'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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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.