Eight weeks ago my first novel was published – a book about a troubled gunman opening fire in a first-grade classroom. A book based on a recurring nightmare I’d had during the many years I taught, one every teacher holds at bay during waking hours as she shoulders complete responsibility for the students she loves. And last Friday, I watched in horror as parts of that nightmare, eerily similar to the book I wrote, played out on national television. Many authors will tell you their characters “come to life” as they write. It’s true; I grew to love the 18 first graders I invented, with their distinct personalities, almost as much as the hundreds of kids I’ve taught over the years. Friday I relived the scenes “my children” saw and heard in their classroom, sobbing with the rest of the country as we watched, devastated at the staggering number of victims – far worse than any scenario I’d imagined. I could protect my fictional children; but no one, not even the heroic teachers who willingly sacrificed themselves, could save these beautiful babies from the brutal rain of bullets that ended their lives.
I’ve struggled as we all have, searching for a way to comprehend this tragedy. Writing has always been my solace in times of pain, but for days I’ve been unable to finish a sentence. As important as gun control, mental health, and school safety issues are to me, I’ve maintained my silence, for the most part, while following the heated debates on social and mass media. I’ve kept vigil in my living room, unable to turn away from the heartbreaking photos of sweet-faced children who seem so familiar to me. I had hoped my book, about a soldier with PTSD, would draw attention to the plight of those with mental illness, but I find myself sorely challenged to feel sympathy for the troubled boy who robbed 26 families of happiness in a heinous act of violence.
I wanted to “do” something, and my feeling of connection to these children and teachers I never knew demanded my best effort. After much thought I decided what my small offering will be - to donate a book, a first grade book, to my public library, for each of the victims. Twenty-six books with each name written in one – so that they will live on in my community. I spent several days making a list of current books that teachers listed online as kids’ favorites. I read reviews and descriptions and then studied them at the bookstore to make sure the message of each was happy and hopeful.
And then a strange thing happened. As I listened to the stories about each individual, their unique personalities began to mesh perfectly with the books I’d found. When Noah Pozner’s family said he loved tacos so much that he wanted to work in a taco factory, I knew he’d love Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin. I had ordered Matthew Cordell‘s Hello, Hello just a week earlier as a gift, and when Jessica Rekos’ family described how much she wanted a horse, I got chills picturing one of the most memorable scenes - a joyous young girl riding away on a horse. Emilie Parker’s parents told of the way she had a kind word for everyone; I thought of the beautiful lessons of Jacqueline Woodson’s Each Kindness. Grace McDonnell wanted to live on the beach and be a painter. She loved seagulls and shells and lighthouses, and she painted fish – like Walter Anderson, whose life is chronicled in The Secret World of Walter Anderson by my friend Hester Bass.
I can’t presume to know these children, but I’ll gather as much information as I can find to help me choose the books that will tenderly preserve their memories in my community. I’ll ask for help from my elementary teacher friends, too. They’ll know which books would be appropriate for a soccer player, a future firefighter, a New York Giants fan, a budding musician, and a lovely principal who dressed as a Book Fairy to encourage her students to read. I’m happy to share the list when it’s finished if others would like to place a book with a Sandy Hook angel’s name in a school or community library.
I will write each of these names in a book: Charlotte Bacon, Daniel Barden, Olivia Engel, Josephine Gay, Ana M Marquez-Greene, Dylan Hockley, Madeline F. Hsu, Catherine V. Hubbard, Chase Kowalski, Jesse Lewis, James Mattioli, Grace McDonnell, Emilie Parker, Jack Pinto, Noah Pozner, Caroline Previdi, Jessica Rekos, Avielle Richman, Benjamin Wheeler, Allison N Wyatt, Rachel Davino, Dawn Hochsprung, Anne Marie Murphy, Lauren Russeau, Mary Sherlach, Victoria Soto.
And as I take them to my library for Huntsville children to enjoy, I’ll be remembering the Newtown families who are left with only memories of the precious ones they’ve lost. In the days ahead I will continue to pray that our country will have the courage to take definitive action in both increasing mental health provisions and legislating gun control measures to help keep our children safe.