then turn back on the light to pick up where I left off. I would sit cuddled up under my quilt, embroidered with butterflies and flowers, the cool of the wall seeping into my back, and slowly crack open my book. With every creak of the house my heart would race and I’d sit frozen, my ears peeled for the sound of footsteps coming down the hallway. I’d read until my eyes grew too heavy to continue and, after I’d hide the book under the bed, I’d lay down and let exhaustion take over.
In the morning, my dad would wake me up to get ready for school and come back to find me still snuggled under the covers, fast asleep. I accumulated so many tardies that my parents stopped driving me to school when I missed the bus. So, I would be forced to make the mile-and-a-half long trek to school, weighed down by the thirty pounds of books I insisted on bringing with me to school everyday; perhaps this is the cause of my lifelong back pain.
Every year, I took pride in being in the highest reading group at school and would breeze my way through the collection of chapter books in my teacher’s library. At recess I’d pretend to be one of the children running from Olaf in A Series of Unfortunate Events, gather berries from the nearby bush like in The Boxcar Children, or be Mandy from Animal Ark caring for the sick stuffed animals of my classmates. Getting into trouble at school was my worst fear and the handful of times I did break the rules at school were due to reading: becoming so absorbed in what I was reading I didn’t hear the teacher say it was time to put them away, reading too far ahead in by reading group book, and telling the substitute I went by Jenna (the name of the main character in Magyk).
At home, when one parent was screaming at the other about child support or parenting time, I’d bury my nose in my book, escaping to an alternate reality where things were easier. Books became my coping mechanism; for a few hours I could be a witch with the superpowers to make anything possible instead of the shy little girl who couldn’t even make her parents stop fighting. From the time I was two, the thing I wanted more than anything in the world, wished for as I blew out every birthday candle and made it’s way onto every list to Santa, was (and still is) a puppy. Thus when I discovered Spaniel Surprise, a book about a boy who spends his entire life wanting a puppy and eventually gets one, on my second grade teacher’s bookshelf, it instantly became my favorite. I read it so many times that if my dad replaced a word with a synonym when he was reading it aloud to me at night, I’d instantly know it and make him go back and read it correctly. At the end of the year, my teacher pulled me into the hall and gave me the book, disguised in a manila folder. I clutched it to my chest and carried it home with me, honored to be the only student given a gift by the teacher. To this day, it sits proudly displayed on the top shelf of my bookcase.
I viewed books as the solution to all my problems. They held all the information I could ever want to know, the answer to all my burning questions. When my dad tried using reverse psychology on me and, suspicious, I pulled out the parenting books he had naively left on the family bookshelf to figure out what she was trying to pull.
Beyond this, they were an outlet for my wildest fantasies and an escape from the chaos of having parents absorbed in court battles. The characters in books served as my role models. In situations in which I was unsure of how to proceed, I could just ask myself “What would Hermione do?” and when I was bored with the monotony of spelling homework and math worksheets, I would pretend to be her, studying spells and the dark arts. My love of reading gave me the courage to break the rules and characters like Hermione taught me it was okay to be myself: someone sarcastic and opinionated and outspoken. Books shaped me into the person I am today.