April 26, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Building Bridges: Up Close with Librarian Assistant Rebecca Zarazan Dunn

“If you can bring the community into the library, those children will ultimately flourish. And if a library can go outside of its walls, you’re only expanding the area in which young people can be affected,” says Rebecca Zarazan Dunn, 2013 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, lifelong bookworm, blogger, advocate, youth services librarian assistant for the Lawrence Public Library (KS), and soon-to-be MLIS candidate.

After an early career in the fast-paced world of public relations in New York City, Dunn’s love of books finally led her “right where I need to be: in a library,” she says. “I’m surrounded by books all day, able to channel past work experiences like event planning and promotion, and best of all I get to see some of the coolest people you’ll ever meet—the kids of Lawrence, Kansas.”

In this fifth of a dozen planned interviews with the youth services librarians named as Mover & Shakers this year, Dunn shares her top kids’ book picks of all time, her inspirations and passions, and why it’s critical for public librarians to collaborate with school librarians and teachers.

When did you know library science was the right choice?
Would it be too corny to say from the day I first started working at a library? Because that’s the truth. I’ve always been a bookworm with an enthusiasm for children’s literature, and I’ve been passionate about working with kids from very early on. From babysitting, to teaching swim lessons, to eventually coaching a swim team in my college years. My first job out of college while ‘looking for a real job’ was working as a bookseller and storyteller at Barnes & Noble. When my husband and I found out we were pregnant with our daughter, we decided to trade in our fast-paced living with a life more conducive to family. We moved to his small hometown of Ludington, MN, and then to Lawrence, KS.

Were you a library fan as a kid? What were your favorite books then?
Growing up we mostly visited the local book store. My mother was, and to this day is, a fervent reader. Reading was a very important part of my childhood and my mom reinforced that.

When I was a kid, I devoured reading anything with fairies or horses or magic. A few specific titles that first come to mind are The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit, The BFG by Roald Dahl, Black Beauty by Anne Sewell, anything by Brian Froud, the Emily of New Moon series by L.M Montgomery, and Calvin and Hobbes books by Bill Watterson.

What books are on your all-time top lists for older kids?
Hardest. Question. Ever. How many can I choose? 20? 50? 100? 200?
An abbreviated list of books on my all-time top books for older readers:

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt (Farrar, 1975)
The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall (Knopf, 2005)
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume (Dutton, 1972)
Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Dial, 2011)
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle (Ariel, 1962)
“The Dark Is Rising” sequence by Susan Cooper  (S & S/Atheneum)
“Gregor the Overlander” series by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic)
Matilda by Roald Dahl (Jonathan Cape, 1988)
Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo (Candlewick, 2000)
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly (Holt, 2009)
“A Tale Dark and Grimmseries by Adam Gidwitz (Dutton)
Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath (Farrar, 2001)
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (Epstein & Carroll, 1961)
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin (Little Brown, 2009)
The Giver by Lois Lowery (Houghton, 1993)
Mrs. Piggle Wiggle by Betty MacDonald (Lippincott, 1957)
Beauty by Robin McKinley
Big Nate series by Lincoln Peirce
Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar
Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
The Mysterious Benedict Society series by Trenton Lee Stewart
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
Babymouse series by Jennifer Holm
Bone series by Jeff Smith
Drama by Raina Telgemeier
Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
The Dream Keeper and other Poems by Langston Hughes

As far as new middle grade fiction books, my favorites this year include:
The Center of Everything by Linda Urban
Hokey Pokey by Jerry Spinelli
Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

What are you reading right now for yourself?
I just finished Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys, a YA historical novel about one girl’s struggle to break free of her past in 1950’s New Orleans. Currently, I’m reading Hold Fast, the latest middle grade book by Blue Balliett. I highly recommend both.

What was programming like at Lawrence Public Library before you got there? Did you have goals in mind before you started?
Programming within the children’s department had the same, successful routine for years and years: weekly storytimes, a monthly book club, special programs during Spring Break, and intensive programming during the summer months. My role was basic in the beginning…but within the first few weeks a switch was flipped. I started having ideas of how our library could engage its young patrons outside of those regular programs. Within a few months, I started working towards bringing a few of those concepts to life, starting with the Tournament of Kids’ Books.

Lawrence is the home of University of Kansas and is a huge basketball town. To piggy-back off the March Madness excitement, I bracketed the most circulated older reader books from the previous year and the kids voted each week throughout the month of March for their favorite titles. The winner was declared by two KU basketball players, Jeff Withey and Justin Wesley. We also raffled off new books, a basketball signed by the 2011-12 KU team, and the players each read a picture book to the audience. It was a treat for the kids to see their heroes in the library reading. Partnering with the KU Athletic Department was so successful that we decided to give it a go again this year.  It was also the gateway program from which sprouted more ideas and thus started my community programming crusade.

KU basketball players Jeff Withey and Justin Wesley read aloud at Lawrence Public Library.

What are you most proud of at your library?
Being a positive influence for the kids I assist on a daily basis, whether it’s through programming, storytime, helping with a homework assignment, or assisting them in finding a book to read. Being that person outside of their home who believes in their potential for great things and is able to give them the resources to help them succeed.

