Earlier this month, children’s author Lee Wardlaw drove a trailer loaded with more than 5,300 books from Santa Barbara to Paradise, Calif., delivering 1.5 tons of literary donations from more than 240 authors, readers, librarians, and publishing professionals. Last November, the Camp Fire—the most destructive wildfire in California’s history—destroyed 90% of this town. The fire burned through more than 153,000 acres, killing 85 civilians, and injuring three firefighters; nearly 14,000 residences were destroyed along with thousands of other structures.
“The kids really needed books,” said Wardlaw, author of numerous books, including 101 Ways to Bug Your Teacher!, Dinosaur Pizza, and Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku, winner of the Lee Bennett Hopkins Children’s Poetry Award and Myra Cohn Livingston Poetry Award. “Books bring a sense of familiarity, family, and normalcy—something that’s not chaotic in their lives,” she explained after returning from her 1,000-mile road trip to share the donated books with kids and school libraries.
Around 93% of the children in the Paradise Unified School District lost their homes in this inferno, and Wardlaw brought the books to help both families and school libraries rebuild their collections. Nearly every school in Paradise has moved to a new location: an intermediate school is now held in the warehouse-like expanse of a former Orchard Supply Hardware, and one high school is in an office building near an airport in Chico. At charter schools displaced by the fires, teachers held classes at home and some now rent classroom space at nearby churches.
California wildfires have been at the heart of Wardlaw’s career since she published her first children’s book, Corey’s Fire in 1990 (read the PW review). That book began with real-life experiences—when the author was away at college, her family lost their Santa Barbara home to a wildfire. “At the time, my brother was 14 and I saw the after-effects going on with him,” said Wardlaw. “Nobody was paying attention to the kids after the fire. Everybody was really focusing on interviewing adults, the parents, and other people who'd lost their businesses and homes. But people were ignoring the kids.”
So she wrote a novel about a 14-year-old girl who loses her home and neighborhood to a wildfire, showing young readers how the heroine rebuilds her life after the natural disaster. Wardlaw sends copies to kids when a destructive wildfire displaces California communities.
After the Camp Fire in Paradise, Wardlaw helped one young victim rebuild his Harry Potter collection. The boy’s mother was a teacher at a local school, and Wardlaw soon realized that many more kids could use her help. “She told me how the school had burned down and they had lost their house, and how they needed to start collecting books for their library,” Wardlaw said. She emailed a few other children’s authors asking for donations, only expecting to collect a few hundred books for the school. However, her request quickly spread on social media, and thousands of books started to pour in from around the country.
The author spent four months collecting and sorting the books, titles filling her living room. Then she borrowed a trailer and drove the books more than seven hours north to Paradise. After delivering the books to her contacts in Paradise, the author visited three community schools that had been affected by the disaster, meeting with around 600 students and sharing a presentation about recovery after a wildfire.
“You need to tell your story over and over and over again to as many people who will listen,” Wardlaw told students. “Because the more you tell your story, the more it becomes just a story. You’ll get some distance from it and become a little bit more objective. This is what happened to you. It's an important story.” Some of the teachers who watched the presentation promised to incorporate daily journaling into their curriculum, helping students write about and process how the disaster changed their lives.
This September, the libraries and schools of Paradise will move into more permanent sites, and Wardlaw is already planning a book drive to help these new school libraries restock. Authors, readers, and publishing professionals interested in contributing to this effort to rebuild school libraries in Paradise can contact Wardlaw directly, using the subject line “Books for Paradise.”
“I remember after the fire that I went through that reading was just this fabulous oasis for me,” Wardlaw said. “I would re-read some of my favorite books at that time, because it just felt so safe and comfortable being with characters that I knew. It gave me a sense of control. I know that getting these kids reading and having a library again would be really important to them.”