Lighting the Candle: The Sun Always Came Out Tomorrow

Miss Hannigan’s purple dress peeked out from behind the mulberry tree, the breeze pushing it against her calf and slightly above her black heels. She was good at hiding, but we were aware of her presence and that she’d been on our trail for the last twenty minutes and was trying to capture us.

“Run!” Tere (not her real name) yelled. And we took off, screaming in the way that children do during play-time. Our mulberry-stained hands, clenched into fists, pumped at our sides as we continued running from the woman in charge of the imaginary orphanage we (my godmother’s daughters and I) ran away from every weekend.

It was the late eighties/early nineties. We’d watched Annie multiple times, and that little redheaded white girl became the inspiration for our favorite make-believe game: Run Away from the Orphanage.

Run Away from the Orphanage was not our only make-believe game, though. My nina’s backyard was ripe for vivid imaginations. Boasting a treehouse, a swing set, a walled-off corner, and a basement entrance, the backyard was an invitation to push the dramatic boundaries of our plots.

In addition to pretending to be runaway orphans, our activities also included: Carnival, a complicated endeavor that involved two of us lifting the slide up and down and shaking it while another daring child slid down, hoping the “roller coaster” stayed on the rails; Kitchen, a game that required us to consume copious amounts of “pizza dough” (made with just water and flour, a disgusting concoction that none of us wanted to admit was unpalatable) “cooked” in an Easy-Bake Oven; and the musicals that Tere choreographed, wrote, and produced for us to perform to an audience of my nina or no one, on an imagined stage, accompanied by Tere on her keyboard. The list goes on. It was an exquisitely magical existence, if only for an afternoon or, if I was lucky, an entire weekend during most of my childhood.

More recently, Run Away from the Orphanage, and make-believe games in general, have been on my mind when I am asked what made me become a writer or what it’s like to be one. My answer has been revelatory, even to me. How hadn’t I seen that growing up playing monsters with a plot line dictated by an unrelenting author (Tere was bossy about how a game or scenario should, and would, play out) and made-up dialogue was a precursor to what I do now? Those make-believe games were my gateway drug into story writing. Every afternoon a chance to flex our storytelling muscles.

“Okay, now we go up the treehouse and you pretend you see Miss Hannigan on the other side of the fence, and we’ll be scared,” Tere would instruct. Or, “Okay, now you yell, ‘Welcome to the carnival, boys and girls!’ into this fake microphone.” Thus, scene and dialogue were set up. It was then up to us to see where we would take them.

Even when I was not at my nina’s, I was constantly in an imaginary world. I’d poke a found stick from a tree into dying embers in a grill after a carne asada, and suddenly it wasn’t yard waste but a magic wand, and I a witch casting spells on real or imagined adversaries. Old bedspreads transformed into opulent gowns for balls that my neighbor and I attended.

Playing make-believe is one of the things that made me feel “safe” and in control as a child. As an adult, it does the same. However, now instead of hiding from Miss Hannigan, I write stories. And it’s no longer Tere controlling or dictating the dialogue and plot, it’s me in charge of all the narratives, heartbreaks, tragic demises, humorous mishaps, spell castings, or daring adventures in which I temporarily get to live.

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.

Isabel Quintero
Isabel Quintero

Isabel Quintero is author of the 2018 Boston Globe–Horn Book Nonfiction Award winner Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide (Getty). She wrote My Papi Has a Motorcycle, which received a 2020 Pura Belpré Honor for illustration, and the forthcoming To Catch a Witch (Kokila/Penguin).

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