Students at William J. Clinton Elementary School in Peñitas saw the books they have read in class come to life in a sense when they had the opportunity to meet the authors of those works at their campus Tuesday, March 19.
Children's book authors Mara Price, who wrote the bilingual "Grandma's Chocolate/El Chocolate de Abuelita," and Winifred Conkling, who wrote the historical fiction book "Sylvia & Aki," visited the campus as part of the Reading Rock Stars program, sponsored by the Texas Book Festival and The University of Texas-Pan American, during the University's annual Festival of International Books and Arts (FESTIBA).
UT Pan American created FESTIBA in 2006 to promote an interest and appreciation for reading and early literacy, celebrate and appreciate the arts and humanities, and broaden cultural awareness within the South Texas community. This year's theme is "Literacy: Inspiring Healthy Minds and Healthy Bodies" and runs through March 24.
"We share the love of reading with students and their parents," said Dr. Dahlia Guerra, dean of UTPA's College of Arts and Humanities. "This is about early childhood reading as well as adult reading. The importance of literacy is what is stressed during FESTIBA."
The Reading Rock Stars program sends famous children's authors to schools that serve economically disadvantaged communities to read and discuss their books to students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. Following the presentations, each student received an autographed copy of the author's book and a set of books is given to the school library.
This year, eight authors visited six Rio Grande Valley schools on Tuesday, March 19 and Wednesday, March 20.
Price, who spoke with students from pre-kindergarten through second grade in two sessions, said interacting with young readers is the best part of being an author for her.
"Being able to see their faces and have a close relationship, especially when I ask them if they have a grandma and they can relate to the book, that's the best thing," Price said. "That's the universal thing that we all have, basically, chocolate is for everybody and reading is for everybody... Reading is so important; it's going to open doors for them for life, it's something that they're never going to lose, it's always going to be with them."
Conkling, who has written more than 30 non-fiction books for adults, said she always wanted to write fiction for children. Her inspiration for her first work of fiction, "Sylvia & Aki," came after hearing a story on National Public Radio about the Mendez vs. Westminster School District court case that led to the desegregation of schools in California.
Her book tells the story of the friendship between Sylvia Mendez and Aki Munemitsu, two girls from Orange County, Calif. whose families were affected greatly by the events surrounding World War II and segregation in the United States. Sylvia's parents filed the landmark lawsuit against the school district after she and her brothers were not allowed to attend a school near their home, and Aki, a Japanese-American girl, and her family were sent to an internment camp during World War II.
"It is exciting to have kids see themselves in history more than anything, because it almost always seems to belong to somebody else, so I think it's a great opportunity to let them see their own heroes," Conkling said.
A few fifth-grade students said they were awestruck by meeting Conkling, whose book they read in class, and that they enjoyed reading the book and learning about history.
"Once you read the book, you can't let it go, you just get into it," said fifth-grader Samantha Barrientos.
She said her favorite part of the book was reading the proverbs that started each chapter.
"When you read it, it makes you feel what they felt," Barrientos said.
Some of her fellow fifth grade students said they also felt sympathy for what the protagonists experienced when they read the book.
"Sylvia and Aki, they were kind of like slaves, they didn't let them do what they wanted, then they got freed," said Jaciel Alvarez.
Jaqueline Davila, another fifth-grade student, said she was also taken aback by the treatment of the girls in the book.
"We should all be treated the same," Davila said.
The children said while meeting the author of the book was a treat, they would also like to meet the women who inspired the story, both of whom are still living.
"I really want to meet Sylvia and Aki," Barrientos said. "I want to see them in person."
UTPA's educational partner to present FESTIBA is Region One ESC GEAR UP. The 2013 FESTIBA sponsors include the City of Edinburg, Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, The Raul Tijerina Jr. Foundation, Reading is Fundamental, South Texas Literacy Coalition, Dustin Sekula Memorial Library, Texas Book Festival, The University of Texas-Pan American Library, International Museum of Art and Science, Tocker Foundation, and the Scholastic Classroom and Community Group.
FESTIBA continues Thursday, March 21 with GEAR UP Days at UTPA, when hundreds of students from the Region One Education Service Center's program and their parents will visit the campus and attend activities that will help them improve their literary skills and pursue healthy lifestyles.