We are 14 hours into our 27-hour road trip, bursting at the corners with people, luggage, and sustenance for the ordeal. To my right, Camille lounges against her sheep pillow, gazing aimlessly out the rain-splattered window. Her earbuds emit the faint noise of her current obsession: indie soft rock. To my left, Calvin struggles to fit his puberty-given long legs into the cramped compartment that is our 2001 Honda Odyssey. At seven years old, I am tall for my age but still small and young enough that I am shoved into the middle of the third-row bench seat. There are no comfortable positions, and my Princess Leia headphones remove any chance of lying down on Camille’s shoulder. In 6 days my sister Arielle will live halfway across the country, and my only solace is in the book hidden away in my knapsack: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Arielle gave it to me as a going away present, and I’m holding out on it until the last vestiges of my second oldest sister are gone.
I am seven years old. I am reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Adults at my church do a double take when they hear this when we return home to monotonous Charlotte, North Carolina. “Surely you should be reading Junie B. Jones or Nancy Drew!” I have no interest in those, written for a narrow demographic of girls that does not include lanky Caris, whose head is covered in ringlets and filled with words picked up from conversations between her parents and adult siblings. I am ostracized and ignored by the white girls at church, tiny with pink barrettes in their stick straight blonde hair who prefer to dress up their dolls and play house than sit in a tangle of fuzzy blankets on the couch, paging through an intoxicating world of emotion and wonder as Le Nozze di Figaro wails in the background, yet another thing that sets my family apart. I would rather pass my time with Alethea and Arielle, Camille and Calvin, but it hurts when no one my age is willing to listen to how I feel. Reading is my escape, but it removes me from the others and makes me an outsider to those who conform.
I am nine years old. I am reading The Penderwicks. Every night, I lay on my parents’ bed as my mom reads a chapter (sometimes two if we can coax her into it) aloud to me, my dad, and Calvin. This time, it’s Camille who’s left for college in Maine. Camille, who shared my room and laughed at my jokes, who climbed into my bed with me when I had a nightmare, who danced around the house with me to High School Musical 3. I sobbed when we left her. Calvin is sixteen, outside of the 8-12 age range of this book, but the relationships of the Penderwick sisters echo those I have with my four siblings, so we all enjoy it together. I’ve shot up even more; I tower over the blonde girls in my church. I’ve formed vague attachments with a few of them. There is one new development. A performance of Le Nozze di Figaro a few months ago by Opera Carolina brought the introduction of Sophia Schwinghammer to my life, a raven-haired dancer who wore a scarf patterned with lips, intellectual and conversational. We are now best friends, bonded over The Beach Boys, theatre, and reading. She reads slowly, so I read Percy Jackson to her as we lay on her bed, my eyes watering and stinging from the abundance of cat hair melded into the carpeted floor. I finally have someone to share my passion for palaces and cathedrals constructed by words. She is my Penderwick sister not by blood, but by interest.
I am eleven years old. I am reading the entire Harry Potter series. Arielle is graduating, so we make the journey to Colorado again, but with more space in the creaking minivan. The mountains sing of magic and delight, and this is the year I become fully obsessed with Harry Potter. Sophia takes longer than I do to work through the series and gets stuck on page 371 of book five. We spend a great deal of time together contemplating which of Harry’s friends is cleverer and sorting ourselves into houses countless times. The spells in Latin, we discover, are grammatically incorrect! Or at least we assume they are, as we have only gotten as far as “agricola, agricolae” in class. I read the entire series twice in one year, and I go to sleep at night dreaming of walking through the corridors of Hogwarts, wishing I could be swept away into a world where Latin grammar doesn’t matter and rules don’t exist.
I am twelve years old. I am reading nothing. I become nervous and encounter true stress for the first time when I write my first ever essay in science class, of all places. Who has time to read about castles and magic when mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell?
I am fourteen years old. I am reading The Giver, I am reading The Mortal Instruments, I am reading in the middle of the night in my blanket tent with a faulty flashlight so no one can see. Reading has become my refuge from mental abuse by others; my problems are forgotten when I dream in the world of fantasy and magic. When I am bullied online, a book doesn’t judge or invalidate me, it’s simply there. All I try to think about is words, words, words. I lash out at my parents who I previously loved with all of my heart when they enforce rules that didn’t matter before: go to bed by ten, don’t text boys. I suppose emo Harry Potter in Order of the Phoenix has rubbed off on me. Now that my siblings are out of the house, my parents watch me closely. I feel like the heroine in a generic young adult novel: misunderstood, misplaced, and too busy to spend time on pointless required things.
I am fifteen years old. I have stopped reading again, but this time for a better reason. I have people who care enough about me that for once I prefer the real world to the one built of words.
I am now sixteen years old. With school comes writing, and with writing comes reading. I have found a balance between the world of my mind and the world of the people around me. During the day, I laugh with my friends at a meme one of us photoshopped, or I listen as one of us shares our troubles. At night, I bring back the blanket tent, but I now keep the light on. During the day, I am reading Ovid, I am reading Caesar, I am reading Richard Rodriguez. But before I close my eyes, the last things I see are the books from my childhood I am reading again.