For Children

Kate Aufses

Vade Mecum

2004 Prose Winner

Only in New York City, the most competitive city in the world, would a complete stranger turn to you on the M86 but, look at the book you are reading, and say with a straight face, "My book beat your book for the Pulitzer Prize!" That day I was reading Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and the stranger beside me was reading Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and yes, his book had just beaten mine for the Pulitzer Prize. Books can bring people together in a big city, but for me, reading is a passion. The books I have read have become a chronicle of the past nine years of my life - a sort of autobiography.

In 1995, in the middle of third grade, I had reader's block; I could not finish a book. My parents did not know what to do. My mother called my teacher, and Mrs. Sweeney's comforting words gave my mother a brilliant idea. She brought home a steno pad in which, she told me, I would write down the title of every book I finished and the date I finished it. Filling the pad became incentive to finish every book I picked up. So, on December 7, 1995, I wrote down Bunnicula, the story of a bunny rabbit who turns into a vampire. Five days later, on December 12, I completed Valentine Frankenstein, and I wrote that down too. The rest - over 20 pages and 200 books - is my history.

As I look over those pages, I see that this passion for reading has taken me in many directions. The Pact, Summer Sisters, and White Oleander were mandatory reading for teenage girls at summer camp. These are novels that I have shared with my closest friends, and they provide girls with the secrets of growing up. Popular books - prizewinners, bestsellers, and silly stuff - appeal to my personal interests. I carry them around the city and recommend them to friends. Kavalier and Clay, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain, High Fidelity, and Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs are just a few of my favorites. Of course, there are the classics. Catch-22To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Great Expectations, Pride and Prejudice, Hamlet, and even The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test are some of the books that I've loved and re-read - some for school, some for pleasure, and some for both. These novels are generally more difficult to read, but they have helped me grow intellectually, made me a stronger reader, and reinforced my appreciation for literature.

When I was younger and needed to "create a diversion" - a distraction from any unpleasantness in elementary school - my mother and I decided that I should always carry a book. If I was upset, I could take out my book, start to read, and return to reality when I was ready. I still bring a book wherever I go, just in case I need - or have time for - a diversion. My love of literature sets me apart from many of my peers, and reading has helped define who I am. I am the go-to girl for book suggestions; because of my list, I always have plenty of titles handy. At camp I sat on the bunk porch reading; this year I am the girl who carries textbooks around school. This love of literature is something I have in common with my parents - an English teacher and a lawyer - so books, articles, and essays are a constant topic of conversation in my house. I am never at a loss for a book to read because the shelves in my apartment are packed.

Because I love to read, it is no surprise that this year in school I am taking all history, English, and language courses. I love doing my homework; all of my work is reading and writing: in English, Latin, or Italian, European History or Philosophy, or in my independent-study writing project. I do my homework not just to finish the pages, but because I am engrossed by what I am learning and by the links I see among the liberal arts disciplines. I can see the connections between my studies in Latin and my reading of Plato's Republic. Both turn up as I learn about the Renaissance in history and political philosophy. I use what I have read in English class to help with my writing in independent study.

In Latin I learned that a vade mecum is a manual or handbook a person carries for frequent reference. My steno pad is my vade mecum - a reference to my past and a guide to my future.