When images of the victims of the May 24 mass shooting at Robb Elementary School started to surface, it was the face of 10-year-old Xavier Lopez that left author e.E. Charlton-Trujillo (the Fat Angie trilogy) feeling “soul sick.” As a native Texan and San Antonio resident, the tragedy hit especially close to home. When sharing their feelings with author and activist Greg Neri (Ghetto Cowboy), the conversation turned to the efforts in Uvalde of El Progreso Memorial Library’s children’s librarian Martha Carreon, who continued her regular story time the morning after the devastating event. El Progreso director Mendell Morgan told the Austin American-Stateman that the library is “a safe place. A refuge. An escape” for children.
Neri told PW that in the aftermath of the shooting, the two authors were left with the same anguish experienced by so many around the world. “Like most humans, we were distressed and feeling hopeless about the situation. Sure, we could give money, sign petitions, and vent our outrage, but it didn't feel like enough.” Both authors frequently offer school visits and mentor students. They knew that the summer ahead outside of school would leave many children without the support they could get from teachers and librarians. “To leave school on that note was like facing a void. What could we do that could possibly even make a dent in such a hopeless situation?” Neri said.
What did feel like a meaningful answer to the question was relying on the power of books. “It became obvious that what we do through our books and school visits is to offer a glimmer of hope,” Neri said. Charlton-Trujillo spearheaded a book drive for the children of Robb Elementary, later expanding the idea to serve all children in Uvalde, including not only children in all elementary schools, but also all middle and high school students in the town. The idea turned into 600 Books of Hope, encompassing both donated books and author visits for later in the summer and the next school year. The initial 600-book goal has been increased to include an additional 1,200 books.
To kickstart the effort, Charlton-Trujillo enlisted the help of their agent Erin Murphy of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency, as well as author Pat Zietlow Miller, with whom they co-authored the forthcoming chapter book Lupe Lopez: Rock Star Rules! (Candlewick). With Murphy’s help, they were able to connect with publishers including Abrams, Cameron Kids, Candlewick, Chronicle, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster, all of which have pledged book donations. Twitter posts received an outpouring of support. 600 Books of Hope is now housed under Charlton-Trujillo’s nonprofit, Never Counted Out, an organization that offers access to books and creative mentorship to underserved youth. “The response has been inspiring,” Charlton-Trujillo said. “It reminds me of the power of what we can do collectively when we feel we can do so little on our own.”
Charlton-Trujillo stressed the importance of working with local partners who know the community. In Uvalde, they’re collaborating with El Progreso Memorial Library and Family Services, a social services organization that works in San Antonio and rural Texas communities, including Uvalde. They’ve also received support from some of the members of Las Musas, a collective of Latinx women and other marginalized people whose gender identity aligns with femininity who write and illustrate children's books.
Donations so far include picture books, chapter books, middle grade, and young adult books. “Some about grief, some about joy, some about adventure, laughter, love, and—definitely—hope,” Charlton-Trujillo said. From idea to implementation, “there are a lot of moving pieces” in the plan, they added. Distribution of the books will be coupled with author and illustrator events aligned with school and library schedules. Books are expected to be in children’s hands sometime in July or August with El Progreso Memorial Library and Family Service providing guidance and assistance. Along with these partners, indie bookstore owners and book festival organizers have volunteered their expertise. Authors have donated books and school visits free of charge. Neri reported that authors, librarians, teachers, and others have volunteered time and use of their vehicles to drop off books to children.
Neri sees the rapid response and support of partner organizations, authors, and publishers as a demonstration of the power of action in the face of despair. “This is what happens when you decide you can't change the world or make guns disappear,” he said. “Do what you can. Arm young minds with hope, not weapons.”
Charlton-Trujillo added, “We can’t undo the tragedy of what happened at Robb Elementary School for Xavier Lopez and the 21 souls taken that day. But we can do our best to honor how they lived, and honor those who survived by showing up with books, with our time, with hope.”
To donate to 600 Books of Hope, click here.
This article has been updated.