Happily ever after.

“I just can’t wait for her to be able to read.”

It was a young girl’s voice I heard, full of enthusiasm, anticipation. It floated over to me from the far side of a six-foot wall of books.

I was seated on the floor of a local bookstore, looking at the vintage children’s stories … Peter Pan, The Magic Garden, Alice in Wonderland. I was searching for a gift for a young niece; or perhaps a slide back into my own long-ago existence, still warm and waiting, still remembering me.

She didn’t speak loudly and perhaps it was the intentionality of the sentence that reached into my reverie as much as the words themselves. They repeated in my head: “I just can’t wait for her to be able to read.”

Shifting to my knees, I peeked around the corner of the shelves to get a glimpse of the source of this intriguing statement. She, too, was crouched low, fingering through volumes of fresh-smelling books. She was rather small, slight, yet vibrant. She spoke over her shoulder to a young boy, probably a brother, who had wandered farther down the aisle and wasn’t really listening anyway; he hadn’t answered. She enthused about various titles and authors, primarily to herself at that point. And I wondered who the “her” was with whom she was so anxious to share this joy, these waiting worlds, this theater of the mind, this empowering ability to read.

“Hello,” I said, reader-to-reader. I asked her age and what she might recommend for a girl younger than herself, just beginning to read.

She said she was ten years old and had always absolutely loved reading and real books and right over there was one of her all-time favorite series of stories: “They’re all about what would happen if a fairytale got interrupted and changed somehow – what would happen to the characters then. They’re really good and I really, really love them.”

I agreed that it sounded brilliant. Being able to go back and prevent a fateful bite into an apple, or the pricking of a finger, or a step into the wrong cottage in the woods was compelling, indeed. But then my new friend’s mother called to her and she left before we could continue our literary discussion – before I had even asked about the “her” who had yet to learn to read.

Then, just as she disappeared around the corner, I suddenly wondered: but what about the prince? What about the lost adventure? Would there be no more chances for heroism? No opportunities to right a wrong or turn a heart or celebrate good over evil? Would there be no more “one true love”? All I could envision were empty castles. No happily ever afters.

I suspect the author of the books has dealt with these concerns quite nicely. My new acquaintance was so very adamant about them, after all.

But the more I contemplated it, the more I decided that I think I’ll keep my memories of these old tales intact. This is where I learned to be curious and romantic, hopeful and expectant. It’s where I first imagined and pretended. It’s where I could accept that children could fly, and there was beauty beneath ugliness, and stars could grant wishes. It’s where I first learned to believe ­– in magic and unexpected kindnesses, in possibilities and in the unbelievable.

And so, I whispered to the retreating footsteps of my new friend, age ten, fellow lover of books: “We just can’t wait for her to be able to read … and to believe.”

I suspect that’s my wish for all of my friends this Christmastime: Believe!