American teenager donates thousands of books to children in hospitals

Emily Bhatnagar has always found solace in reading. When she struggles with anxiety and depression, she turns to books.

So when she accidentally saw a text message on her dad’s phone notifying family members that he had stage 4 thyroid cancer, she masked her fears with the one thing she’s always found comfort in.

But this time she went a little further.

At the age of 17, Emily launched a neighborhood book drive in honor of her father, Mike Bhatnagar. She decided she would donate the books to children who were also dealing with health issues.

“I thought to myself: I’m just a teenager. What can I do? I’m not a doctor. I can’t save lives, but hopefully I can make them a little bit happier,” says the teenager, who lives with her parents in Gaithersburg, Maryland. “I was drowning in grief when my father was diagnosed. It was unimaginable to think of these little kids going through what my father was going through.”

This was July 2021. Her initial goal was to collect books for children undergoing cancer treatment, but she has expanded it to include all patients under the age of 18. She named her effort For Love and Buttercup, after a favorite flower, and launched it with a book donation request on neighborhood app Nextdoor.

Nearly two years later, her father’s thyroid has improved. For Love and Buttercup is a non-profit organization and its efforts have resulted in donations of more than 15,000 children’s books to DC hospitals.

“Buttercup flowers represent childlike innocence and playfulness that many of these kids don’t experience… It’s what I hope they feel, even for a few seconds, when they open my books,” she says.

The neighborhood book campaign that started with a lonely teenager in a cloud of despair about her father’s illness has grown into a national initiative. And Emily, now 19, says it has given her and her father a shared distraction that allows them to heal together.

Emily Bhatnagar with stacks of donated books. She says it’s worth watching kids in hospitals get excited about getting the books. (Courtesy of Jyoti Bhatnagar)


Emily Bhatnagar says she will never forget the day she was told her father had been diagnosed with cancer in late 2019. He had asked her to help him find an email on his phone when she came across the message.

The teen says she battled depression, anxiety and an eating disorder for a long time, but went “1000%” after learning of her father’s illness.

A few months later, her father was rushed to the ER because the tumor was making it hard for him to breathe and he needed an emergency tracheotomy.

For months Emily watched in terror as the disease began to take pieces of him away: his health, his hair, his voice. She began to starve herself. She felt guilty about eating while her father was feeding through a tube.

“I just couldn’t physically get myself to eat anything,” she says. “I wanted to spend every waking second with him.”

So Emily, who says she mostly kept to herself at school and read books during recess, started thinking about how she could help.

She posted the request for books on Nextdoor and was stunned when new and gently used books poured in from strangers of all backgrounds: a bioengineer, a former sportswriter, a kindergarten teacher, a lover of romance novels, an astronomy major.

Her parents grew up in New Delhi, India, and emigrated to the US three decades ago in search of a better life. The family runs a takeaway restaurant that serves Indian food and bakes Roti, Paratha and other flatbreads. Emily prepared an Amazon wish list and listed the Gaithersburg address of their eatery as the place where donors could send books.

Her book drive became a family business. The family, including Emily’s older brother, Michael, began spending evenings at the eatery opening boxes of books. Delivering boxes of books to hospitals became a father-daughter routine. On days when her father was too sick to go with her, Emily called him on FaceTime from the hospitals while she was giving birth.

It gave the family something else to focus on during a stressful time.

“My dad is always in the store,” says Emily. “What I really like is that he never lost his spark after cancer. He’s still super excited about life.”

Mike Bhatnagar has lost most of his vocal cords and is whispering in a raspy voice. He uses a tube to feed through his stomach.

He told CNN in an email that his daughter’s project has given him strength — and her a voice.

“I feel a little bit stronger every day. Emily has a lot to do with that,” he said. “I didn’t expect the impact of her book campaign to be so huge. I thought it was only local and didn’t realize how much passion Emily had for this cause.”

Emily Bhatnagar and her father deliver books to MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. “Being able to help someone else made the burden a lot lighter,” she says. (Courtesy of Jyoti Bhatnagar)


As Emily tried to come to terms with her father’s illness, she contacted hospitals in the Washington, D.C. area about donating books. She also wanted to give sick children some form of escape.

One of her first donations was a batch of about 1,500 books to the Inova Cares Clinic for Families, which treats disadvantaged and uninsured people in Northern Virginia, says Fadi Saadeh, the institution’s senior director of community health.

Emily says she tries to choose books for children of all ages — from babies to teens — and weighs several factors in her choices.

“Of course I want to include childhood classics like Harry Potter, but I also want to make sure my books are diverse and have characters that the kids reading these books can see themselves in,” she says.

“As an Asian-American, I always felt so left out because almost none of the books I read had characters that resembled me, or related to my heritage. I also try to include books written by lesser authors who might be colored people, and books with powerful messages about perseverance.”

She often puts a personal note between the pages with a positive message for children. Sometimes she adds Beanie Babies and other stuffed animals. Saadeh says they are extremely popular with children at their clinics in Virginia.

“Dear sweet child,” reads one of her notes to a childhood cancer patient. “You are a true superhero. My hero Superman’s strength can’t even compare to yours.”

The Bhatnagar family delivered another 1,500 books to Holy Cross Health hospitals and clinics in November. Alisa Smallwood, chief development officer at Holy Cross Health, said the books are a welcome distraction for children in hospital.

“When faced with challenges, we really have a choice of how to respond. She chose to look outside herself and help others — that’s really brave,” says Smallwood. “We are thankful to have been chosen by Emily…Hospitals are a scary place for kids, and the books will help improve the healing environment.”

Whenever possible, Emily indicates that the books go to hospitals with pediatric cancer wards. And as the pandemic eases, she’s finally been able to hand out some books in person.

“Seeing the kids get excited when I handed them the books…it was the most precious, best day of my life,” she says.

Emily Bhatnagar opens packs of books. She received so many books for her father’s birthday that her parents’ bread shop in suburban Maryland was full. (Courtesy of Jyoti Bhatnagar)


Emily says she’s still in awe of strangers gifting her books.

“Without them this wouldn’t even exist. I still think it’s so crazy that they use their hard-earned money for my books…for a 19-year-old’s cause.”

Emily says she feels much better now. But her father recently received even more bad news. His cancer was in remission for a while, but doctors recently found cancerous spots in his lungs, she says.

This time, however, she feels better equipped to handle the adversity.

“Your emotions, no matter how strong and powerful they feel, they can never kill you,” she says. “You will survive. You just need to breathe.”

Emily is taking virtual classes at Montgomery College and hopes to transfer to a physical school once her father’s health stabilizes. Her dream is to study psychology at Yale University and work with children.

Meanwhile, the books keep coming. Her not-so-little book drive teaches her how to run a nonprofit and build relationships with community leaders.

The most important lesson she learned? That there is still beauty in the world, no matter how hard things are sometimes, she says.

And a book is always a good distraction.

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