Get to know the Reading Rock Stars Houston authors and illustrators

On March 10, the Texas Book Festival returns to Houston to visit four Title I elementary schools as part of the Festival’s annual Reading Rock Stars program. Throughout the day, eleven nationally-acclaimed children’s authors and illustrators will visit each school and present to students, a culmination of weeks of each school’s preparation for the program. Additionally, TBF will gift each student a copy of the visiting author or illustrator’s book.

TBF will donate 1,945 books to classrooms. With this latest round of Reading Rock Stars, the Texas Book Festival will have given more than 119,800 books to students in Title I schools across Texas since the program’s inception.

The Texas Book Festival’s Reading Rock Stars literacy program brings books to life for children in Title I schools by inviting authors and illustrators into classrooms with entertaining presentations that inspire students to read, write, and create. Thanks to generous support from sponsors—including H-E-B: Tournament of Champions and the Albert and Ethel Herzstein Charitable Foundation—the Texas Book Festival gives each student an autographed copy of their author or illustrator’[s book and provides the school library with a new set of books by the visiting Reading Rock Stars authors. After each presentation, the author or illustrator personally hands an autographed copy of their book to each student.

Get to know the authors coming to RRS Houston: 

Jacqueline Alcántara

Jacqueline Alcántara is a freelance illustrator and artist spending her days drawing, writing and globe trotting with her dog Possum. She is fueled by dance music, carbs and coffee. Jacqueline studied Secondary Art Education and taught high school art and photography before transitioning to illustration.

Her experience working with children has led her to focusing on children’s literature and specifically in pursuit of projects featuring a diverse main character. She won the 2016 “We Need Diverse Books Campaign” Mentorship Award and is excited to be working to promote inclusiveness and diversity in children’s literature and the illustration field.

Her first book “The Field” (written by Baptiste Paul, published by North South Books ) received 3 starred reviews and won Jacqueline the Sonia Lynn Sadler Award in 2018. Her second book, “Freedom Soup” (written by Tami Charles, published by Candlewick Press) received 4 starred reviews and was a Junior Library Guild, Indiebound and Amazon selection in 2019.

In addition to the children’s illustration field, Jacqueline has worked with other clients including NPR, The Chicago Reader, The Chicago Foundation for Women, The Southern Poverty Law Center, Elle Decor, and University of Chicago creating illustrations for a range of editorial and promotional projects. She has a never ending interest in learning new skills and taking on new challenges.

About Freedom Soup:

Join the celebration in the kitchen as a family makes their traditional New Year’s soup — and shares the story of how Haitian independence came to be.

The shake-shake of maracas vibrates down to my toes.
Ti Gran’s feet tap-tap to the rhythm.

Every year, Haitians all over the world ring in the new year by eating a special soup, a tradition dating back to the Haitian Revolution. This year, Ti Gran is teaching Belle how to make the soup — Freedom Soup — just like she was taught when she was a little girl. Together, they dance and clap as they prepare the holiday feast, and Ti Gran tells Belle about the history of the soup, the history of Belle’s family, and the history of Haiti, where Belle’s family is from. In this celebration of cultural traditions passed from one generation to the next, Jacqueline Alcántara’s lush illustrations bring to life both Belle’s story and the story of the Haitian Revolution. Tami Charles’s lyrical text, as accessible as it is sensory, makes for a tale that readers will enjoy to the last drop.

Varsha Bajaj

My story begins in Mumbai, India. My slice of Mumbai in the early 1960s was a rambling house built in the 1930s surrounded by coconut, guava and beetle nut trees. I was raised in a Maharashtrian, joint family; my father’s parents and his sister lived with us.

My father and grandfather were perfumers and sampling strips of sandalwood and jasmine were always being sniffed and perfected. Making perfumes became a part of my imaginative play. Didn’t everyone make perfumes of dirt, crushed flowers and pebbles? I grew up reading cross culturally. We were exposed to various children’s series written by British author Enid Blyton. These were stories set in far away, unseen, magical England. They were tales of boarding schools ,vacations in a caravan and exotic foods like crumpets.

There were no explanations or author’s notes. Enid Blyton probably did not realize that her books were being read by millions of non British children in Her Majesty’s ex colonies. At times we were puzzled. My sister and I tried to figure out the meaning of “blancmange”. Using context clues we guessed that it was some kind of slippery British dessert. I also read plenty of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boy series. I was also bitten by the travel bug; I just did not know it then!

My grandfather influenced my reading choices as I got older. He introduced me to Jane Austen, and P.G. Wodehouse. On my own I discovered American romance novels!

