Difference Maker

'Super-librarian' figures out secret to getting kids to read

Librarian Cynthia Dobrez uses e-readers, bibliotherapy, and her own intuition in her middle school library in Michigan.

By , / Correspondent

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    Cynthia Dobrez says she’s never lost a game of ‘Stump the Librarian,’ in which she finds books for reluctant readers. She’s the director of two public middle-school libraries in Michigan, which has seen a reduction of its teacher-librarian corps from 2,000 in 2000 to just 500 today.
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When Angela Craft was a teen, she fell in love with a book, "Empress of the World," by Sara Ryan.

Her middle-school librarian, Cynthia Dobrez, told Angela that, if she could get herself to the American Library Association (ALA) meeting in Atlanta, Ms. Dobrez would arrange for her to meet Ms. Ryan.

One road trip with Mom later, Angela was having coffee with her idol. "I actually almost fainted," says Ms. Craft, now a young-adult book blogger in New York.

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Related: Report: Reading skills in early grades are crucial to success

That's how Dobrez does her job. She's about as far from an old-fashioned Marian the Librarian as a Kindle e-reader is from a parchment scroll.

"I love working with [early teens] – I just love it. The kids are at such a vulnerable time. The middle-school years can be so traumatic," says Dobrez, whose license plate is "R3AD." She loves to "connect them with a book that helps make those years a little bit easier."

A handbag in her office features the cover of a Three Dog Night album, "It's Not Easy." That sums up the state of affairs for school librarians across the United States.

Michigan has fewer than 500 teacher­-librarians, a loss of 1,500 in the past decade, according to the Michigan Association for Media in Education (MAME).

Dobrez's impeccable credentials have kept her in her beloved profession. In 1996, she was named the state's top school librarian by MAME. In 1997, her library was named one of two finalists for the best school library program in the US.

She has chaired the committee for the ALA's Printz Award, recognizing the best in young-adult literature. This year she also sits on the Los Angeles Times book award committee. She reviews young adult books for the ALA's influential Booklist and co-writes a blog, Bookends, with her colibrarian of many years, Lynn Rutan.

"We are so fortunate to host Cindy Dobrez's young-adult blog," says Laura Tillotson, editorial director of Booklist Books for Youth, in an e-mail.

As a result of budget cuts that cost Ms. Rutan her job in 2007, Dobrez now splits her time between Harbor Lights Middle School and Macatawa Bay Middle School in Holland, Mich. She's responsible for 1,800 students and 60,000 books and runs an after-school book club for students.

What she doesn't do much of is sit behind a desk, checking out books. There isn't time. A school librarian today is a guide to finding information, an ethicist on everything from plagiarism to cyberbullying, an adviser, a teacher, and, in Dobrez's case, a dispenser of "bibliotherapy" – matching the right book with the right kid.

"Books to me are a safe way to explore some of that dangerous minefield that's out there," she says.

"I firmly believe we don't trust enough in kids to make good choices. A kid raised with a certain set of values is not going to read one book and think, 'Oh, I'm going to throw out the last 13 years.' "

She cites the book "Speak," by Laurie Halse Anderson, about a girl who survives being raped and ostracized, as a prime example of the kind of edgy literature that can help struggling teens feel less alone.

Or take "The Astonishing Tale of Octavian Nothing," the National Book Award-winning novel. Dobrez heard much about how "teens won't get it; it's too difficult," she says. Yet "the theme of a young man who is coming of age ... there is no better teen theme," she says.

A boy who had never asked for a book recommendation before took it home. When he brought it back, Dobrez says, his response was: "Finally! An author who knows that teens have a brain."

While she still likes the feel of a book in her hand, Dobrez is an advocate for reading in any form, whether it's an e-book on her Droid phone or a hardback. (She's hoping to get e-readers into her library to encourage reluctant young readers.)

Teens don't have to be bookworms to be welcome. In fact, Dobrez uses strategies to make everyone feel welcome – from offering MP3 audiobooks to scavenger hunts to "Stump the Librarian," in which kids who don't like to read dare her to find them a book. In 20 years, "I have never been stumped, to my knowledge," she says.

Early on, Dobrez knew she wanted to be a school librarian. She didn't waver, even when she became class valedictorian and "my high school biology teacher told me I was crazy – I was wasting my education. That there wouldn't be any jobs left.

"I said, 'Well, if I'm one of the best [librarians], I'll still have a job,' " Dobrez remembers.

Many adults, even many other teachers, don't understand the role of a school librarian and therefore don't realize what is lost when the position is cut, says Nancy Everhart, head of the American Association of School Librarians.

Dobrez's students, however, seem aware of their librarian's worth. "I don't think I'd be as well-read or as intelligent now, if I hadn't met [her]," says Parker Kohl, a ninth-grader. "I always was a reader, but she totally upped it to the next level."

Parker says he's not sure Dobrez realizes how much she helped him. "She's just an amazing person," he says.

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