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The gift of reading - Author donates books to Decatur library in memory of Sandy Hook victims

By Catherine Godbey - The Decatur Daily

The similarities hit Beck McDowell instantly. For four days, as the pictures and stories of the first-graders streamed across the television, McDowell cried.

The story the author lived in her mind while writing “This Is Not a Drill,” about a hostage situation at an elementary school, too closely resembled the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

“My story is different, but the same elements were there. There was a man with a gun in a school. My husband said I had to find something to do. What I do is write, but I couldn’t write,” the former Huntsville High School English teacher said. “All I did was sit in front of the television and listen to the stories.”

From stories told by parents, friends, co-workers and siblings, glimpses into the victims’ lives emerged.

Six-year-old Emilie Parker carried around markers and paper so she could create notes for people. The principal, Dawn Hochsprung, dressed as a book fairy to encourage the 600 students, each one she knew by name, to read. A lover of tacos, Noah Pozner dreamed of becoming a taco factory manager.

Even though more than a 1,000 miles separated north Alabama from Newtown, Conn., McDowell wanted to memorialize the victims. She needed to memorialize them.

“Everyone wanted to do something, whether it was just buying coffee for the town, sending cards or praying,” McDowell said. “For me, books have always been a main part of my life, so I wanted to do something with books.”

Inspired by the lives of the students and school staff, McDowell selected first-grade level books that matched the personalities of the victims. McDowell donated the 26 books with plates featuring the victims’ names and photographs to the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library.

As part of the Decatur Public Library’s reopening, the Friends of the Library adopted the memorial and purchased the same 26 books.

“We were inspired by what Beck did and thought it would be a good addition to our own library,” said Mary Lou Rose, a member of Friends of the Library. “It’s not only a way to remember, it is also a way to bring new books for the children into the library.”

McDowell will attend the library’s open house on Thursday. The event from 5-7:30 p.m. will include refreshments, children’s activities, a visit from Lady Bug Girl and music from Maria de Quesada, Calhoun Community College’s Guitar Ensemble and Coda Brass Quintet.

“Public libraries are the heartbeats of communities. This is the place where most kids learn to love books. To have this memorial in the public library means so much,” McDowell said.

A public school teacher for 20 years, McDowell never consciously worried about a school tragedy. But she dreamed of a tragedy occurring and needing to lead the students in an evacuation of the school. Those dreams, or nightmares, combined with a conversation McDowell had with her nephew led her to pen “This Is Not a Drill,” which came out in October.

“When my nephew was in second grade, the school told him if there was ever a lockdown, to go into the bathroom, sit on the toilet and pull up his feet so the bad men wouldn’t see him,” McDowell said. “That broke my heart that a second-grader had to practice that. It breaks my heart knowing these things actually occur.”

A look at the books

For Charlotte Bacon — “My Heart is Like a Zoo” by Michael Hall. Reason: Charlotte never met an animal she didn’t love and wanted to be a veterinarian.

For Daniel Barden — “Drum City” by Thea Guidone. Reason: Daniel played drums in a band with his brother and sister.

For Olivia Engel — “Angelina Ballerina” by Katharine Holibird. Reason: Olivia loved to dance and twirl in her pink tutu.

For Josephine Gay — “The Best Bike Ride Ever” by James Proimos. Reason: Josephine loved riding her bike in the street.

For Ana Marquez-Greene — “Jazz Baby” by Lisa Wheeler. Reason: Ana sang before she could talk and had a gift for melody, pitch and rhythm.

For Dylan Hockley — “First the Egg” by Laura Vaccaro Seeger. Reason: Dylan would flap his arms when excited. When asked why, he answered, “Because I’m a beautiful butterfly.”

For Madeline Hsu — “And Then It’s Spring” by Julie Fogliano. Reason: Madeline, upbeat and kind, loved bright, flowery dresses.

For Catherine Hubbard — “This Moose Belongs to Me” by Oliver Jeffers. Reason: Catherine had a passion for animals and asked for pets every Christmas.

For Chase Kowalski — “Pete the Cat, Play Ball!” by James Dean. Reason: Chase ran in community races, played baseball and completed and won his first mini-triathlon.

For Jesse Lewis — “Rose’s Foal” by Scarlett Lewis, Jesse’s mother. Reason: Jesse was learning to ride horseback and loved the family’s horses, dogs and chickens.

For James Mattioli — “Press Here” by Herve Tullet. Reason: James loved math and the relationship between numbers.

For Grace McDonnell — “The Secret World of Walter Anderson” by Hester Bass. Reason: Grace dreamed of living on the beach and painting. She loved seagulls, shells and lighthouses.

For Emilie Parker — “Each Kindness” by Jacqueline Woodson. Reason: Emilie carried around markers and pencils to make a card for someone feeling sad.

For Jack Pinto — “Sports Illustrated Kids 1st and 10: Top Ten Lists of Everything in Football 101” by Sports Illustrated. Reason: Jack, a New York Giants fan, loved football, skiing, baseball and wrestling.

For Noah Pozner — “Dragons Love Tacos” by Adam Rubin. Reason: Noah loved tacos and wanted to become a taco factory manager.

For Caroline Previdi — “Happy” by Miles Van Hout. Reason: Caroline always wanted others to smile and emptied her piggy bank to buy presents for less fortunate children.

For Jessica Rekos — “Hello, Hello” by Matthew Cordell. Reason: Jessica loved horses, watched horse movies, read horse books and drew horses.

For Avielle Richman — “Every Cowgirl Needs a Horse” by Rebecca Janni. Reason: Avielle was happiest when riding a horse and wearing her pink cowboy boots.

For Benjamin Wheeler — “Subway” by Christophe Niemann. Reason: Benjamin loved taking the no. 7 train to New York.

For Allison N Wyatt — “Sky Color” by Peter H. Reynolds. Reason: Allison dreamed of being an artist and turned her room into a studio.

For Rachel D’Avino — “Giraffes Can’t Dance” by Giles Andreae. D’Avino’s passion was working with autistic children as a behavioral therapist.

For Dawn Hochsprung — “Olivia and the Fairy Princesses” by Ian Falconer. Hochsprung, the principal, dressed as a book fairy to inspire reading.

For Anne Marie Murphy — “Beautiful Oops” by Barney Saltzberg. Murphy, a teacher, was an artistic, fun-loving painter.

For Lauren Rousseau — “The Very Busy Spider” by Eric Carle. Rousseau, who always wanted to teach, stayed busy and would change clothes in her car between jobs.

For Mary Sherlach — “The Kissing Hand” by Audrey Penn. Sherlach, a counselor, cared deeply for the children she counseled.

For Victoria Soto — “Sylvie” by Jennifer Sattler. Soto, a teacher, loved the beach and flamingos.

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