Lighting the Candle: One Story, One Day

Mr. Riley’s room was just past the bathrooms on the left side of the hall across from the lockers (which, for some reason, we were not allowed to use). He stood in the doorway, hands in pockets, and welcomed us into class every day. He was a nice enough guy, but he had a smugness about him that made most students dislike him. And I was in general agreement with my sixth-grade classmates that none of us was supposed to like anything that went on in his class.

Then we read “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury.

I didn’t think I’d like the short story at first, about a girl who lived on…Venus? Oh gosh, a sci-fi story. Not my favorite. I was prepared to roll my eyes along with the kids around me, to signal my discontent with Mr. Riley. Instead, after the opening paragraphs I felt an electrifying sense that paralyzed me, because something about this story felt so close to home. Something about a world where the rain never stopped, where a girl felt lonely, misplaced, and misunderstood by those around her — a girl who came from and longed for somewhere faraway and familiar — cut right to my heart. And suddenly my desk, the classroom, Mr. Riley’s voice all fell away as I traveled through space and stood invisible on Venus, free to watch and listen and feel all that happens to this girl, Margot.

And what happens isn’t kind or good. The story doesn’t end happily. The children who treat Margot terribly remain terrible. None of them becomes her friend. And Margot herself is left at her saddest and most vulnerable in many ways.

Maybe I should have hated the story, with its grim and unsatisfying conclusion. But instead I loved it. I loved the honesty. I loved how the ending did not lie to me or try to make me feel better, but instead revealed a kind of truth that most people don’t often reveal to children. A truth that could be scary. A truth that said, Sometimes there are no happy endings, just a stark reality that reveals the human capability to be cruel. And while we are capable of surviving cruelty, we do not do so completely unaffected.

Mr. Riley made us write a continuation of the story by creating a new ending. A paragraph or two to tie up the unsatisfying sense of it. Maybe to make it happy if we wanted to. But my ending did not include anyone making nice. It did not include apologies or the mending of bridges. What it included was a sense of resistance. A sense of power and strength that comes only from within oneself, despite cruelty, despite loneliness.

Mr. Riley read my ending to the class the next day. And though I squirmed in my chair and worried what my classmates would think, there was a sense of pride in hearing my words read aloud. That day, I decided Mr. Riley wasn’t all that bad. Neither was science fiction. Neither were stories that didn’t have happy, satisfying endings. I decided, that day, that I loved the stories that didn’t, the stories that dove into all the complexities and shades of being human.

I can trace back the kind of writer I became, the kind of books I write, to that otherwise unremarkable day, that one remarkable story. I can still remember the feeling of being absolutely in awe and struck by it — so completely, that even now, thirty years later, that feeling reverberates and finds its way into everything I write.

From the May/June 2021 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: The Pura Belpré Award at 25. Find more in the "Lighting the Candle" series here. Collage illustration inspired by "All Summer in a Day," created while writing this essay (c) 2021 by Jenny Torres Sanchez.

Jenny Torres Sanchez

Jenny Torres Sanchez is most recently the author of 2021 Belpré Honor–winning (for YA narrative) We Are Not from Here (Philomel).

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