Reading Rock Stars share magic of books with young Valley students

BY Gail Fagan and Victoria Brito

Fifth grader Edgar Hurtado was ready to wow Texas Book Festival Reading Rock Stars author Diana López with his clever card trick during her March 2 visit to Carl Waitz Elementary School in Alton.

“You grab a card and put it back, tap it and it becomes a different card,” instructed Hurtado, who performed his trick successfully to the delight of López.

Before her visit, Hurtado read with his class Lopez’s book “Nothing Up My Sleeve,” which tells the story of three boy’s determination to win a summer magic competition.

“The book was awesome. It is about magic, which I like to do a lot,” said Hurtado, who got to have breakfast with the author as one of the winners of a bookmark decorating contest the school held.

López was one of the eight Texas Book Festival Reading Rock Stars authors who visited five Valley schools March 2-3 as part of The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s annual Festival of International Books and Arts (FESTIBA) held Feb. 27-March 5.

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.

“The students keep bringing me back, I love sharing my books with them,” said López, author of several middle school grade novels and a creative writing faculty member at the University of Houston-Victoria. “There is a lot of research that shows the young people who have a personal encounter with an author are more likely to become lifetime readers. And that is one of my goals, because I think of myself as a writer and an educator.”

Alton school rolls out first year welcome to authors

Elizabeth Tanguma, the school’s librarian, said it was the first visit of the Reading Rock Stars to the school, which has about 600 students in pre-k to fifth grades.

A red carpet welcomed the authors to the school, which had decorations everywhere reflecting the themes of the authors’ books. Meanwhile, teachers incorporated the book into the curriculum and read it with the students before the authors’ visit.

“I wanted the students to have an opportunity to interact with the authors and they also get to keep a copy of the book,” she said. “I think it really motivates them to continue reading and be involved. Taking the book home involves the parents as well. We need to promote literacy not only in school but in the home.”

Joining López to talk to students about their books were Reading Rock Stars Steven Weinberg, author and illustrator of the book “You Must Be This Tall,” and James Luna, author of the bilingual book “The Place Where You Live/ El lugar donde vives.”

Weinberg and Luna entertain and engage students

Weinberg’s book tells the story of two snakes that are determined to ride a roller coaster but are repeatedly rejected by the gatekeeper pig because one is too short.

He joked about his own 6’2” height and shared his own childhood sketchbook of drawings and stories he wrote with first and second graders gathered in the school library. He also drew some of his book’s characters in person and had them energetically help him read another one of his books, “Rex Finds an Egg.”

In his third year as a Reading Rock Star, Weinberg said he is impressed with how the schools prepare for the visit and how the books are incorporated into the curriculum.

“It just melts my heart to be here,” he said. “It’s so much fun, not just talking to kids about my books and about reading, but seeing them really engage with it in all kinds of ways.”

Visiting with the school’s youngest students, Luna read from his book that uses rhyme to describe a child’s often typical daily activities like buying candy in the local store, playing in the neighborhood park, sitting in the family porch swing and enjoying tortillas and hot chocolate with a relative.

In his fourth year as a Reading Rock Star, Luna said he takes joy in knowing that he is passing literature onto the kids who are taking it home and sharing it with their parents.

“The kids tell me I am going to take this home and read it before I go to bed,” said Luna, who also teaches elementary school in California. “When you know a kid is reading, you know that their future is wide open.”

Luna also gave a shout out to Texas school librarians.

“There is so much support and promotion of literacy and reading here,” he said. “I am impressed with how these librarians support this program and how the kids know the books, know the stories, and they even know me.”

Authors also “rock” in Brownsville

Reading Rock Stars travelled Brownsville for the second year, and visited Morningside Elementary.

“Today, we wanted to bring authors to you,” said Lois Kim, executive director of Texas Book Festival.

Author Juana Medina and a group of second and third graders gathered in the school’s library to hear the author read her book, “Juana and Lucas,” a tale about Medina and her childhood canine.

Medina, who also illustrated the book, hails from Bogotá, Colombia where her story takes place. After she read her book and engaged the students, she took questions from the students.

One second grader asked her how it felt to be an author.

“It feels great, I had been working on it for a while – 8 years – so it feels food to be sharing this story with people,” Medina said.

Emma Virján skyped in from Austin to present her book, “What This Story Needs is a Bang and a Clang” to pre-k, kindergarten and first graders. Virján also illustrated her own book, which tells the story about a pig and her friend’s journey to put on a music show.

Former UT Pan American professor Rene Saldaña Jr. shared his book, the fourth installment of his bilingual topical series, “A Mystery Bigger Than Big,” which uncovers the mystery of the unaccompanied minors’ crisis of 2014 through the eyes of his child protagonist, Mickey Rangel.

“I started writing this when the unaccompanied minor issue was happening and I thought that it was time for my character to start taking on more serious issues,” said Saldaña, who is also an associate professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Texas Tech University’s College of Education. “The next book will come out in 2018 and has to do with bullying.”

After some rejection early in his career, he realized after comparing his work with other authors that his hometown is where his inspiration existed.

After filling the role of a Reading Rock Star for years now, he said he loves that students have become accustomed to author visits.

“I think the fact that these kids can associate the book with the living author and knowing that they can interact with the author is just an amazing thing,” Saldaña said.

Lea Bogner, Texas Book Festival outreach coordinator, said the Reading Rock Star program is about promoting engagement and the accessibility of books. During their visit to Valley schools, the authors will give out 3,189 books to students at the five schools.

“Meeting an author and engaging with them on a personal level brings about a sense that I can do this, that I have ownership over my learning,” she said.