At eleven, my older sister was a voracious reader. While I had camped out in Middle Earth, mining every gem from The Lord of the Rings and its appendices for several years after getting my own copy for my seventh birthday, my sister read anything and everything she could get her hands on.
Since she had two and a half years on me—that half year was equally important to both of us, since she insisted she was more than two years older, and I insisted that she was certainly not three years older—there was never any doubt as to who was the leader when it came time to play. She was as creative as the day was long and as forceful as a storm when she fixed upon an idea. You couldn’t help being swept up into it with her.
Needless to say, she spoke and I followed, awestruck.
After school ended each day, we would make our way into the backyard to the play-set that my dad had built for us. As the more “story-wise” of the two of us, my sister wove the setting for our play, explained the story, and announced the cast of imaginary characters that would be joining us, and I—amazed at her creative genius—followed along.
The main body of the play-set became, by turns, the ship we sailed to Treasure Island where we fought Long John Silver’s pirates, or the castle of Cair Paravel which we defended against invading Calormens, while the monkey bars became the rickety bridge that we crossed in a death defying race over a deep gorge, and the swings became horses that we rode to escape pursuit.
I vividly remember “riding” alongside one imaginary character, Prince Caspian, in a desperate attempt to escape his evil uncle and being utterly amazed at my sister’s unending creativity. How did she come up with all those characters and stories?
A few years later, I discovered the truth.
It happened something like this: On a dull, dreary afternoon—the best stories happen unexpectedly, of course—I sat down with my assigned reading, convinced that I would be bored out of my mind. Stubborn young me had decided that I only liked the Lord of the Rings and anything else was bound to be tedious in comparison. So I sat there, gritting my teeth, stifling a yawn, and skimming my eyes across the page—because, boring—when something suddenly struck me as familiar. I recognized a character’s name. I had heard it before … I had actually spoken it before, shouting it from the rooftop of an imaginary castle.
How strange that the name should suddenly turn up in a book that I was assigned to read for school!
After that, I started to pay attention. Suddenly, not only the name but the story itself seemed familiar. The chase scene on the next page—I remembered that too! We had acted it out, my sister and I, hiding together in the bushes, holding our breath, hoping that our imaginary enemies wouldn’t spot us.
The light bulb flared to life.
This was the story we had played … and my sister had stolen it from a book!
She was a story-thief.
Once the novelty of that realization faded, I began to wonder about the other stories we had played. Were they stolen from books too?
From that moment on, reading became a treasure hunt for me, and it was upon the vast sea of books that I set sail in search of the characters that I had loved and the storylines I had lived in our backyard. Jim from Treasure Island. The Pevensies from The Chronicles of Narnia. Catherine Ayre from The Crystal Snowstorm. The list of characters and books grew and grew.
Before I knew it, I had become a voracious reader too.
Reading became real to me in those days spent playing—no, living—stories in the backyard. That launched me upon a life-long love of reading, which eventually morphed into a love of writing, which has now morphed into a career as an author, a professional story-thief, if you will.
I will be forever grateful for the gift that my sister imparted to me in those afternoons spent swinging from the monkey bars of our play-set turned ship-of-war. The gift of thievery. The ability to lift out the heart of a story and live it with myself inserted into the scenes. As I read, the characters that I loved shaped my character. The adventures I longed for guided the life I hoped to live. The examples I read of love, sacrifice, integrity, and kindness strengthened and encouraged me to go and do likewise.
That, I think, is one of the most beautiful powers of the imagination that is exercised in reading. It enables us to steal from the stories we love to make our own stories that much richer. And the wonder of it? There is a never ending abundance to rob. Stealing from a story only enriches the story for us and does nothing to impoverish the tale for others!
In the end, I think we are all story-thieves, in one way or another. Though perhaps none so blatant as my sister.
Featured image from NJ Swingsets