BY Gail Fagan
EDINBURG – Fourth- and fifth-graders at Emiliano Zapata Elementary School were in stitches March 4, as award-winning author Jon Scieszka talked about his adventures growing up with five brothers.
Scieszka even had one student imitating the chimpanzee who is a key character in his book the students read, “Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor.” Fourth-grader Kiara Ochoa, who had practiced her chimp face in anticipation of Scieszka’s visit, said she loved the book and having him visit the school was an honor.
“He told us things that let us learn more about the book,” Ochoa said. “I want to read his next book. I want to be the chimp again and again.”
Scieszka was one of three Texas Book Festival Reading Rock Stars authors who visited the school on Friday, as part of The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s annual Festival of International Books and Arts (FESTIBA), held Feb. 28-March 6.
FESTIBA is an annual event hosted by the university to promote literacy and an appreciation for the arts and humanities.
The Reading Rock Stars program sends noted children’s authors to economically disadvantaged public schools, where they bring their books to life for pre-K to fifth-grade students by discussing and reading from their works.
Following each author’s presentation, students are given an autographed copy of the book and a set of books is given to the school library.
Scieszka, a Caldecott Honor Book medalist for this best-selling book, “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales,” is the nation’s first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Librarian of Congress.
He said Reading Rock Stars is his favorite program of all across the country.
“This is exactly what we should be doing – giving kids books,” he said. “All the studies have shown that kids become readers by owning books. It’s a great moment when they get that book.”
His love of science inspired his book, which the class read then used for curriculum-related activities over the past month. It is the first in a series of six Einstein books about the adventures of a boy genius trying to invent things like robots.
“I like to talk to them about the process of writing … and this program gives them a chance to see that there is someone behind all these books, they don’t just happen. I also tell them that it is hard work,” said Scieszka, who also founded Guys Read, a web-based literacy program for boys whose mission is “to help boys become self-motivated, lifelong readers.”
This year, nine authors visited six Rio Grande Valley elementary schools on March 3 and 4. Since 2001, the Texas Book Festival has given more than 69,000 books to children at Title 1 schools in Texas through its Reading Rock Stars program in Austin, the Rio Grande Valley and Houston. At Emiliano Zapata, which is located in Mission and is part of the La Joya school district, more than 800 students received a brand new, hard-cover book.
“Having a book at home, for many, is a luxury,” said Kendall Miller, Texas Book Festival outreach manager. “Having books in homes can have a huge impact on the family. Younger siblings can have access to the book. Parents may be able to read to their child. It’s important to create a meaningful experience for students, especially elementary school students, so that when they go on to middle school, they continue to love reading.”
LITERACY LEADERS, CHEERLEADERS
Students also heard from Diane Gonzales Bertrand, a writing faculty member at St. Mary’s University and a Writer in Residence, who wrote the bilingual “A Bean and Cheese Taco Birthday,” and Steven Weinberg, the author and illustrator of “You Must Be This Tall.”
Weinberg said he began by drawing cartoons, and showed students his early childhood works and stories. Much later, he said, he taught elementary school students in China and Africa.
His book – about two snakes who want to ride a rollercoaster but one isn’t tall enough – reflects his feelings of frustrations of being short when he was young and wanting to be tall.
“Those kinds of feelings resonate with kids,” Weinberg said.
Bertrand talked to hundreds of pre-K to first-graders about her childhood and her family, and read her book about a simple birthday party in the park that featured blowing bubbles and eating tacos.
As a Reading Rock Star, she said, she feels like a cheerleader for literacy, and also hopes to serve as a role model for what students can be.
“It is a chance for children to see, or actually meet, an illustrator or author and realize that these are real people and it is a viable career,” she said. “It is also important for them to see a role model – a Latino author, a Hispanic just like they are who is able to do something that is a bit out of the ordinary as a career.”
GOING ‘ALL OUT’ FOR LITERACY
The school’s librarian Gracie Guajardo said that everyone – custodians, cafeteria workers and staff – get involved to make it a special day for the authors and students. The school goes “all out,” she said.
One hall was lined with robots of all sizes and shapes made from boxes, cans, old CDs, cardboard tubes and other discarded materials, and had handmade atoms hanging from the ceiling. Another hall showcased miniature roller coasters made of recycled materials in many shapes, colors and configurations. In another hallway, where the classrooms of younger students were located, handmade bubbles floated overhead on strings and a myriad of tacos made by pre-K to first-grade students hung by doorways. Teachers and staff were clad in glittery Reading Rock Star shirts.
“We are very excited that the authors are here. We promote literacy throughout the year,” said Principal Rosa Gonzalez-Vela. “We want our students to be readers, because if you read, you are going to be more successful in whatever area – math, science, whatever field.
“But we don’t just want students to read because they have to read,” she said. “We want them to love to read.”