Maryland Teen Donates Thousands of Books to Kids Fighting Cancer at Hospital Where Her Dad Received Treatment

The act of giving helped her cope with her father’s cancer diagnosis. 

Book Donations
Photo: Courtesy of Emily Bhatnagar

There's nothing like getting lost in a good book. Under normal circumstances, books can offer a welcome break from reality, but when life throws an unexpected curveball like a cancer diagnosis, books become so much more. They're a lifeline, a comfort, and a much-needed escape.

A lifelong bibliophile, 18-year-old Emily Bhatnagar of Gaithersburg, Maryland, has always loved reading. But when her father was diagnosed with stage four thyroid cancer in October of 2019, she discovered just how powerful they could be.

Shortly after her father's diagnosis, Bhatnagar developed several illnesses of her own. The stress and agony of processing his diagnosis while simultaneously attending high school, working at her parents' Indian bread shop, and helping care for her father became overwhelming. She developed depression, anxiety, and an eating disorder that got so bad she had to be hospitalized and take months off school.

Through it all, Bhatnagar turned to books for comfort, just as she has her entire life.

"Growing up, I remember being the only brown girl in my class," she told Southern Living. "For most of my school years, I hid in bathroom stalls during lunch hour and wanted to run away somewhere far away where no one knew me. Books were my best friend. They served as proof to me that nothing in this world could ever be as bad as your head makes it out to be. It was through stories I learned to feel compassion for myself and eventually become comfortable in my own skin."

It was during her bleakest days, when she felt she had "hit rock bottom," that Bhatnagar got an idea. She decided to organize a book drive for pediatric cancer patients.

Emily Bhatnagar
Courtesy of Emily Bhatnagar

"When my father was diagnosed with stage four cancer, I never believed it when every day I heard people tell me, 'It's all going to be OK,'" she said. "I just had to actually do something to make that feel the tiniest bit real to me. And while I knew the book drive couldn't take away my father's cancer, just knowing in the back of my mind that these children were smiling when they unwrapped their books gave me enough hope to last a lifetime."

In July of 2021, Bhatnagar wrote a post on neighborhood networking site Nextdoor asking those who lived nearby for new or gently used books. She said was shocked when hundreds reached out offering to help.

Soon there were boxes and boxes of books stacked by her front door, and For Love and Buttercup was born. She quickly got to work writing notes of encouragement and making homemade bookmarks to hand out with the books. In the seven months since, Bhatnagar has collected and donated almost 10,000 books to children fighting cancer at area hospitals. One of those hospitals was Georgetown University Hospital, where her father was treated.

"The book drive really truly is the reason I was able to cope with my father's illness and my own," Bhatnagar said of the experience. "My eating disorder took so much away from me but starting the book drive gave me more."

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Since starting the book drive, Bhatnagar's father's health has improved, and he's even been able to help pack up books and deliver them. For Bhatnagar, who now receives book donations through an Amazon Wish List, the goal is to keep going—spreading positivity and hope one book at a time.

"I really do hope to continue For Love & Buttercup forever," she said. "…it feels like a physical part of me."

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