First, let me say that I missed you.

Frankly, I didn't think I would, but I missed seeing you every day. No one asks as many questions as you do. No one is as excited about everything as you are. And no one calls me Banana in college. I think I missed that the most.

I was only in college for a year, but somewhere between this summer and the last, you grew up. You didn't get any taller, and you still forget to wear your glasses, but I can see a change. You learned how to read while I was gone, and now you're carrying chapter books around. And while I think your choice of books is questionable (are you really choosing "Ella Owl" over "Junie B. Jones"?) I am so happy to see you love reading like I do.

You're still dancing, and you've gotten so much better. You had a solo in the competition! I'm so sorry that I missed it, but I fully expect you to get into costume and dance in the family room for me. I'm jealous of you. I never learned how to dance, and you are dancing better at 8 years old than I can at 19. Maybe you can teach me a few moves this summer?

You have been counting down the days to your 8th birthday since your 7th. You're in a cupcake phase right now, probably my favorite of the childhood phases, and you have demanded a pink cupcake party. You can be very demanding sometimes, sissy. When you were younger it was cute, but now it's a bit annoying. But I'll let you in on a secret: I was the same way too. Don't worry, eventually people stop calling you annoying and start calling you a leader.

I can't wait to see that. To see you become a leader, to see you grow up. You're lucky. Being the baby of the family, you've got so many people to help you, so many past mistakes to learn from. You have an overprotective brother who will probably continue to be overprotective long after you'll need him to be. And you have two older sisters to look out for you. You've got one big sister so close in age, that she's basically your built-in best friend.

And you have me, 11 years older with 11 more years of experience and mistakes to learn from. One day when you're older, we can sit down and I'll tell you all about those mistakes. And we all love you so much. I love you, and I think I need to get into a habit of telling you more often.

You are only 8 years old, but I still feel like you're growing up too fast. I feel like I'll go away again and suddenly you'll be in middle school, in high school, you'll be driving and voting and going to college. But you've still got time. So stay young while you can, OK? Don't grow up too fast, and enjoy being 8 for as long as you can. You don't need to count down the days until your next birthday, it will happen soon enough.

For now, just be 8.

Stay in this bright pink cupcake phase for as long as you want; I'll bake anything you want. Just read and dance and maybe wear your glasses every once in a while. And stick close, learn from all the mistakes I've made, and listen to the advice I give. It's good, I promise. And most importantly, know that I will always love you, no matter how far away I am.

Happy birthday.