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I was thirteen when I first stumbled upon Wattpad. I was a picky reader growing up, but every book I liked was soon devoured. So it’s no wonder I quickly ran out of books to read at home. Although my school library had a good collection, it had to be searched and I didn’t visit it often between classes to find a book that might be very good or bad for me. After a long Google search for “read books online for free,” I found Wattpad, a place where I could read stories that weren’t in print.

The Toronto, Ontario based website was developed by Allen Lau and Ivan Yuen in 2006. The Wattpad back then was not half as elegant and attractive as it is today. My memory of the old site is vague. I remember the homepage had a selection of the most popular works, while a search bar allowed you to search for the kind of stories you wanted to read. Whenever I read a book, there was a side panel with similar stories. This function is still active although the list is better formatted. I wasn’t lucky enough to meet the first version of Wattpad, but I saw it grow. Early book covers were enlarged images that someone probably picked up from Google Images or Tumblr, sometimes untitled. They didn’t look as beautiful or well edited as most of the things you’ll see on the site today. I was there when classics were added to their database and when they were rebuilt to add genre tags. I knew the people at Wattpad understood me because they had separate sections for “vampire” and “werewolf” stories. My favorite development was when you could see if a book was finished. Before that, most authors had to write “COMPLETED !!!”. at the end of the book title. It was pure agony to find a story I liked just to read five fascinating chapters.

The advantage is that there were more and more stories to discover. I still vividly remember the night I found Wattpad. My first reading was a book for young people: a supernatural love story. It had dark forests and the protagonist was a dream hiker with a very pretty name, although the name itself escapes me now. It wasn’t finished, which was a good thing because I clicked on one of the stories in the side panel. Then another, and then another. YouTube holes have nothing on Wattpad voids.

While Wattpad had a number of stories, I delved into romance, my favorite escape. It’s funny, but a lot of the book titles back then were just tropics: “My Brother’s Best Friend” was a popular hit or “Arranged Marriage to My Worst Enemy”. I used to have marathon stories under the latter category. For me, a South Asian kid, it was always amusing to see writers come up with scenarios to get white people into arranged marriages (to end gang wars, settle debts between business partners and, in one case, because the protagonist is sister of ran away from their wedding and needed a replacement bride). I had relatives and parents of friends who arranged marriages, and it was never something I read on Wattpad.

What started out as a simple place to read soon grew into more. I finished middle school when I found Wattpad and was at the most sensitive time of my life. Every broken friendship felt like the end of the world, every argument with a family member – an outright war. Even before my teenage years, I was an emotional kid. Puberty, school, and growing pains made it worse. I was always nervous, always one wrong word away from bursting into tears. Sometimes I think back to those years and wonder how dramatic I was, but the truth is, every little instance felt overwhelmingly big back then. The world was big and loud and there seemed to be no escape.

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That is, no escape outside of stories. I spent every moment of my spare time at my computer screen, a worrying development for my family. Usually a talkative person, I got reluctant and withdrew from them. But I always talked in my head. The characters commenting on their every decision and mentally thanking the writers when I find a story that made me very happy. I was a picky reader, but on Wattpad I found all the stories I could love.

Screen time wasn’t a friend, but I was vulnerable and fearful, and Wattpad became my rock. I crawled under and hibernated, hiding from the rest of the world until I was ready to face it again. I don’t have my original account from ten years ago because I tried to leave the site after my mom raised her concerns about my antisocial behavior. As high school started and I became more involved in studying, I saved my marathon reading for weekends and summers. Little by little, I found a way to use the website without straining my eyes – or my mother’s nerves.

Aside from being a safe haven, Wattpad eliminated any snobbery I had about unpublished books. If anything, I realized that the books that are being published barely scratch the surface of all of the talented voices out there. The website must have thought in similar directions as it gave the writers more options. They worked with various publishers to offer offers for selected books through writing competitions. Of course, prior to this development, Wattpad’s native Watty Awards had been putting stories to print on the website for years. In recent years, Wattpad books have also been adapted into films and television shows. The Kissing Booth and After were both filmed, and Light as a Feather was turned into a series by Hulu.

Wattpad has grown since I first discovered it on a lonely night as a teenager. It’s officially in now, and I have more friends than not who have heard of it or are using it myself. It has not lost its charm. Even now, at the end of a busy day or in the middle of a lull in reading, I can just visit the website and the feeling comes back: I’m at home, safe between stories.