Let me tell you a secret. I’ve been to book festivals all across the country, and the Texas Book Festival is my very favorite. It isn’t my favorite because of the 30 minutes I spend in the children’s tent reading to amazing children and their parents over the weekend. It isn’t my favorite because of the mentions I get in Austin’s major news outlets, and it isn’t my favorite because of the publicity I get for my bilingual children’s books, which, along with being a mother and a teacher, are my life’s work. It isn’t my favorite because of the many parties and lunches and fun events organized for authors. It also isn’t my favorite, in case you were wondering, because it’s some sort of free event/trip—publishers no longer provide the funds to authors like me to cover travel, or lodging, and I don’t get paid to participate.
It is my favorite because of the fact that each of the three times I’ve been to the Texas Book Festival, I’ve arrived a day early to participate in one of the most joyful and inspiring pro-literacy programs in the country: The Reading Rock Star Program. The festival brings authors like me into the schools where I can interact with amazing children who are perhaps meeting a published author for the first time. As a Latina writer, I can inspire and touch creative minds with my writing, celebrating literacy in Spanish and English, both languages side by side on the page. I’ve shared my nonfiction picture books honoring Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez and Tito Puente, and my fictional characters: Marisol McDonald, who doesn’t “match,” and Chavela, who finds some magic rainforest chicle and takes a ride across mountains, rivers, and oceans.
The festival does not send authors to speak to the children of privilege, rather to the children of hope—all from Title 1 schools. And the event is about more than just one day—it is about the lead-up to the event. Committed teachers and librarians, who I consider literacy activists, build excitement in the students through creative activities, art and writing projects, guiding them to find their own voices and put their dreams into words. At the end of each Reading Rock Star visit, I have the distinct honor of giving each and every child a copy of one my books (on behalf of the Texas Book Festival), signed in advance and ready to be shared with parents, grandparents and siblings. To own an $18 picture book is a luxury the vast majority of children in the world can’t afford, but the Texas Book Festival makes sure thousands of children do, in Austin and the Rio Grande Valley.
This year I flew out to Austin on Oct. 24, my birthday. The next morning I visited hundreds of reading rock stars, who surprised me with beautifully drawn birthday cards. In rainbow letters, one third-grader wrote, “Art is Smart!” and so it is. And if we are smart, we will challenge the folks at the Texas Book Festival to make it even better, something that can only happen when we have the space and place for all our amazing Latino writers and poets of all places and races. But if we are smart, we will also praise and support and sing out loud the amazing work already being done by the Texas Book Festival for our children and all children, 365 days a year.