The first day of summer vacation, I made a beeline for the library. I checked out as many books as I could and trudged home with a bulging book bag. Swinging open the front door, I dove for the couch. I slung my book bag off my aching shoulder and rummaged inside it, retrieving the first book I touched. With barely a glance at the cover, I curled up on the couch and launched into the story. My eyes scanned the pages, reading a mile a minute. Occasionally, I would note a new word, jot it down in my memory, or measure the length of each chapter.
My goal for the summer was to read 200 books. It wasn’t some library competition, or a summer reading list my English teacher gave me. It might sound weird, but I came up with it myself. Yep, while all the other kids were playing their summer away, I would be doing something productive for a change. It wasn’t just because I had had to read so many boring history books during the school year that I didn’t have time to read for fun. I did have free time. But I had used it writing stories of my own. You see, I also had a longtime goal: to be a famous novelist. And I figured that starting as a kid was as good a time as any. Actually, I had a secret goal: to be one of the youngest famous novelists: Nina Rupert, world-renowned novelist at age ten. I had decided a long time ago not to tell anybody about it just in case it didn’t work out and I ended up not writing novels until I was older. And from the looks of things, it sure seemed that way. All the stories I had written did not have endings. No plots. Just characters and settings. Anyway, I had heard somewhere that one of the keys to good writing is to read a lot. So that’s what I decided to do. I put away all my notebooks with beginnings of fabulous stories about people stuck at the top of a highly active volcano, or dolphins swimming happily in coral reefs, or people merrily tilling the land in a medieval kingdom. The description parts were spectacular, and everything was utterly elegant. It drew the reader in to see what happened next, but the unfortunate thing was that I had no idea what was going to happen. So, as I already said, I stashed all the notebooks up on my closet shelf with the resolution to read 200 books during the summer. I had a firm belief that reading all those books would help me develop satisfactory stories.
So there I was, getting a head start. The first week flew by fairly well, and I read about one book a day. My list of new vocabulary words grew minute by minute.
Then Hilary came.
She came one bright, breezy day, all breathless with the joy of being alive. Of course, I didn’t really notice, because I was deep in the land of giants and dragons, and a mysterious wizard with a hidden secret.
Wind-blown strawberry-blond hair in a messy ponytail, dancing hazel eyes behind purple-rimmed glasses, and a spattering of freckles. That was Hilary. She was my cousin, two-and-a-half years younger than I.
She came to stay for the summer. Her mother had just had twins, and her parents had decided that it would be better for both her and them if she stayed with us, the nearest relatives, for a while.
I didn’t mind her being with us, as long as she did not interrupt my strict reading schedule, which was basically from waking up until breakfast, then from breakfast to lunch, and from lunch to dinner. If I had time, I squeezed in a few extra minutes before bed. In short, I read all the time.
Hilary never complained, about being homesick, or being lonely, or even not liking the squash casserole my mother made. Not once. Instead, every day, she would disappear outside. I didn’t know what she was doing, but every time she skipped back in, her face was all aglow and she smelled like the grass. She had an odd, peculiar way of looking at things. I guess the best word for her would be “queer.”
“The cat who lives across the street climbed into my lap today!” she would say. “His fur felt like silk and was as smooth and cool as a slice of honeydew, only not so wet.”
“Did you see the clouds, Nina? They’re so fluffy, like whipped cream.”
“Come see the dewdrops, Nina! The whole neighborhood is sparkling like my sequined shirt, only better!”
“The crepe myrtles are blooming, so pink and wrinkled like tissue paper!”
“Look, the sky’s lit up like rose petals in honey! Come on!” And she would slip back outside, laughing.
I just sat on the couch, reading. Every time I finished a book, I would write the title down on a piece of paper. Hilary was no more than a fly to me. Pretty soon, I learned to ignore her completely.
But Hilary wouldn’t give up. She kept coming inside every day, bearing news of the outside world blooming around me. To tell you the truth, I was completely oblivious to everything else, and I didn’t really care. I ate my meals in a dazed silence, still stuck in the times of the Great Depression, wild Australia, or the savage jungle tribes of South America, solving a mystery or escaping danger. I spent my nights awake in bed, pondering how the authors wrote so intriguingly, so convincingly, so—so wonderfully. I couldn’t even think of the right word.
As time went on, I became more and more reluctant to pick up a book. The couch became familiar and boring. My list of titles, which once had grown rapidly, now advanced so slowly that it was almost not growing at all.
I was at the point of despair. I was depressed, but I didn’t know why. I’ll never be a novelist, was the groaning thought that followed me day and night. Right behind the heels of that thought was the other one that said, Why not? I’ve been reading books day in and day out, and I even have this list to show for it. Why was I feeling this way? I was doing everything I was supposed to.
I was losing faith in myself, but Hilary never did. One day in the middle of summer, she came bouncing into the room with the joy and energy of life, her arms full of dandelions and roses, and dumped them in my lap. Her eyes shining, she grabbed my arm and dragged me off the couch. “Come outside, Nina,” she laughed, her voice so filled with ecstasy that it overflowed. “You need to live!”
Suddenly it clicked. I was wasting my summer in these books, hiding away in faraway lands. I would grow old without ever having known the carefree days of childhood. Hilary was right. There was a whole glittering world right outside, fresh and lovely and teeming with inspiration, just waiting for me. It was then that I realized the other key to good writing: I needed to live.
Laughing, I threw down my book and raced Hilary outside, to the wonderful world just a step from the front door. We rolled in the luxurious green grass, watched shiny ladybugs crawl up our arms, marveled as the clouds scudded across a blue dome of sky. We smelled the roses to our hearts’ content, licked sweet drops off the honeysuckle, and climbed in the shady branches of the sprawling elm tree. We got bit by ants and scratched by thorns. And still we laughed. We threw back our heads and sang like the bluebirds, savoring the warm summer sun and closing our eyes against the soft welcome breeze.
By the time dusk fell, my heart was fuller than it had been all summer. And the best part was that it was all so real. I did not have to bury my nose in a book to find worlds that were sparkling with splendor, that were full of ideas and inspiration. They were right in my own backyard.