Book Award Sub-Category
2024 Young Or Golden Writer
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Logline or Premise
Where the sunrises start and the day begins is where fourteen-year-old, Azalea Stanton waits patiently, watching the beauty of the world unfold. No one fully understands her wanderlust or ache for adventure, but is it truly so horrible to want to escape the shadow of her older sister, Florence?
First 10 Pages

Dear Azalea, you are in every way the person I am and hope to become.

Chapter 1—If Every Morning Started the Same (elder*)

The start of each day is always different, but its warmth and kindness can always be found by a like-minded individual. How can a world as corrupt and polarized as ours always be so hopeful each morning? I contemplate this as a beautiful autumn breeze sweeps through my soul. The sun’s rays peek over the Rocky Mountains out in the distance like a slow smile lifting rosy cheeks, a pearly, white-toothed grin greeting everyone she meets. I lift my right hand above my head, and my fingertips are kissed with the orange light. I let my arm fall to my lap as the rest of the world around me awakes. Birds chirp their sweet tune as they soar overhead. Clouds whiz past before fading away in a state of oblivion. My feet dangle freely from the confining grasp of such things as shoes. The beauty of this world astounds me each morning! The soft and continuous breeze sweeps through my braids, but try as it might, it cannot free all my hair. I tuck the loose strands behind my ear as my lungs fill with the scent of grass and wildflowers. We all hold a place in our heart that is dear to us; this is my place to observe, imagine, and speak freely. To any other this escape may seem like the ridgepole of our roof at the front of the house, but to me it is the highest tower of my castle.

I wish all humans could restart every day like the sun could, not holding onto past events, imperfections, or mistakes. A new chance for everyone. I close my eyes and wait for the light to reach me. Once it does, the warmth of the sunshine fills every inch of my face, making me smile bigger than ever before. I would give anything to stay right here, right now, forever. Never having to live up to expectations. Just right here, right now. Forever.

“What are you doing?” I open my eyelids. Looking up at me is my older sister, Florence. She holds the empty milking pail in her dominant hand while using her right hand to shield the sun from her eyes.

“Taking in the scenery. Aren’t the views just ravishing?” I gesture to the country around us.

“I suppose. You best run along and finish your chores. That is, if you have even begun them.” She turns and jaunts down the beaten pathway to the barn where our milking cows are. Florence speaks to me as if I am a child, but I’m only four years shy of her age! I am not opposed to an argument, but this is one I could not win, for I know if the chores are not finished before breakfast, then there will be consequences.

With a nod of agreement, I throw my leg over the side of our pointed roof and slide to the bottom. I cling to the shingles, digging my nails into them as my body dangles a short distance above the ground. Gravity pulls me down to the soil with its forceful grasp. My bare feet hit the Earth with a thud of triumph; I did not get hurt this time! My shoes lie right where I left them on the ground. I tug the boots onto my feet and tie the shoelaces haphazardly.

The barn is a short walk from the house but seems like a mile-long trek. The heavy wooden door creaks open, and my presence is announced to all, much like Cinderella arriving at the ball. My cows, dubbed Sense and Sensibility, moo by way of greeting. I give Sense a scratch behind the ears and hand Sensibility some hay. Florence, who is sitting on the stool next to Sensibility, gives me a look as if to say, “Go collect the eggs from the chickens.” So I obey. Our chickens run around squawking and clucking in their pen, which is tucked in the back corner.

Grabbing a handful of chicken feed, I litter it on the dirt inside the large pen. Picking up the wire egg basket that I had left here by accident yesterday morning, I carefully step toward the shelves built into the walls.

“What an abundant harvest today!” I remark quietly as each egg is placed in the basket. There are two shelves, both lingering inches above the ground. The eggs lie perfectly inside the nests that sit on top of the shelves. “I will be back tomorrow, ladies,” I chirp as the hens pick at the feed scattered on the dirt floor. The basket swings on my arm as I step over the pen and make my way back to the barn door.

My deepest desire is to have a pony, but Pa has expressly explained to me that the barn is too small. With the chicken pen in the back-left corner, the hayloft ladder in the back right, tools hanging along the left wall, and the cows’ stalls along the right wall and right corner, there is no more room for a pony to stay.

A cold breeze creeps into my bones. My arms become prickled with goosebumps as I push on the heavy door to the house. I stomp my boots on the faded blue rug, hang my second-hand coat on the nails that were halfway nailed in the wooden walls, and set the egg basket on the table. Marching to the sink, I pump the water onto my hands. Once the soap washes off, I dry my hands on the cotton white apron worn over my spruce brown dress. I barely notice my sister come in with the milk pails, then disappear.

“Dear heavens! Child, you look like a savage!” a shrill voice exclaims behind me a few moments later.

I spin around to see Mother sitting in the wooden rocking chair as light leaks in from the glass windowpanes. She remains frozen, her sewing forgotten, her expression one of disbelief. My hand flies to my hair, where the wind undid my braids. I can feel the knots intertwined all throughout my head. It would take at least a half hour to brush it back to normal.

