Fourth grade student Michael Bullion said he had no fears but was able to rattle off those of all four main characters in a book his class just read: "School of Fear" by Gitty Daneshvari.
"Madeline is afraid of spiders, insects and stuff and she wears a veil in front of her face, Lulu is claustrophobic, Theo is afraid of dying and Garrison is afraid of water - he can shower and stuff but he is afraid of going to the beach, " said Buillion, who indicated he loved to read and found the book entertaining.
Daneshvari is one of six children's book authors who came to read and give away books in a number of Rio Grande Valley schools during FESTIBA Week as part of UTPA's partnership with the Texas Book Festival's Reading Rock Star Program. The literacy program selects authors from across the country and invites them to present their works to students in economically disadvantaged schools. At the end of the presentations, each child receives an autographed copy of the book and the school library receives a set of books.
In her first year as a Texas Book Festival Reading Rock Star, Daneshvari, who lives in New York City, said she was attracted to come to a new area, meet the children and give away books, especially in a lower socio-economic area.
"I am so impressed by the organization, the kids, the principals and librarians - they are amazing," she said.
Originally from Los Angeles, Daneshvari said the book was inspired from her own fears as a child.
"I was afraid of everything ... when I thought of all the trauma I put my parents through with my crazy behavior wouldn't it have been amazing if there had been a school to send kids to when their phobias became so big they are getting in the way of their life," she said.
She told the students she was so afraid of spiders and cockroaches that she would take Raid bug repellant and spray it around her room every day.
"Then right before I went to sleep, and don't do this at home, I'd spray Raid in my hair," she said.
In the book, four young people are sent to the School of Fear run by a deranged beauty queen, Daneshvari said, where they are thrust into an adventure and have to face their fears. There is a twist at the book's end that is resolved in her second book in the series "School of Fear: Class is NOT Dismissed!," published last year. The final book in the series - "School of Fear: The Final Exam" - will be published later this year. Each of the School of Fear's chapters is introduced with the line, "Everyone's afraid of something"...and then lists an unusual phobia, such as peladophobia, the fear of bald people.
The students at Crockett Elementary, who had read the book before the author's visit, prepared posters, dioramas and other displays which lined the cafeteria and hallways illustrating their fears and they answered enthusiastically to Daneshvari when she asked them to respond to one of three choices as an answer to a phobia she'd announce. Later she answered questions from the children before giving each an autographed book.
Daneshvari said to tackle illiteracy, a problem nationwide but particularly bad in South Texas border counties, you need to start with children.
"Yesterday a coach at Evangelina Garza Elementary School (in Mission) said 'education is the great equalizer,' and I think that's true. It really does come down to education and breaking cycles," she said. "We need to give them access to books, make sure they are encouraged to read. I was slow to read but I had a lot of support from the librarians and teachers who allowed me to push through. It is also a community thing. Everyone has to be involved."
Following Daneshvari's reading, Reading Rock Star author James Luna, an elementary school teacher from Riverside, Calif., read to the school's youngest students from his book "The Runaway Piggy/El conchinito fugitivo" published by Piñata Books last year. He said it was similar to the "Gingerbread Man" story but told with a Mexican piggy cookie from a Mexican bakery. The author was greeted at the school with a parade of multi-colored piggys the children had made out of construction paper and mounted along their cafeteria stage.
"It's amazing to see the kids with the books, hearing their questions and watching their wonder," he said.
Marisela Morales, Crockett Elementary School principal, said her students were excited to meet real authors and enjoyed the projects they did to complement the reading of the books. This opportunity does have an impact, she said, on literacy in their homes and families.
"As soon as the kids were leaving, they were all looking at their books and the signed autograph and they were saying, 'I'm going to get my mother to read it, I'm going to get my big sister to read it,'" she said. "It was very meaningful to them."
As fourth grade student Samantha Soto left to return to class with her autographed book, which she said was "really funny," she also described two tasks to do once she got home.
"I'm going to go home and start reading it again and I'm going to ask my parents to take me to Barnes and Noble to get Book 2," she said.
FESTIBA continues Thursday, March 31 and Friday, April 1 with GEAR UP days, which will bring 1,000 middle school students to the UTPA campus to listen to inspirational speakers and educational presentations. For more information, go to the FESTIBA website.