Meet our 2016 Houston Reading Rock Stars Authors

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The Texas Book Festival’s Reading Rock Stars program is a hands-on literacy initiative that sends nationally recognized authors into Title I schools in Texas to inspire young readers with dynamic presentations and send them home with the most empowering experience of all – their very own book. The Texas Book Festival funds and coordinates the author visits and donates the books to the children as well as a set of books to each school’s library. On December 1st, the Texas Book Festival will visit three schools in Houston with the following authors.


kathi-appeltKATHI APPELT is the New York Times best-selling author of more than forty books for children and young adults. Her first novel, THE UNDERNEATH, was named a National Book Award Finalist, a Newbery Honor Book, and the PEN USA Literature for Children Award. That was followed by KEEPER, which was named an NCTE Notable Children’s Book and a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year. Her memoir, MY FATHER’S SUMMERS, won the Paterson Prize for Young Adult Poetry. Ms. Appelt was presented with the A.C. Greene Award by the Friends of Abilene Public Library, which named her a “Texas Distinguished Author.” Her novel, THE TRUE BLUE SCOUTS OF SUGAR MAN SWAMP, was named a National Book Award Finalist and won the Green Earth Award, the Texas Institute of Letters Award, and the Judy Lopez Memorial Award. Her most recent picture book, COUNTING CROWS (illustrated by Rob Dunlavey), was a finalist for the Writers League of Texas Award. She and her husband Ken live in College Station, TX with five adorable cats, Django, Peach, Mingus, Chica and Jazz. For more information, check her website:

varsha-bajaj-photo-smallVARSHA BAJAJ grew up in a rambling house in Mumbai, India, surrounded by coconut, guava and beetle nut trees. When she came to the US to obtain her Masters degree, her adjustment to the country was aided by her awareness of the culture through books. She has written two previous picture books, as well as the middle grade novel Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood, which was shortlisted for the Cybils Award and included in the Spirit of Texas Reading Program.



nathan-hale-photo-smallNATHAN HALE is the #1 New York Times bestselling author and illustrator of the hit non-fiction graphic novels Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series and lives in Provo, Utah. Nathan’s first fiction comic that he has both written and illustrated will be available in Spring 2017. You can find him on twitter @MrNathanHale





Headshot of illustrator Juana Medina. 2013JUANA MEDINA was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia. She is the illustrator of Smick! by Doreen Cronin and the author-illustrator of One Big Salad. Juana Medina has studied and taught at the Rhode Island School of Design and now teaches at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design at George Washington University. She lives in Washington, D.C.





donna-janell-bowmanDONNA JANELL BOWMAN, a native Texan, is the author of nonfiction children’s books for trade and education publishers as well as articles and short stories in nationally acclaimed children’s magazines. Her soon-to-release narrative picture book biography, Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Taught the World about Kindness (Lee and Low, October 2016), illustrated by Daniel Minter, has been named a Junior Library Guild Selection for fall, 2016. Kirkus awardedStep Right Up a starred review, declaring it “An incredible story that ought to be widely known–a must-read.” Two additional picture book biographies are forthcoming: En Garde! Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words(Peachtree, Spring 2018), and King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara(Peachtree, Spring 2019). Donna is currently completing her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.



rene-saldana-jr-photo-smallRENÉ SALDAÑA, JR. is the author of the acclaimed Mickey Rangel Series of bilingual mysteries for intermediate readers: A Mystery Bigger than Big / Un misterio más grande que grandísimo(2016), The Mystery of the Mischievous Marker / El misterio del malvado marcador (2013), The Lemon Tree Caper / La intriga del limonero (2011) and The Case of the Pen Gone Missing / El caso de la pluma perdida (2009). He is also the author of a bilingual picture book, Dale, dale, dale: Una fiesta de números / Hit It, Hit It, Hit It: A Fiesta of Numbers (Piñata Books, 2014), which was named to the 2015-2016 Tejas Star Reading List. He lives in Lubbock, Texas, where he teaches in the College of Education at Texas Tech University.

wade-smith-photo-smallNFL veteran and Pro Bowl player from Dallas, Texas, WADE SMITH received his BA in Finance at the University of Memphis before being drafted by the Miami Dolphins in the third round of the 2003 NFL draft. In 2010, he joined the Houston Texans where he started 64 games. In 2011, he became the only offensive lineman in team history to score a touchdown after receiving a fumble in the end zone. Smith was voted to the NFL Pro Bowl AFC team in 2012, and that year he established The Wade Smith Foundation. The foundation supports community youth programs in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex and Greater Houston Areas, and focuses on literacy and education. Smith feels strongly about giving back to the communities that helped him succeed. He believes that the best way to do this is by encouraging kids to expand their minds by becoming avid readers and to make obtaining a college degree a realistic goal in life. In addition to his philanthropic work, Smith is a business owner. He and his wife, Rita, have three daughters and live in Houston.



emma-virjan-photo-smallEMMA J. VIRJÁN was born under an Aries moon on a Wednesday, her dad’s bowling night. She loves to draw, work in her garden and often lets her dog sleep on the couch. She makes her home in Austin, Texas, where she spends her days as an illustrator and graphic designer. Unlike Pig, Emma has never worn a wig, but she is thinking of buying one – a red one, of course. Visit her at