Teenager organizes book drive for children undergoing cancer treatment.

Growing up, Emily Bhatnagar didn’t have many friends. She was a shy, nervous child who often found herself on the outside. “If I’m being honest,” Emily said, “I don’t think I’ve ever felt ‘enough’ a single day in my life.” But she did have books and a loving family — her two favorite things. She was an avid reader, and her father Mike Bhatnagar was her best friend.

That made it all the more devastating when Mike was diagnosed with Stage 4 thyroid cancer. It was another source of anxiety added onto Emily’s already full plate. The teenager kept her head down and tried to juggle school and her job at her family’s food store; but she felt increasingly overwhelmed and more alone than ever. She was so worried about her father that she spent every spare minute she had at his side, running to and from the hospital.

“I would tube feed him during my small breaks,” Emily said. “I wanted to spend more time with him just in case anything were to happen. At that point my anxiety was so bad I had to take a break from high school.” She was depressed and had developed a worrying eating disorder. It was time to take back control of her life.

Emily put her senior year on hold to focus on her family. Visiting her father day after day, she realized that she was not alone in her sadness. But there was no solace in that. It occurred to Emily that thousands of families must be struggling with the cancer diagnosis of a loved one. Even worse, that loved one might be a child.

The Reason Why One Teen Started a Book Drive

books on shelves
Photo by Huỳnh Đạt

“I thought, there’s a child out there who’s fighting the same or a similar battle as my dad,” Emily remembered. “Imagine being that young and having to go through that and not understanding it fully. I thought about how terrifying that would be.”

And so Emily selflessly put her own fears aside and thought about how she could help children who were struggling with theirs. What would make them happy? What would help them escape their loneliness and fear? For Emily, the answer was obvious: books. “They kept me company [when I was young] and I became so immersed in them. It felt like I was less lonely.” 

So she started a book drive, calling it For Love and Buttercup. Emily says that buttercup flowers represent all that is “pure and innocent and happy in the world.” Those were the exact three things that she hoped that kids undergoing cancer treatment would be able to find their way back to.

That summer, she started locally and asked neighbors to donate books for children of all ages. The response was overwhelming — in a good way, this time. Emily and her brother drove around town picking up books…and did so again and again and again. Eventually, Emily created an Amazon Wishlist so that people from anywhere could donate books to the cause and have them shipped directly to Emily.

Several years later, For Love and Buttercup is still going strong, so strong in fact that Emily is working on creating a proper nonprofit organization. So far, she’s been able to donate over 15,000 books to hospitals in the Washington, DC area where she lives. She still thinks about the kids she’s met on these book drops every day.

How One Girl’s Book Drive Helped Children Feel Less Alone

In the winter of 2021, Emily walked back through the halls of MedStar Georgetown University, where her father was treated for cancer. This time, though, it wasn’t to visit her father but rather to bring books. It felt good, Emily remembered. “Full circle,” she called it.

Emily’s father Mike isn’t in the hospital anymore. Much to the joy of everyone who knows him, Mike recovered from his thyroid cancer. Although he lost his ability to speak, he doesn’t need his voice in order to be able to communicate with his daughter. The two spend lots of time together delivering books.

“He helps me lift up the boxes,” Emily smiled. “It’s just really heartwarming to see everything and see his reaction. It’s probably one of the most special parts of the book drive.”

In an email to Today.com, Mike wrote: “I have never seen such warmth and kindness from people as I have during these past few months during Emily’s book drive. I have learned that people have a great capacity to show love to others.” He couldn’t be more proud of his daughter and how far she’s come from the quiet, insecure little girl she used to be.

“The first time I gave believing in myself a try,” Emily admitted, “the book drive happened, and it’s one of the most precious things to have ever happened to me.”

Indeed, it’s one of the most beautiful things to happen to a lot of people.