Interview: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan, Bookends

Bookends Blog - A Booklist Online Blog, bannerHere is another in my series of children’s books blogger interviews. Today I report on my interview with Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan (abbreviated “CD” and “LR” below), who blog together at Bookends – A Booklist Online Blog.  Their “Bookends” blog is one of several hosted at the Booklist Online website.  Cindy and Lynn take a refreshing tag-team approach to their children’s book reviews. They are also both middle-school librarians, as you will see from the interview, so they have special insight on teen and tween readers. The point of these interviews, of course, is to help connect readers of Children’s Books and Reviews to some of the many other excellent websites focused on children’s books. So, after reading the interview, I encourage you to check out Cindy and Lynn’s “Bookends” blog (link above), as well as the other excellent resources they mention in the interview. Thanks Cindy and Lynn!

Q: How and when did you become interested in young adult and children’s books?

CD: In the fourth grade I was a library helper and soon decided that I wanted to become an author of books for children. I decided that a career in library science would be a good back up and would put me in touch with the market. Then I had a YA Literature class in college and was hooked. Now I just need to write that first book…

LR: I have always loved children’s books – I probably just have never really grown up.  Early in my library career I fell in love with that wonderful magic of connecting kids with good books.  My own children were big readers, which just reinforced my love of youth books.  As much as I love adult books, I think my heart has always been with youth books.

Q: What sort of librarians are you?  Where do you work?

CD: We were both middle school librarians for West Ottawa Public Schools in Holland, Michigan, until 3 years ago. Sadly, as is happening across our state, two of our four secondary librarian positions were eliminated and Lynn was displaced due to seniority. As of this writing I service both her middle school and mine with a total of 1800 students. I started my career as a public children’s librarian working with preschoolers through teens.

LR: Cindy and I worked in the same middle school library for a while – and those were FUN years! Then as the district grew we were in different buildings until I was displaced. I am not working in a library now sadly but I still do a lot of volunteer work including helping with our long-running book club.

Q: When and how did you start your “Bookends” blog on Booklist Online?

CD: At our state school library conference (MAME) in October 2008 I attended a session about blogging. I wanted to try it with my middle school students so Lynn and I decided to start a book blog for our own learning curve and to have a fun project to work on together, and to have book reviews posted for our students, faculty, and parents. We quickly became addicted.

LR: We did that for about a year and then Bill Ott from Booklist Online emailed us.  Booklist Online wanted to add to their group of regular bloggers.  They asked us to become their Youth Blog which we decided to do.  They wanted us to keep right on doing what we had been doing so we happily moved to the Booklist Online banner.  Their one stipulation was that we try to blog three times a week, which works out to a LOT of books!

Q: What is the content of your “Bookends” blog, and what are your goals for it?

LR: We do a lot of presentations on new books for librarians and teachers and we decided to make the “Bookends” blog an extension of that and focus on reading and recommending books.  Many blogs do a lot of other things like professional and publishing industry news with reviews mixed in.  We decided to focus on the reviews. We try to have books that are a mix of ages and genres and publishers.  We also try to find great books that are under the radar.

Mr. Putter and Tabby Spill the BeansCD: New books are a focus because selectors want to know what is coming but we also like to highlight old favorites and books we missed when they first published. Lynn came up with the idea for a Series Stars feature, too, in which we highlight books in a series (fiction and nonfiction) that we like, often when a new book appears in the series. Sometimes that clues us in to a series that was under our radar, like Cynthia Rylant’s endearing beginner reader series about Mr. Putter and his cat Tabby that we recently discovered and blogged.

Q: How do you two work together on the “Bookends” blog?  What advantages and challenges does working as a team bring?

LR: Well, I nag a lot 😉  I’m not working full time like Cindy is so I keep the schedule and try to keep us organized.  We both read widely and when one of us finds something we especially like, we get it to the other person to read. We try to take turns starting the blog and the first entry includes the plot summary.  Then the other person adds her perspective.  We talk and email each other a LOT too – about what we are reading, the schedule, ideas for entries…and we kvetch to each other about life in general too.

CD: We’ve been talking books together for almost two decades and have similar tastes. We love literarily challenging books but we also read like 12-year-old boys much of the time so we are usually willing to read what the other suggests. I maintain a spreadsheet of the year’s starred reviews to keep those books on our radar but we both do much searching for blog-worthy books, beyond the incredible boxes that arrive on our porches. My biggest challenge is keeping up with Lynn’s reading pace. I’m a much slower reader in general, but who has time for a speed-reading class and still be able to blog? The advantages to writing Bookends are enormous. The blog is great fun to research and write and it keeps us talking books together now that we don’t get to work together every day.

Q: I understand you have had a leading role on several young adult book award committees.  Tell me about that.

