No one remembers exactly what it was that I did, except that it was bad. Did I hit my brother, refuse to brush my teeth or throw a tantrum in a store? Whatever it was, it was so bad that my parents gave me the worst punishment they could at that time. They took away my books that night, and it was more than my four-year-old self could handle. I sobbed, begging Mom and Dad to change their minds. No such luck.
Every night of my life until then, my parents had taken turns reading bedtime stories to my brother and I. I’d pick one out from the shelf against the wall and he’d grab the other. We had our favorites, and it’d turn into a competition of who had chosen the better book. Certain phrases and illustrations stuck in my memory, and I think they're stuck for good. Sometimes, I go back to the book about feeling like fish in the sea while riding through the car wash. I can hear Dad make the shh sound as he mimicked the sound of the car wash in the story. When I’m least expecting it, I flash back to those familiar sights and sounds in my childhood room. The walls are a carefully chosen pale purple, our dog sleeps just outside in the darkened hallway. My Dad lies in the middle with me and Matthew on either side of him. Shh.
Picture books eventually turned into chapter books. Soon, it was time to pick out our own books at the library. Because overdue fines and misplaced book charges stacked up so easily, I was limited to ten books for each week. This was no easy choice, and I’d pace through the aisles and look at all the titles. What would it be this week? It was always a careful balancing act of old favorites, exciting new titles and ones with pretty covers. I’d come home with my choices and ration them out for the week. More often than not, I’d get ahead of myself and finish my books early. Then, I would move right on to reading my brother’s books.
Sometimes, the books were just too good and I just couldn't put it down when it was time for bed, so I’d fish an old flashlight out of the toy box in the corner of my bedroom and dive under the covers with my latest library pick. When I couldn't find a flashlight, I’d try to read with the tiniest sliver of light from the streetlamp that came in through my window. Minutes turned into hours, and several times one of my parents had come in to check on me and found me reading or asleep with the book just out of reach. I couldn’t help it. I always got hooked, drawn into the story. I just couldn't stop until I found out if Jack and Annie made it back safely or if Junie B. ever got things under control. I could escape into a different world, and I had no idea how much this would continue to make me who I am.
Books always seemed to make things better and give me a friend when I needed it most. A few years later, we were struck by a drunk driver in our family minivan. Thankfully, no one was hurt. I was unharmed and was released to go home with my grandmother. The next day, she asked me what could make things better. French toast? Crafts? I shook my head no. I wanted her to take me home right away because there was something I needed, something that could erase the memory and make everything better at least for a little bit. I wanted my books.
I still have my old books sitting on the shelf — they’ve been through thick and thin. Charlotte’s Web and Matilda moved houses with me in a box that I didn’t allow the moving van to take. Instead, they rode with me in the car. The same books on the same shelf survived my awkward years, when I read books far too mature for myself at that age. They were with me when my friends and I were fighting, when I got sick or if I just needed to get away. School books and magazines have come and gone throughout the years but the same core books have seen it all. Reading gave me an outlet of comfort and a source of strength in all seasons of my life — if only there was a way to thank them for sitting there quietly on the shelf, waiting for their turn.
In third grade, I was once so obsessed with finding out what happened next in the story that I tried to read while taking a shower. I was standing underneath the water but left one arm out, attempting to read through the clear shower curtain. My mom cracked the door to see me doing just that, exclaiming to put the book down and stop wasting water!
These books have gone places with me. For a long time, I wouldn’t leave the house without a book. I would read in the car, despite traffic sounds or music, and the next thing I knew we had arrived. I’d keep a book stowed in a backseat pocket in case I ever forgot. When we went on vacation, I’d pack a book per day to make sure I always had enough. I’d return to the library, at this point old enough to drive myself, and check out just enough books. Now, I get carsick if I read even a map in a moving car, but I have a growing love for audiobooks. Maybe I’m not that different ten years later. And yes, I always have a book in my purse.
For better or for worse, reading is what I’m best at. I can read at a fast pace and still understand the text, and that just might be my superpower. I can escape anywhere at any time and all it takes is flipping to my most recent page. My understanding of the books I read when I was younger has changed and evolved as I grew up. This is a thank you to the books that were accidentally dropped in the pool, got juice spilled on them or were with me all along. It’s been late nights and early mornings, lunchtimes and busy afternoons. My parents deserve just as many thanks for introducing me to reading — and they’ve spent tons of time driving me back and forth from the library. I’ve read to procrastinate my own work and read to talk about it with others. I’ve gotten through the best and worst times in my life thanks to those dog-eared pages. I feel like I’ve made a thousand friends and been twice as many places. Reading is my top skill and superpower, but will it get me a job? I’m not sure. It helped me get through school and I like to think that it’s helping me get through college. I have a feeling that this might never change, but would that be the worst thing in the world? No one can skip to the ending to know.