When Donna O’Neill first read the anti-war novel ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ as a student at Upland High School, the impact was immediate and lingers today, over 40 years later.
It was around 1977, a few years after his brother, John Rogone, was killed in action in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War. When her class discussed the book’s themes of war, aggression, and loss, those discussions deeply affected her in many ways.
“He had just turned 21 and was on his second tour of duty in Vietnam. He hasn’t even been able to buy liquor yet,” said O’Neill, 61, a resident of the highlands for six decades.
Experience has taught him that books can be a game-changer. “We grew up accepting a lot about the Vietnam War, without questioning it. This book made me see things a little differently. It made me realize that war is not the answer,” she said.
Flash forward to Saturday, March 19, 2022, when O’Neill’s little free library in his northern highland backyard was christened by friends and firefighters who read stories to neighborhood children and adults from the box wood and glass made in house.
A voracious reader, O’Neill was introduced to good literature – including the aforementioned 1939 book by Dalton Trumbo – by Upland High English teacher Norman Rush, and to the classic “Where the Red Fern Grows” by her professor of English at Upland Junior High School from 1972-1973. After her teacher finished reading that last book aloud, he left the whole class in tears, she recalled.
“He introduced me to the beauty of words and what can be discovered in a book,” she said.
Today she is reading a new novel by Daniel Black called ‘Don’t Cry For Me’ about a black father in his final days mending his relationship with his gay son. “It’s very moving and honest,” O’Neill said. “It’s so good that I had to refrain from finishing the last pages.”
With her mini-library, she wants to translate her love of books into free reading opportunities for children and adults in the highlands.
“It’s a great way for people to get access to books,” she said on March 14. “You put books in people’s hands.”
O’Neill, a labor and delivery technician at San Antonio Regional Hospital in Upland, can’t imagine a world where people don’t crave a good book as much as she does and laments the lack of reading in today’s digital. society. “People have lost the art of reading. And the kids, they got lost in video games and cell phones,” she said.
Launched in 2012, the Little Free Library movement (LittleFreeLibrary.org) has spread across America and the world. According to the organization, there are more than 100,000 free home library boxes around the world.
In Upland, there are about 12 Little Free Library chartered book cabinets, including one at 667 W. 22nd St. made by Girl Scouts Troop 458 using the money they earned from selling Girl Scout cookies. Summer Johnston’s Library, at 333 S. Euclid Ave., offers books that focus on “history, radical thought, and classic works,” according to the description on the website.
O’Neill’s, at 459 Paxton Court, is called Nonna’s Book Nook. Nonna is Italian for grandma. O’Neill had Italian-American parents and went by the name Nonna Jr., after his own mother, also called Nonna, who died in 2004. O’Neill has four children and eight grandchildren.
Thanks to social media posts, she received a huge response from the community. So far, she has received 25 boxes filled with hundreds of books. She’ll buy some of her favorites to add to the given tracks, including Steinbeck’s “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “The Kite Runner,” and “East of Eden.”
Her husband, Brian O’Neill, built the box, pole and a bench; the latter was a request from his wife. “She wanted a bench in case someone who wanted to read the book could sit down and decide whether they wanted to take it or not,” he said.
Since they have collected so many books, they will add a table to display even more titles. She also hopes to partner with someone south of town who wants to build a mini-library so she can donate the extra books.
According to Little Free Library, studies prove that the more books there are in or near the home, the more likely a child is to learn and develop a love of reading.
“You put these books in the box. People can come and buy and take two or three. Then bring them back to my or someone else’s library. There are no late fees,” O’Neill said.