Posted October 11, 2018 – Cheers from hundreds of tweens echo through the hallways of South Houston High School. The students stare in awe at the authors on stage, snapping photos to share on social media. The authors in turn take photos of their fans.
Margaret Hale, a clinical professor at the University of Houston College of Education, smiles as she describes how the Tweens Read book festival she helped launch has taken on a concert-like vibe in recent years.
The eighth-annual festival, a collaboration with Blue Willow Bookshop, takes places Saturday at the high school at 3920 South Shaver St. The daylong event, designed to foster a lifelong love of literacy, allows middle school-age students to hear from their favorite authors and to return home with autographs. It’s recognized as one of the nation’s only literary gatherings targeting the tween crowd.
Hale, associate chair of the College’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction, took time before the big event to answer some questions.
Q: What prompted you to start the Tweens Read festival?
A: I worked at a middle school in Pasadena ISD. My friend and I went and volunteered at another book festival that’s aimed at high school kids, and we decided we wanted one for middle school kids.
Q: How has the festival grown throughout the years?
A: The first year we had about 300 people. We now have between 2,000 and 2,500 come every year.
Q: How do you go about gathering authors to speak at this event?
A: Blue Willow’s events coordinator, Cathy Berner, works with publishers to secure authors for the event. At first Blue Willow and Tweens Read asked publishers for authors, and now it’s switched. Publishers contact Blue Willow asking if they can send authors.
Q: Who are some notable authors who have been featured at Tweens Read?
A: Jason Reynolds, Jacqueline Woodson, Gene Luen Yang, Kathi Appelt and Crystal Allen. This year our keynote speaker is Varian Johnson. We have a mixture of authors. We always have award-winning authors and debut authors.
Q: What do you see in kids who attend the festival?
A: I see a lot of excitement. The kids who come are so excited to be meeting their favorite authors. When we introduce them at the beginning of the day, the kids all have their phones out and are taking pictures, tweeting it, snapchatting it and instagramming it. The authors are also doing the same. The authors are those kids’ rock stars.
Q: Do you believe there is a literacy crisis in schools today?
A: I don’t necessarily think there is a crisis. I think we have moved from getting kids engaged and motivated to read to just focusing on getting them ready to take a test.
Q: What is your personal opinion of these tests?
A: I would rather [students] read more books and read widely. I think we need to remember that the STAAR [State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness] is a snapshot of a student. That is just a student’s performance on one particular day and not necessarily indicative of their ability.
Q: Can people volunteer at Tweens Read?
A: Absolutely. Anybody can volunteer. We have volunteers from lots of different school districts, and we have a lot of volunteers from the College of Education coming this year. I know a lot of my students are going. We also work with high schools to get student volunteers from National Honor Societies.
Q: How does one sign up to volunteer?
A: Just go to tweensread.com, and there is a link on the front page where you can sign up to volunteer.
Q: How much of a reader were you when you were younger?
A: I’ve been a reader all my life. I grew up with a family of readers. I was surrounded by books. My grandmother worked at the public library, and I spent time with her in the summers. I did the reading program every summer. It’s always been a part of my life.
Q: How did you get into teaching?
A: Both my parents were educators. They encouraged me not to become a teacher, but when I was in college, I had a part-time job at a state school in Austin and spent a lot of time working with kids there. Ultimately, I decided that was what I wanted to do.
Q: Favorite book?
A: My favorite children’s book is Corduroy. I grew up with my parents and my grandmother reading it to me. My favorite adult book is Beach Music by Pat Conroy. It could change tomorrow. I’m always reading new stuff.
–By Alberto Huichapa