McAllen's Perez Elementary School student Joel Garza has plenty of time to read books by one of his favorite authors - J.K. Rowling, who wrote the Harry Potter series.
He is one of the top readers in his school, having read more than one million words since the 2011-2012 school year started. He said he loves reading.
"It lets me use my imagination," the fourth grade student said.
Garza was one of hundreds of students at his school who had the opportunity to hear from two of the Texas Book Festival's Reading Rock Star authors Thursday, March 29 as part of The University of Texas-Pan American's Festival of International Books and Arts (FESTIBA) being held March 24-April 1. FESTIBA is an annual event presented by the University to promote literacy and an appreciation for the arts and humanities.
The Reading Rock Star program sends noted children's authors to economically-disadvantaged schools where they bring their books to life for pre K-fifth grade students by discussing and reading from their works. Following their presentations, each student receives an autographed copy of the author's book and a set of books is also given to the school library.
This year, seven authors visited six Rio Grande Valley schools.
At Perez Elementary, author and illustrator Keith Graves read two of his picture books directed to younger students - "Frank was a Monster Who Wanted to Dance" and "Chicken Big." He was followed by author and master storyteller Joe Hayes, who talked to third through fifth grade students about his bilingual book "The Coyote Under the Table," which is his version of 10 Southwestern folktales.
Prior to the author's visits, the younger students were read Graves' book, "Frank was a Monster Who Wanted to Dance," then the students made Frank the monster masks and paper dolls that adorned the stage. Those students who were reading Hayes' book "The Coyote Under the Table," used their iPads to make a cartoon of one of his stories or put together story maps, dioramas and character sketches they had on display.
Graves upped the excitement, noise and creativity levels of the students during his presentation when he had them play a game which required each of them to combine the features of three kinds of animals they chose - an elephant, lion and dog - into a drawing of one animal as quickly as possible. He also showed students photos of his Austin, Texas art/writing studio and the tools he used to do the illustrations. Graves told students that his book about Frank the monster, who falls apart literally as he gets his chance to dance on a stage, was inspired by his childhood fascination with monsters.
"As an author, I get to create things that children and other readers can enjoy. Doing these school visits and coming to events like FESTIBA are a lot of fun and let me connect to the kids to see how they really react to the books," he said.
Graves said reading books is what inspired him to become a writer.
Cynthia Cooksey, the school's librarian, said the students were "totally thrilled" to have received a book that was signed by an author.
"It is all the students are talking about, and they are really buzzing. They did not know they were going to receive a book, so it was a very welcome surprise," she said.
Cooksey said it is important that students have access to books, whether they be at home or borrowed from the library.
"Students should always have access to new reading material, so they can be exposed to other places, thoughts and beliefs," said Cooksey, who also praised FESTIBA's other family-oriented cultural activities and its promotion of literacy in the Valley.
Second grade student Hayden Beck, who has been reading Hayes' book, which he called exciting, is, like Graves "hooked," but had another important reason for reading.
"Reading is important because it is part of your education," he said.
FESTIBA 2012 continues on Friday, March 30 with more activities for GEAR UP students, a Congressional Roundtable on Hispanic Literacy and presentations by actor Tony Plana and renowned children's book author Avi at an event for educators and librarians. Friday evening the public is invited to enjoy FESTIBA at Jardín Del Arte starting at 5 p.m. at the Edinburg City Hall. Go to the FESTIBA website for a complete list of activities, locations and times.