Escape through books

Karl Humphries loved books. For the three years he battled a brain tumor, they were his mental departure from the waiting room at N.C. Children’s Hospital’s pediatric cancer clinic, his imaginary getaway from tests and treatments and diagnoses.

When he passed away in 2007, at age 13, his mom made it her mission to give kids like Karl the chance at a literary escape, as well.

As the Book Fairy, Kathy Humphries – who works part-time for the university’s grounds department  — has collected rooms filled with cardboard picture books, vintage mysteries and longer classics to be enjoyed by everyone from the tiniest toddlers to the most tempestuous early-teens who are undergoing treatment at UNC. For the fifth-straight year, UNC Libraries and campus partners will add to that tally with a campus-wide book drive. The goal: to push the five-year collection total past 10,000.

Infographic on the Book Fairy campaign

“The book drive has been a perfect way to bring escape and comfort to children through books,” says Eileen Dewitya, one of the library staff members helping to organize this year’s drive. “That’s something that library employees are universally passionate about, and we’ve been so grateful for the terrific community response.”

Humphries, whose husband, Chink, works at the UNC Library, threw herself into the project just a month after her son died. Looking for a way to fill her time – and maybe a bit of her heart – she asked Karl’s doctor, Stuart Gold, chief of the division of hematology/oncology in the department of pediatrics, how she could help the clinic.

“His response was, ‘Since Karl loved books so much, why not do something with the books?’’’ she remembers.

It made sense. Karl was a voracious reader (he particularly liked the Harry Potter series), and his mom used to stuff bags with books for him to read to help hours pass in the clinic. When Karl first started getting treatment, the old clinic in the Gravely building didn’t have a large book selection. When the clinic moved into its current space on the first floor of NC Cancer Hospital, the waiting room had plenty of shelves waiting to be stacked.

It didn’t take long. The year before UNC Libraries became involved with the book drive, schools and organizations helped Humphries fill her garage and then a storage unit with thousands of books. Nurses started telling children in the clinic that the stories they picked out each visit (and are allowed to keep) came from the “Book Fairy,’’ and the idea took off.

Donning a long skirt, wings and a sparkly shirt fashioned from one of Karl’s old Halloween outfits, Humphries began visiting even more schools and organizations, collecting books and telling her family’s story. Now, a backlog of children’s books are stored in an office on campus. Those books are used to re-stack (and re-stock) the shelves in the clinic whenever needed.

Humphries says she has never paid a lot of attention to the number of books she has collected, but she thinks Karl would be impressed.

“He’s still with me, he’s driven me on,” she says. “The books to me represent any sort of softness or escape that we can give the kids, because they are in a place that they shouldn’t have to be.”

During a recent afternoon at the pediatric cancer clinic, 11-year-old patient Mariah Andrews spoke softly about what books mean to her: “I can imagine myself in a different place, going on an adventure or solving a mystery,’’ she said. “I can do anything.”

Like Karl, Andrews is an avid reader, scorching through a bag full of books each week, happy to see the shelves in the waiting room replenished each time she travels from Fayetteville to the clinic.

The Book Fairy (and many Fairy helpers, including the UNC student volunteer group CPALS) make sure of it.

“It’s all a little bittersweet,’’ Humphries says. “You hate for the kids to be in this situation; it just doesn’t seem right. … But if you can help them get away from the boredom, bring them a smile, that’s a good thing.”

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Read more about the Book Drive, including places on campus to donate new and gently-used books for kids ages 1 through mid-teen. The need is especially great for English and Spanish-language board books (the sturdy picture books made for young children). Books featuring children and families of many cultures are also needed. The book drive concludes Dec. 5th, when the Friends of the Library hosts its annual Winter Stories program.

Read the Book Fairy’s blog.

Story by Robbi Pickeral, photos by Dan Sears and graphic by Melanie Busbee, all of UNC News Services.

Published November 8, 2013.