Growing up I wanted to be a journalist and then an Indian classical singer. The worst case of dust and other allergies soon torpedoed that dream. My choice of profession crystallized after meeting an inspiring psychology teacher in tenth grade, Mrs. Krishnaswamy.

On September 13th, 1986, I came to America as a graduate student. I was young, naive, and idealistic. I arrived at Lambert international Airport in St. Louis with two suitcases, a few dollars and dreams. I was to be met by a representative in the Foreign Student’s Office. After waiting for someone to show up for twenty interminably long minutes, I dug out some quarters (kept in case of an emergency that I hoped wouldn’t happen) and read strange directions to make a call to the International student office. About an hour later a student walked up to me and asked, “Varsha?”

I blinked my tears away and nodded.

“Welcome to America,” he said.

We drove into Illinois in uncomfortable silence. His limited English made conversation almost impossible.

I felt a frightening loneliness. Everyone I knew and loved was a world away. I stared through the window at the alien surroundings whizzing past me on the people less highway. Then I read, “Mississippi River.”

It spoke to me. The Mississippi was where Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn played. I had visited that river before. I started to babble about Mark Twain and Tom Sawyer. My companion looked at me as if I was demented and drove a little faster. But my fear had decreased, and my mouth was a little less dry.

That day Mark Twain made a girl from India feel less alone, and a lot less scared. Such is the power of stories. Western writers have invited me into their world. My adjustment to this country and culture was facilitated by my knowledge of the language and my awareness of the culture through books, movies and music and by the warmth and welcoming attitude of its people.

After a dozen intermediate years in which I got a Masters degree, worked as a Counselor, got married, had two children and became a citizen, I started writing. It was 1999, two years after my daughter was born; my son was five and I had fallen in love with the picture book.

And I continue to write today…

About Count Me In:

Karina knows hate crimes happen everywhere . . . but she never imagined she’d face one herself.

Karina isn’t friends with Chris, the boy next door. Why would she want to be, when the guys he hangs out with act like a pack of rude laughing hyenas? But when her grandfather starts tutoring Chris and the three of them begin spending time together, she’s happy to discover that Chris is not at all like she expected him to be. He actually has a mind of his own and is thoughtful and funny. Becoming friends with him is one of the big surprises of her middle school life.

Then something unthinkable happens – a stranger assaults them, targeting her Indian American grandfather, who gets badly injured. Karina and Chris are devastated but vow not to let hate win.

When Karina’s moving social media posts about the attack go viral and the press descends, she and Chris have to decide how they will use their newfound fame. It’s intimidating to speak out – but how can they not?

Varsha Bajaj’s compelling story celebrates finding one’s voice in tough times, and a community rallying to support its people.

Alana Mendoza Dusan

Alana Mendoza Dusan was a Division 1 softball player at Oregon State University. She currently teaches high school English and lives in Bend, Oregon, with her husband and two children.

About There’s No Base Like Home:

This will be twelve-year-old Sophia Maria Garcia’s best year ever: she’s trying out for the same championship softball team her sister played on at her age, and she’s starting middle school. New school, new team, new Sophia!

But all does not go according to plan. Sophia does not make the Waves softball team and her best friend is suddenly more interested in boys than Sophia. As the middle school blues set in, and her family is pulled in different directions, Sophia must reach deep down and find a little UMPH—the difference between being good and great—to figure out her own place, on and off the field.

ESPN Major League Baseball analyst and two-time Olympic medalist Jessica Mendoza teams up with her sister Alana Mendoza Dusan for their first highly-illustrated novel for young readers, based on their own childhood softball adventures.

Tonya Engel

Tonya Engel, a self-taught artist, was born in Houston, Texas. Her work is heavily influenced by folk artists of the Deep South as well as contemporary Masters: Marc Chagall, Frida Kahlo, Romare Beardon and Gustav Klimpt. Her style engages figurative form and stirs in a mix of vivid color, symbolism and narrative.

About Rise! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou:

Writer, activist, trolley car conductor, dancer, mother, and humanitarian–Maya Angelou’s life was marked by transformation and perseverance. In this comprehensive picture-book biography geared towards older readers, Bethany Hegedus lyrically traces Maya’s life from her early days in Stamps, Arkansas, through her work as a freedom fighter to her triumphant rise as a poet of the people.

A foreword by Dr. Angelou’s grandson Colin Johnson describes how a love of literature and poetry helped young Maya overcome childhood trauma and turn adversity into triumph. Coupled with Tonya Engel’s metaphorical and emotive illustrations, this biography beautifully conveys the heartaches and successes of this truly phenomenal woman, and offers a powerful tribute to the written word.

