HUNTSVILLE, Alabama -- Throughout her many years teaching English at Huntsville High School, Beck McDowell had nightmares about a tragedy like the students and faculty faced at Sandy Hook School.
Those haunting dreams became the storyline for her recently published book, "This is Not a Drill." Expressing those fears in a book helped exorcise those demons, McDowell said, and now she hopes to feel some catharsis from the Sandy Hook tragedy by donating 26 children's books to the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library, one for each of the school children and faculty killed.
She will write into the book the name of the child for whom she is dedicating the book, and the book will reflect an interest of that particular child. The project basically follows a growing response to do 26 acts of kindness to honor each victim, but McDowell said she needed something more tangible.
"I think the thought that bothered me the most is I couldn't remember a single name, and that seemed wrong," she said. "I don't want to give the impression I know these children. It just seems like a good way to commemorate their lives and keep their names in the forefront of the community.
"I think there is something cathartic for me to actually write their names in the books," McDowell said.
The idea of picking a book for each child came to her while she remained glued to the television reports and began learning about the children's particular interests and personalities. As a children's book author, McDowell was familiar with some titles, but she has also begun seeking help from elementary school teachers to find age-appropriate books to donate.
Each book needs to be "uplifting or humorous . . . more helpful and happy," she said.
The Sandy Hook tragedy resonates more clearly with her, McDowell said, because of the connection with her longtime fear of facing a hostage situation. Those fears spurred her to pen "This Is Not a Drill," McDowell's debut young adult novel, recently published by Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Group USA Inc.
The Times' Ann Marie Martin reviewed the book in October and praised it for a "tight plot and plenty of suspense" with "engaging, sympathetic characters."
The protagonists are two high school seniors assigned to tutor the first-graders in French. When faced with stress of a hostage situation with an Iraqi war veteran, they find courage and patience to meet the challenge, Martin wrote in her review.
The story gives a glimpse into the mind of a young man returning from war who is dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. McDowell interviewed former students who were veterans of the war to gain insight into their struggles.
The big difference in McDowell's fictional book and Sandy Hook is that McDowell was able to protect the 6-year-olds.
Researching for her book helped McDowell learn that most hostage attempts are resolved peacefully and the teacher's main duty is to maintain calmness and let the trained professionals handle the rest. Though writing the book helped rid some of the fears she faced as a teacher, McDowell said she never stopped fearing a tragedy like Sandy Hook would occur.
"I dreamed about it because it's in your subconscious that if something happened you are responsible for (the children)," she said. "What haunts me still is we're not prepared as a nation to protect our children."
The following is the list of books McDowell chose so far, along with some biographical information she used to pair a book with one of the Sandy Hood victims:
- For Noah Pozner - "Dragons Love Tacos" by ADAM RUBIN
Loved tacos so much he said he wanted to be a taco factory manager; had twin sister, Arielle, and 7-year-old sister, Sophia; when his mom told him she loved him, he always said, "Not as much as I love you, Mom." Loved to read and liked to figure things out mechanically.
- For Emilie Parker - "Each Kindness" by JACQUELINE WOODSON
Always had something kind to say about anybody, always carried around markers and pencils so she could draw a picture or make a card for those around her; noticed when someone was feeling sad or frustrated and would rush to find a piece of paper to draw them a picture or write them an encouraging note; bright, creative and very loving.
- For Jessica Rekos - "Hello, Hello" by MATTHEW CORDELL
Jessica wanted a horse and loved everything about horses. She devoted her free time to watching horse movies, reading horse books, drawing horses and writing stories about horses; studied orca whales, looked up a YouTube video to teach herself to tie shoes; described as the CEO of the family, the boss. Loved writing and left little notes all over the house, sometimes just to say I love you so much.
- For Grace McDonnell - "The Secret Life of Walker Anderson" by HESTER BASS
Her dream was to live on the beach and be a painter; loved seagulls and shells and lighthouses and painted fish. A multi-talented child who danced, worked at gymnastics, and was a "fashionista" with a love of sparkles and a passion for cooking and cupcakes.
- For Charlotte Bacon - "My Heart is Like a Zoo" by MICHAEL HALL
Never met an animal she didn't love and wanted to be a veterinarian. A redhead, she loved dresses and wearing the color pink (was wearing her new pink dress and boots.) She was learning Tae Kwon Do with father and brother and loved kicking and throwing punches; was outgoing, precocious and being in long conversations.
- For Catherine V. Hubbard - "This Moose Belongs to Me" by OLIVER JEFFERS
Passion for animals, asked for pets every Christmas and had asked Santa for a pair of fish this year; pink was favorite color; a loving, spirited redhead who charmed everyone.
- For Josephine Gay - "The Best Bike Ride Ever" by JAMES PROIMOS
Loved riding her bike in the street; set up lemonade stand in summer; favorite color is purple; nicknamed "Boo" for resemblance to Monsters Inc. character.
- For Daniel Barden - "Drum City" by THEA GUIDONE
Always smiling though missing two front teeth, unfailingly polite and incredibly affectionate; played drums in band with brother and sister (father is musician); on swim team and played soccer; dreamed of being a firefighter; constant source of joy and laughter, would sit with kids who were alone in school.
- For Dawn Hochsprung - "Olivia and the Fairy Princesses" by IAN FALCONER
Dressed as book fairy; infectious smile; took pride in her work, accessible and welcoming; knew name of every student (nearly 700).
- For Mary Sherlach - "The Invisible String" by PATRICE KARST
School counselor, cared deeply about helping her children, threw herself into danger, two adult daughters; often sat on her porch in a white wicker loveseat.
- For Victoria Soto - "Sylvie" by JENNIFER SATTLER
Loved the beach and flamingos; was the organizer of Christmas; black lab, Roxie waited for her every day and was lost without her; a New York Yankees fan,