This October, my little sister and I visited the 2018 Texas Book Festival. There are a few things you need to know about her: she’s passionate even for a fifteen-year-old, we bond over reading and writing, and she’s still recovering from a series of events two years ago that caused a mental breakdown.
I promise, this is a story about books.
My sister spent over a month at the Menninger Clinic in Houston, Texas, a psychiatric hospital with sprawling green hills and food better than anything my university could make. She never wanted to leave, obviously. And— aside from the food, and the nature, and the fact that she practically lived in the clinic’s library— part of that was due to the people. The kids who were interned with her became fast friends and, above all, the nurses stayed with her even at her worst. But eventually she had to leave, and hospital policy didn’t allow the nurses to give out contact information. She did get a long, handwritten letter from her favorite nurse, and clutched it the whole two and a half hours from Houston to Austin. That was almost two years ago.
Two years later we were surrounded by tables and tables of books at the festival, hopping from one writing booth to the next, it was a dream. Especially for me, I think, because being a college student means you really have to grab onto any opportunity to read for fun with tight fists. If you think I didn’t take the chance to devour any book that didn’t involve words like “Statistical Analysis” or “The Diaspora of Greco-Roman Thought,” you’d be wrong. My arms were full of hardcovers, paperbacks, poetry anthologies, author flyers, etc. I felt like a child a candy store; it didn’t hurt that I’d found a lot of beautiful books with covers the colors of cotton candy and licorice. Of course, never judge a book by its cover— but honestly book covers are an art in and of themselves, like the watercolor swirls of Holly Lyn Walwrath’s Mermaid Hunt.
But I digress.
There’s something about book festivals that changes the atmosphere. Literally, because the space in front of the State Capitol transformed from a gray crosswalk populated by harried state officials to a street lined with banners on books and white tents full of books and authors and writing resources. Metaphorically, because how can you not add more bounce in your step when you know Sandra Cisneros is a couple skips away, or that the YA Lit tent has towers of books taller than me? But it makes you want to float when you see everyone around you— young and old, writers and readers— not only browsing, but celebrating the very activity that got you teased in school. I’m a fantasy reader, so forgive me if I compare that sort of feeling, the feeling of people coming together because of their love of books, to magic.
Whether through magic or just plain coincidence (but c’mon! We’re writers! Coincidence is boring, even in real life), my sister and I found ourselves in one of the bookselling tents where people advertised service like publishing or editing or writing groups. I was browsing around the table for Little, Brown and Company, satisfied that they did indeed have columns of books looming like fairytale towers of knowledge, when I heard my sister shriek.
I guess it depends on your relationship to your siblings, but being the eldest to a little sister like mine means that a shriek can be anything from “BTS released a new album and my soul has left my body” to “I just had a panic attack and it feels like my soul has left my body, but definitely not in a good way.” I almost knocked the book tower over, but I spun around and saw my sister hugging a woman from a poetry group a couple tables across from Little, Brown and Company.
My sister likes poetry. That’s her thing. And touch is her love language; you can trust me, because she took the love language quiz, which of course means it’s scientifically backed. Even then, I don’t know anyone— fifteen-year-old sister included— who tackles strangers at book festivals. The environment isn’t that magical. But the woman hugged her back just as tightly, and then they both started crying in the middle of the second tent of the 2018 Texas Book Festival. One of the men at the poetry table said, “this is wild” and took a picture.
Clutching my bagful of books, I shuffled up to my sister, not wanting to impose whatever was going on, and met my sister’s former nurse, now part-time psychiatric nurse and full-time poet. She was my sister’s primary care nurse, the first one my sister met. She performed my sister’s physical and didn’t flinch at her scars, wrote a letter my sister keeps taped above her desk to this day, and sat down with my sister when all she wanted to do was read and ignore everyone.
Reading is often solitary, after all. There’s not much room for conversation when you’re escaping to different worlds, meeting colorful characters, learning a variety of things.
Reading can also be the opposite of solitary. Books can build a community like the Texas Book Festival, a community that brought me and my sister to the nurse who saved her life hundreds of miles away. They’d both believed they would never see each other again. At a bustling book tent, among publishers and bookworms and writers, they did.
Books let my sister show her nurse just how different she was from the girl two years ago.
“I’m writing poetry now,” she said, sniffling. “I’m a writer, too.”
Isn’t that a kind of magic?
Written by: Vanessa Aguirre