James Luna

James Luna is the author of four books, all published by Arte Publico Press/Pinata Books: The Runaway Piggy/El Cochinito Fugitivo, A Mummy in Her Backpack/Una momia en su mochila, The Place Where You Live/El lugar donde vives, and Growing Up on the Playground/Nuestro Patio De Recreo. Piggy was awarded the 2012 Tejas Star Award as chosen by the students of the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.

About Growing Up on the Playground//Nuestro Patio De Recreo:

“On Ana’s first day of kindergarten, the slide stood like a mountain.” The other kids in her class encourage her to glide “down, down, down, to the bottom and her new friends.” Young readers will relate to these elementary school children playing outside. In first grade, Ana meets Karina, who becomes her best friend. Together, they swing higher and higher as they try to kick the sky! In second grade, Ana and her friends dangle like monkeys, eat pretend bananas and call out, “Ooo, ooo, ooo! Can you do what we do?” As they grow, the kids learn to play new games on the playground: basketball, soccer and even handball. Acclaimed children’s book author James Luna uses short, simple text and active words to depict children at play. They swing and hang, dribble and shoot, pass and kick, laugh and learn. And when they get to sixth grade, they have to say good-bye to their school’s playground. But someday they will return!

Kekla Magoon

Kekla Magoon is the author of nine novels, including The Rock and the River, How It Went Down, X: A Novel (with Ilyasah Shabazz), and the Robyn Hoodlum Adventure series.

She has received an NAACP Image Award, the John Steptoe New Talent Award, two Coretta Scott King Honors, The Walter Award Honor, the In the Margins Award, and been long listed for the National Book Award. She also writes non-fiction on historical topics.

Kekla conducts school and library visits nationwide and serves on the Writers’ Council for the National Writing Project. Kekla holds a B.A. from Northwestern University and an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she now serves on faculty.

About The Season of Styx Malone:

Caleb Franklin and his big brother, Bobby Gene, have the whole summer ahead of them to explore the woods behind their house in Sutton, Indiana. Caleb longs to venture beyond their small town, but their dad likes the family to stay close to home.

Then Caleb and Bobby Gene meet new neighbor Styx Malone. Styx is sixteen, and he oozes cool. He promises Caleb and Bobby Gene a summer of adventures, but soon the brothers find themselves in over their heads. Styx has secrets—secrets so big they could ruin everything.

In this madcap, heartwarming, one-thing-leads-to-another adventure, friendships are forged, loyalties are tested…and miracles just might be possible.

Anna Meriano

Anna Meriano grew up in Houston and graduated from Rice University with a degree in English, and earned her MFA in creative writing with an emphasis in writing for children from the New School in New York. There she met CAKE Literary founders Dhonielle Clayton and Sona Charaipotra, who started her on the Love Sugar Magic journey. Anna has written three Love Sugar Magic books.

About Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble:

Leonora Logroño’s family owns the most beloved bakery in Rose Hill, Texas, spending their days conjuring delicious cookies and cakes for any occasion. And no occasion is more important than the annual Dia de los Muertos festival.

Leo hopes that this might be the year that she gets to help prepare for the big celebration—but, once again, she is told she’s too young. Sneaking out of school and down to the bakery, she discovers that her mother, aunt, and four older sisters have in fact been keeping a big secret: they’re brujas—witches of Mexican ancestry—who pour a little bit of sweet magic into everything that they bake.

Leo knows that she has magical ability as well and is more determined than ever to join the family business—even if she can’t let her mama and hermanas know about it yet.

And when her best friend, Caroline, has a problem that needs solving, Leo has the perfect opportunity to try out her craft. It’s just one little spell, after all…what could possibly go wrong?

Debut author Anna Meriano brings us the first book in a delightful new series filled to the brim with amor, azúcar, y magia.

Raquel Ortiz

Raquel’s book When Julia Danced Bomba tells the story of a girl who wants to be a great dancer but she feels she can’t get anything right. Then, when she feels the beat of the drums, she loses herself in the music.

Raquel was born and raised in Lorain, Ohio. She is the author of two other bilingual picture books: Sofi and the Magic, Musical Mural / Sofi y el mágico mural musical (Arte Público Press, 2015) and Sofi Paints Her Dreams / Sofi pinta sus sueños (Piñata Books, 2019). She has worked at The Brooklyn Museum, the Allen Memorial Art Museum and El Museo del Barrio. Currently, she creates educational material for the Puerto Rican Heritage Cultural Ambassadors Program at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York City.