Mother corrals me up the stairs and sits me down in a chair as she carefully brushes through the array. I twiddle my fingers anxiously, waiting for the stern talking-to I am bound to receive. Yet, I sit here in silence, no sounds except for the bristles swooshing through the tangled mess woven on my head. I sit right in front of my vanity mirror and it reflects Mother’s expressions as clear as day.

“Azalea, what were you thinking?” she says scornfully whilst smoothing my light chestnut locks back to their normal straightness. I open my mouth to respond but realize it was a rhetorical question. “Florence told me you woke before dawn just to sit on the roof. Child, you could have fallen to your death! And you clearly disobeyed me. I told you last time: there will be no more of this undomesticated attitude.” Mother looks up my reflection constantly, only half-focused on brushing my hair.

Even though it is bound to get me deeper in trouble, I cannot sit here and be deceived! I must speak my mind. “What does Florence even know? She hasn’t a speck of adventure nor a morsel of imagination.” Once I begin, there is nothing holding me back. My mind screams, internally saying stop, for I am surely digging myself a deeper grave, but my mouth won’t listen for one second. “Contrary to what she said, I did no such thing! I watched the sunrise from a different perspective, just a simple excursion. I do not see any problem with that! The roof is merely a few feet off the ground. It is not likely for me to lose footing and fall. It is not as if I was late to get my task finished. There is a basket of eggs downstairs that proves my innocence in that respect.” My face grows red as I declare my innocence in the matter. I finish, flushed and out of breath.

I would never claim these words if they left my mouth, but my older sister is the sole source of my jealousy. When we were younger, when our bond consisted of me looking to her for guidance and as my closest friend, I felt differently. But many years and quarrels have turned my emotions in the other direction. Though nobody else might notice or care, I hate constantly living in her shadow and being told that she’s what I must become: a lady.

Mother’s devout attention goes into making us “suitable brides.” I know that deep inside, she thinks that I am a lost cause when it comes to marriage, for my knowledge does not consist of playing the piano, speaking fluently in some foreign language, or baking delectable treats. I don’t resent my sister or Mother for feeling this way one bit. I’m sure Pa would have preferred a boy and Mother another sensible daughter that would obey without questioning authority. Nonetheless, they were given me: a child who is often called whimsical and has only progressive thoughts for the future, for the unknown.

Mother stops and slams the brush onto my vanity. I snap around, fearful of the trouble I have just gotten myself into. “I forbid it! I refuse to hear another word of your tomfoolery about why you needed to climb on top a roof!” She huffs, looking at me dead in the eyes. Her disappointment is clearly painted in her manner. A lump of guilt forms in my throat, and try as I might, it will not vanish. It’s not like I wanted to be sinful and disobey my parents, I just wanted an adventure! “I have no time for this. Go finish your chores. Right now!” Mother whips around forcefully, her footsteps receding down the staircase and echoing out of earshot.

Chapter 2—A Lesson in Disobedience (ivy*)

The water in the tin pail reflects my misery. I scrub every inch of the floor with the soapy water. The brush is grueling to work with for hours on the wooden surface. Thankfully the floors upstairs were cleaned yesterday, or else I would have to spend the last daylight hours doing nothing but scrubbing. Once finished, I carry the pail outside and pour it on the ground.

I shield my eyes from the sunlight with my hand. Pa stands in the field to the side of the house with the cows, most likely letting them graze on picket lines. Pa has never been like Mother in the sense of lacking imagination. Though it could be wrong to think, I have never understood how they even ended up being the great match they are. Mother is strict and Pa can be at times, but he maintains a much gentler attitude. Just like Florence is like Mother, I am like Pa. I think on this as I trudge over to him. Once he sees me coming, he grins and waves for me to hurry. I break into a run and meet him, watching the cows grazing.

“Hey, Bluebird!” he gladly exclaims. Ever since I found an injured bluebird last spring, Pa has called me that. I miss that bluebird so much now!

I remember it like it was yesterday… I went out to the barn to get the eggs, and flowers were starting to pop up all over the ground as the breeze carried their sweet pollen scent. As I walked through the barn, I noticed there was no hay for Sense and Sensibility. Even though I knew climbing up into the hayloft was dangerous, it was only a few ladder steps away from the ground. So with a thrill I held my skirts in one hand and climbed up the wooden rungs with the other.

To be honest, balancing on the rectangle-cut steps, holding up my skirts, and hanging on to the step at my eye level was rather hard to do. A look of triumph was on my face as I made it to the last step. I snatched a few handfuls of hay, lifted the corners of my apron, and put the hay there. I began to make my way back down the ladder when a sudden noise came from the back corner of the loft.

I climbed up the step and crept cautiously to the back. My eyes scanned over the big piles of hay, but there was nothing there. The chirp sounded again, louder this time. My hand swept over the spot I thought the chirp came from. Sure enough, there was a young bluebird snuggled up in a nest built of dirt, feathers, and hay.

