Howntown girl taps literary connections to aid Sonoma schools

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Donors included:

- Ugly Duckling Presse - Brooklyn, NY *non-profit

- Wave Books - Brooklyn, NY and Seattle, WA

- The Song Cave - Brooklyn, NY (one of the editors grew up in Rincon Valley) *non-profit

- Tin House - Portland, OR

- Belladonna* Collaborative - Brooklyn, NY *non-profit

- New Directions - New York, NY

- University of California Press - Berkeley, CA

- McSweeney’s - San Francisco, CA *non-profit

- Copper Canyon Press - Port Townsend, WA *non-profit

- Moe’s Books - Berkeley, CA

- Point Reyes Books - Point Reyes Station, CA

- Book Passage - Marin, CA

- Unnameable Books - Brooklyn, NY

- Diesel, A Bookstore - Oakland, CA via Edible Marin

- Washington Square Review - New York, NY (NYU) Creative Writing Program)

Emily Wallis Hughes was standing in New York’s Penn Station when she got the call and had to face the grim question: which of her possessions did she want her mom to grab as the Nuns fire threatened her childhood home that October morning?

Hughes answered instantly: a copy of “The Hobbit” which her mom had owned since the 1960s.

“Books are irreplaceable. You can go out and buy a new book, but books are friends. They’re not things,” Hughes said. “They give us solace in times of difficulty and they nourish and feed our imagination. It’s something that lasts, they’re sustainable.”

Living so far away was hard for Hughes as her hometown burned and she was helpless to do anything. So she decided not to let those 3,000 miles affect her and she jumped into action. Hughes, being a writer and editor in New York, started contacting publishers and bookstores in New York and California to donate some books to the Sonoma Valley and Santa Rosa schools. Her plan came to fruition in December when two dozen bookstores, independent publishers and small presses donated about 1,500 books to the schools. The books have been pouring in since December and the schools are continuing to find homes for them.

Hughes was amazed to see all the different people that came together to help Sonoma. Some of the companies didn’t even have any ties to the town, like the Brooklyn-based Ugly Duckling Press, where she currently does volunteer editing, which donated about 400 books.

While she contacted a lot of companies and corporations, not everyone helped, but the ones that did were mostly independent and nonprofit businesses. Some companies even surprised her, like the nonprofit Brooklyn press company the Song Cave. Apparently, the company decided to help out because one of the editors grew up in Rincon Valley and had a heart for their hometown.

There was a lot of local help as well, and Hughes especially noted the help of Gibson Thomas, the editor of Edible Marin, who worked with Diesel Bookstore in Oakland to bring books to shelters when the fires first started. Once the shelters didn’t need them anymore, she joined Hughes’s project so people affected by the fire could still receive the books.

“The books we donated were not textbooks either, they were children’s books, poetry books, fiction, novels, a lot of literature in translation and a lot of bilingual books that had the Spanish-English side-by-side translations,” Hughes said. “These are also books that are literature, too, but aren’t necessarily on the best sellers’ list so I think they’re nice gifts. They aren’t books that are super mass produced so I think they have some more meaning that way.”

Hughes worked a lot with librarians like Janet Hansen from Sonoma Valley High School and Mary-George Simonitch from Sassarini Elementary School. Together they found the best uses for the books in the schools, whether it was giving them to students to take home, using them in the classrooms or replacing the library books that were lost in the fires.

“All these brand-new books are a great tonic for us during our ongoing challenges,” said Hansen, who’s been organizing thank-you notes from the kids to send to Hughes and places that donated. Besides keeping copies for the library, Hansen has given copies to individual students and passing on sets to teachers for classroom use.

Donors included:

- Ugly Duckling Presse - Brooklyn, NY *non-profit

- Wave Books - Brooklyn, NY and Seattle, WA

- The Song Cave - Brooklyn, NY (one of the editors grew up in Rincon Valley) *non-profit

- Tin House - Portland, OR

- Belladonna* Collaborative - Brooklyn, NY *non-profit

- New Directions - New York, NY

- University of California Press - Berkeley, CA

- McSweeney’s - San Francisco, CA *non-profit

- Copper Canyon Press - Port Townsend, WA *non-profit

- Moe’s Books - Berkeley, CA

- Point Reyes Books - Point Reyes Station, CA

- Book Passage - Marin, CA

- Unnameable Books - Brooklyn, NY

- Diesel, A Bookstore - Oakland, CA via Edible Marin

- Washington Square Review - New York, NY (NYU) Creative Writing Program)

“Many of the books are by newer young writers and the book designs are modern and fresh, so these things draw student attention,” said Hansen. “The kids have enjoyed imagining literary people in New York empathizing with our difficulties and picking out books to send.”

Despite living in New York, Hughes still has a heart for her hometown. Her parents reside in Agua Caliente, luckily not affected by the fires, and she grew up in Sonoma, attending first St. Francis Solano School and then Ursuline High School in Santa Rosa. She left Sonoma County in 2004 to pursue a bachelor’s degree in English at U.C. Davis, and stayed there to earn her master’s in English with an emphasis on Creative Writing. After graduating in 2010 she stayed in the area to teach. After four years of that, the born-and-raised California girl left to do an MFA at New York University, and she has stayed on the East Coast ever since, as adjunct professor at Rutgers-New Brunswick as well as at the College of Staten Island. She also continues to write and volunteer at the nonprofit Ugly Duckling Presse.

“I still feel very connected to Sonoma. I have been able to come back twice a year and stay for two or three weeks at a time. I almost feel like I have two homes,” Hughes said.

Being so far away during the fires was depressing for Hughes, and she said this book-giving project has been healing for herself as well. The project isn’t over, as books are still being distributed.

“We are still in recovery and some people who don’t live in the area think, ‘Oh, the fires are out, it’s over’ – but this is an important stage. As we all know there is still so much work to be done, so much clean up. We’re not finished yet.” Hughes said.

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