About When Julia Danced Bomba:

Introducing children—and adults!—to the Afro-Latino tradition of bomba music and dancing, author and educator Raquel M. Ortiz shares another story for children ages 5-9 about her rich Puerto Rican heritage. With lively illustrations by Flor de Vita that aptly express Julia’s frustration, fear and joy, this book will help children understand that practicing—whether dance steps, dribbling a ball or playing a musical instrument—yields results!

Adam Rex 

Adam Rex is the New York Times bestselling author and illustrator of Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich. His other books include The True Meaning of Smekday, which was made into the hit animated movie Home; Moonday; and School’s First Day of School, illustrated by Christian Robinson. He also illustrated the Brixton Brothers series, Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem, Chloe and the Lion, and How This Book Was Made, all by Mac Barnett, and Chu’s Day, by Neil Gaiman. He lives in Tucson, Arizona.

About Pluto Gets the Call:

Pluto gets a call from Earth telling him he isn’t a planet anymore, so he sets out on a journey through the solar system to find out why in this funny and fact-filled romp that’s perfect for fans of The Scrambled States of America.

Pluto loves being a planet. That is, until the day he gets a call from some Earth scientists telling him he isn’t a planet anymore! You probably wanted to meet a real planet, huh? So, Pluto takes the reader on a hilarious and informative journey through the solar system to introduce the other planets and commiserate about his situation along the way. Younger readers will be so busy laughing over Pluto’s interactions with the other planets, asteroids, moons, and even the sun, they won’t even realize just how much they’re learning about our solar system!

Naibe Reynoso

Naibe Reynoso, a multiple-Emmy and AP Award-winning journalist, has been working in front of and behind the camera for more than 20 years. She has worked and contributed to various regional, national and international networks including KTLA, France 24, Univision Network, Reelz Channel, CNN en Español, the Biography Channel, Fox News Latino, Larry King’s ORA TV, and has even filled in as a co-host on ABC’s “The View”.

In 2018 she created Con Todo Press, a publishing company that creates books to amplify the voices of underrepresented communities. Her first children’s book, Be Bold, Be Brave: 11 Latinas who made U.S. History, highlights 11 women who excelled in medicine, science, sports, the arts, journalism and politics. She lives in her native Los Angeles with her husband, her daughter and son.

Naibe Reynoso aims to shine a light on heroes from our community. From activist Dolores Huerta, to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Although Latinos are over 18% of the population, only 2% of books were written by Latinos according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC). At Con Todo Press, we aim to bridge that gap, so children can learn about heroes from their own community.

About Be Bold! Be Brave!: 

Be Bold! Be Brave! 11 Latinas who made U.S. History, Sé Audaz! Sé Valiente!: 11 Latinas que hicieron historia en los Estados Unidos is a bilingual book that highlights 11 Latinas who excelled in various fields including medicine, science, sports, art and politics. By presenting the true biographical stories of these outstanding Latinas in rhyming verses, young readers will easily follow their journey to success. Some of the women highlighted include Antonia Novello (first female Surgeon General in the U.S.), Ellen Ochoa (first Latina to go to space), Sonia Sotomayor (first Latina Supreme Court Justice,) Rita Moreno (first Latina to win an Oscar), Selena, and Pura Belpre (first Latina to incorporate and promote bilingual literacy in Public Libraries).

Eric Velasquez

Illustrator Eric Velasquez, is an award-winning illustrator and author-illustrator whose honors include the Pura Belpré Award, the Carter G. Woodson Book Award, the Coretta Scot King award, theJohn Steptoe Award for New Talent, and the NAACP Image Award. The son of Afro Puerto Rican parents who encouraged music and storytelling, Eric grew up in Harlem, New York. As a child, he loved superheroes, comics, drawing, and his grandmother, much like Ramsey in Octopus Stew. He teaches book illustration at FIT (The Fashion Institute of Technology) and lives in Hartsdale, New York.

About Octopus Stew:

What do you do when an octopus captures Grandma? Put on your superhero cape and rescue her! Two stories in one from award-winning Afro-Latino artist Eric Velasquez.

The octopus Grandma is cooking has grown to titanic proportions. “¡Tenga cuidado!” Ramsey shouts. “Be careful!” But it’s too late. The octopus traps Grandma!

Ramsey uses both art and intellect to free his beloved abuela.

Then the story takes a surprising twist. And it can be read two ways. Open the fold-out pages to find Ramsey telling a story to his family. Keep the pages folded, and Ramsey’s octopus adventure is real.

This beautifully illustrated picture book, drawn from the author’s childhood memories, celebrates creativity, heroism, family, grandmothers, grandsons, Puerto Rican food, Latinx culture and more.

With an author’s note and the Velasquez family recipe for Octopus Stew!