CD: For ALA I’ve chaired the 2003 Best Books for Young Adults Committee, the 2005 Margaret A. Edwards Award for YA Literature and the 2007 Michael L. Printz Award. I’m currently serving on the 2010 and 2011 L.A. Times Book Prize jury for the Teen Literature Category. All of the committees took an enormous amount of personal time to do the searching, reading, and record-keeping but I gained some fabulous colleague mentors and learned so much about critiquing and discussing literature through these awesome opportunities.

LR: Cindy and I both honed our book committee skills with 3 years on BBYA – an experience that was invaluable and intense.  I chaired the 2006 BBYA committee and the 2008 Michael L. Printz Award.  I’m serving on the 2012 Newbery Committee, which begins work in January 2011  – something I’m really excited about.

Q: Why do you review children’s books and not adult books?

CD: I review children’s books because I work in a middle school library and I can use my blog work to also benefit my students. Fortunately, I think teen literature in particular has some of the most innovative and risk-taking writing happening right now. I’m thrilled to have a chance to spread the word about the great books available for young readers.

LR: Well, I love children’s literature and also for a long time reading all the new books was an important part of my job.  It made sense to review them.  Now – well, what can I say?  I’m hooked.  I agree with Cindy that some of the best work being done in literature is in children’s and teen books.

Q: Do you have a favorite kind of book (e.g., fiction, non-fiction, age category, poetry, etc.)?  If so, why is it your favorite?

CD: My perfect book makes me laugh, cry, and think and leaves me wondering what is happening next to characters I’ve grown to care about.

LR: The real truth is that I read like a 12-year-old boy.  I love science fiction and fantasy, mystery, sports fiction, humor and nonfiction.  I’m not a fan of books that make me cry, most verse novels and chick lit.  And then there’s horror – well – not my thing either.  On the other hand, to balance that I admire brilliant innovative writing and can love almost anything that is beautifully crafted.

Q: What criteria do you use to evaluate the books you review?

CD: My flip answer is “thin books with good editing.” I’m a bit weary of bloated texts that try too hard to be the next “big” adventure. The serious answer I’ll leave to Lynn, who I learn from daily about how to evaluate literature.

LR: I really feel that my training grounds were the ALA committees that I was lucky enough to serve on.  There were some amazing people on those committees and listening to them evaluate books was better than any graduate literature course I ever took.  I had done a lot of reading on literary criticism but the experience of those three intense years on BBYA, huge reading loads and incredible in-depth discussions was invaluable.  Serving with a truly amazing committee on the Printz where literary excellence is the entire focus was the frosting on the cake.  Those standards remain key to me when I review books.  I can’t say enough about those committee experiences.  Because our audience is librarians and teachers who are purchasing and recommending books to kids and teens, reader appeal is a very important factor for us as well.

Q: I understand that you make use of a “focus group” in reviewing books; who makes up that focus group, and how does it influence your assessment of books?

Booklist Online Bookends Blog focus group

"Bookends" blog focus group

LR: I take care of my 7-year-old twin grandsons before and after school and I read to them a lot.  Cindy and I started blogging picture books that they especially liked and as a joke we started calling them our focus group.  Now we really do use them as a focus group and we test books on them.  They take their role VERY seriously.  One of their teachers told me that after he had read a book to the class one of the boys had informed him that the “page-turns were nicely designed.”  They are very clear about what they like and don’t like although they often surprise us.  I also read to the boys’ classes as a volunteer so that gives me a chance to work with large groups of young critics.

CD: Our focus group is awesome, and when they give a book “two thumbs up” I pay attention! We also have a teen book club at school that focuses on reading BBYA nominated books and we listen to their feedback for our assessments and also to guide our reading choices.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your work around children’s books?

LR: It is hard to choose just one element.  Part of it is still the personal reading experience.  Part of it is sharing the books with my grandsons and watching them fall in love with books and reading, and part of it is that incredibly satisfying pleasure of connecting students with the right book.  There is nothing like it.

CD: The way a child or student lights up when they find a book they connect with and the passion and enthusiasm with which they tell me about it.

Q: If you had to give one piece of advice to readers to help them choose children’s books, what would it be?

CD: Involve the child in the choice. Allow them to select books that they are interested in and never say “that’s too old/young/stupid” or other disparaging remarks about what they are selecting. I heard all of these things in my years in the public library where parents tried to help and really turned a kid off reading. You can supplement what they select, but allow them the sovereignty over their own choice even if it means they “waste” their time reading a complete series of formulaic books like I did with Nancy Drew.

LR: Never underestimate a reader.  I’ve sat in a lot of committees and heard people say that “no teen will ever read this book,” only to go back to school and hear a teen tell me how brilliant the book is.  As adults we tend to put our own preferences and sadly, limitations, on the teens we serve.  Certainly we can make our own assessments of literary quality and guess at overall appeal but I think we are venturing on thin ice when we decide that “no teen will ever read this.”  As librarians I think we should be doing our best to serve ALL our kids.

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