My eyes softened at the sight of this young bird. This was, after all, the closest I’d ever been to a bird before! Its bright yellow beak was so small, and its feathers were not yet fully developed, but its colors were magnificent! I held my finger out gently, stroking its tiny head as the bird looked at me with its big black eyes. How in the world had this bird gotten up here? There was no sign of a mama bird or any other babies around. I swept more of the hay away and discovered a crack in the wall. It was just big enough for my hand to fit through and went directly outside.

“Did your mama leave you here? What about your siblings? Hm, well, I think Mother will understand that I mustn’t abandon you here!” I cooed softly to the bird in order not to startle it.

So I scooped up the baby bird, put it on my apron with the hay, and carefully made my way back down the ladder. I can still recall the sound of my footsteps thumping on the ground as I walked closer to the house, my eyes fixated on the little bird. When I walked through the door, I saw Mother at the wood-burning stove over by the sink in the corner of the room. She flipped a pancake and turned around to face me. I could only imagine what I looked like based on the shocked expression on her face.

“I found a baby bird in the hayloft! Look at it. Isn’t it just the cutest thing you have ever seen? I was thinking it must be cold! We just need to set up a place for the bird to stay. Oh, maybe Florence can lend me some of her fabric scraps so I can make it a nest! Oh dear.” I looked down as some hay fell onto the floor. “Sorry. Do we have a basket I could use for it? If I create a warm nest in a basket, then that might feel like an actual nest. We ought to name it! Something nature-y would work nicely. For example, Sparrow, Birch, or Sky!” I exclaimed widely. A million different names popped into my head within a moment.

Mother’s eyes were wide, she held her hand to her forehead as if feeling for a fever. The only words she could muster were, “My goodness.”

Now that I think about it, that’s her response to many things. I wonder why.

At that moment, Pa walked through the door carrying some freshly cut wood. He stood looking from me to Mother to the bluebird in my apron, until he finally set the wood down on the floor and scratched his head questioningly. Mother turned back to the stove and scraped the now-burnt pancake off the iron skillet. For once, she was at a loss for words!

“I am making breakfast. Can you please handle this,” she simply declared while gesturing at me with the spatula in her hand.

Pa nodded and came over to look at the bird. “What do we have here? That is a baby bluebird! No more than a few weeks old I would guess!” I smiled at his response. Pa would not scold me for this as Mother most likely would if she was not cooking now. I explained to him how I had found the bird and that we need to build a nest so that the mama bird would come back for it.

“I don’t know about that. A mama bird will not come back if she knows her baby has been near us. It isn’t in their nature to accept a baby that smells like a human! The only option is to take care of it until it can fly. But that is a big responsibility. Will you be able to take care of it?” I looked from Pa to the bird. He was right. I would have to do chores, help cook, and take care of the bird! I bit my lip as I thought it over. My arms grew weak from holding up my apron for so long.

“I do not have a choice, Pa. I shall not leave this bluebird to die!”

The next week was quite the struggle! I had to wake up early each day to finish my chores. Then I would mix some mashed-up fruits with a few drops of water to feed to the bird, who I had named Vireo because its sweet song-like chirps sounded so similar to those of the vireo songbird. Vireo’s feathers were bursting with color; what a sight to see!

Mother has always been quite the artist, even though her talent is rarely used. She once told me after I badgered her with questions that she was taught by her mother. After my constant begging, Mother drew a sketch of the bluebird on a paper for me. There was a twitch of a smile in her lips upon my reaction to the drawing.

I still have that sketch pinned on my wall to this day, and sometimes I try to mimic the strokes of the feathers or lifelike eyes, but my ability in artwork is limited.

One day, Pa said that Vireo was probably two or three weeks old. I understood his meaning: if Vireo could not learn how to fly soon, then he might never be able to. So every day I took my beautiful bluebird outside. We started off with me sitting down and having the bird step from my hands to the ground, which was only inches away. Then we progressed to a little higher up and added more height each day.

On the sixth day, we had progressed to the height of my shoulders. I gave Vireo a little toss into the air, expecting the same little flutter of his wings until he reached the ground. But a miracle happened. The sun parted ways with the clouds, and sunshine rolled over the grasses as Vireo spread his wings out. But this time, instead of free-falling, he took flight! He gave several song-like chirps, swooping down to the ground and then back up to the air. A smile exploded across my face, for my little bird was flying for the first time! I was so proud of my protégé that I had not realized how far Vireo had gone.

“Vireo! Come back! Where are you going?” His blue feathers gleamed at me, revealing the truth: that he was never coming back. He was leaving to live a life of freedom where he rightfully belonged. Even so, I still wanted my bluebird to stay with me. Because without him, I was alone again. “Goodbye, my Vireo. May God bless you,” I whispered as a tear streaked down my cheek. His final goodbye to me was a joyous chirp.

I wish to always remember that chirp because, for a moment, it sounded like an angel singing. I shall forever value the time I had with my bluebird. But reality pulled my attention away from that sweet memory and back to this moment of Pa and I watching the cows.