Who do you collaborate the most with there?
Susan Brown, marketing director, and Rachel Smalter Hall, our former adult service programs librarian were the individuals I collaborated with most. Their energy and creativity is contagious and made working on these types of projects very easy.

One of your biggest early projects was the expansion of the Read Across Lawrence (RAL) program to include children, starting with Marie Rutkoski’s fantasy book Cabinet of Wonders. Can you tell us more about your idea, and why you chose that book?
The One Book, One Community experience was developed as a way to bring individuals together through reading. It seemed a natural extension to expand this annual celebration to the children of the library. I also looked at it as an excellent opportunity to team up with the schools.

[Choosing Cabinet of Wonders] was a decision with many, many layers. I wanted to choose a book that first and foremost would be exciting for the kids to read, something that they’d want to read. It was also important that, if I wanted the schools to be involved, it could be incorporated into teaching curriculum and that the school libraries would have copies already in their collections.

Read Across Lawrence for Kids wasn’t just one event. It was a myriad of events and activities. In conjunction with handing out free books, exciting and engaging programs based on the featured title were offered throughout the month, enriching the experience by making it an interactive endeavor kids could share with their peers.

How did you collaborate with teachers and school librarians on RAL?
Early on in the project, I knew that if I wanted RAL Kids to be as successful as I envisioned it being, I had to get the school librarians and teachers behind it. I contacted every elementary and middle school librarians in the Lawrence area presenting this program as an opportunity for the public library and the schools to join forces in the unique act of city of kids sharing one story. From there the school librarians promptly relayed the information to their teachers and the news spread throughout Lawrence. Each week I kept both school librarians and teachers updated on the RAL Kids events offered and also made sure to include reading resources and tools to help with their classroom curriculum. In return they shared pictures and stories of their student’s work and excitement about the books and the program. Not every child is able to make it the public library; so integrating the Read Across Lawrence for Kids book into the classroom was a great way for even more children to participate in this shared experience with their peers. If they can’t come to the library, this was a way to bring the library to them.

Many teachers and school librarians also mentioned how it wasn’t only the students—parents were setting aside time to read the book together with their children.

In my opinion, the greatest achievement of this venture was the collaboration between our library and the city’s teachers and school librarians. They were the biggest champions and therefore came to be the pillars that raised this program above and beyond anything I could have ever imagined it could be.

Pizza party kick-off for the Read Across Lawrence Kids campaign.

Will you be doing this every year? If so, what other books would you like to feature?
We do plan on having a parallel kids program again this year. I’m currently reviewing books that might fit the bill. It’s a tough decision, but I’m getting closer every day to selecting this year’s title, and have a few clear favorites in mind. The adult Read Across Lawrence book this year is The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan, so I’ve been looking for a middle grade fiction book that also takes place during The Great Depression.

What’s the response like from kids who participated in your programming?
I see them on a daily basis. One of my favorite things to do is book talk with the kids, ask them what they’re reading, what they’re friends are reading, how school is going, etc. There is no age boundary between us. I treat them as my equal and in return that’s how they treat me. They see me not only as a librarian, but as a friend.

You were pegged as a “Community Builder.”  Is that how you see yourself?
Absolutely. Librarians, teachers, parents, businesses, the city in which we live…we all have similar goals for our youth. We want to help them grow in a nurturing, enriching environment that allows them to evolve, learn, spark creativity, and dream. But by definition community builder requires a community. Yes, I…established the contact, but that means nothing unless they are open to that contact. Lawrence, KS, is a special place. It’s a city that has a lot of pride in its community and its library. I just found ways to bring separate entities together by way of the public library in support of a shared vision.

What do you think are the big issues and challenges in children’s services right now? Standing in the way of ourselves. I’m so inspired by today’s children’s librarians: maker spaces, STEM programming, tech literacy. I’ve witnessed so many creative trends and learning devices for kids and I’ve only been working in a library for a couple of years. Alternatively, I’ve also heard a lot of ‘can’t.’ ‘We can’t collaborate with the schools.’ ‘We can’t manage large programming.’ ‘We don’t have the staffing.’ ‘We can’t afford it.’ Yes you can. Sometimes it isn’t easy. Sometimes there are hoops to jump through. Sometimes you have to ask over and over and over again until you get a “yes.” Sometimes you have to ask for help. I had to. Don’t give up. Collaborate. It’s always worth it in the end.

What’s on your career wish list? What would you love to do that you haven’t done yet?
I’m interested in launching a program that specifically targets children with special needs. My mother-in-law is a high school special needs teacher, and just in conversations with her it is telling that there is a clear need for outlets and education within this demographic. One in 88 children are diagnosed with autism and it’s a number that continues to grow. I would like to make the library a place of utility and acceptance for those children.

What are the best professional development experiences that you have ever had?
Blogging for me has been an empowering and motivating part of my library life. I’ve met so many wonderful teachers, librarians, and bookish types through my blog, Sturdy for Common Things. I’m also honored to be a regular contributor to Library as Incubator Project, where I write about incorporating art education and appreciation into library storytime, something I’m extremely passionate about. And last, but not least, I have tremendous book love for the nerds of The Nerdy Book Club (yay nerds!). Their devotion to literacy and children’s books is truly inspiring.


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Karyn M. Peterson About Karyn M. Peterson

Karyn M. Peterson (kpeterson@mediasourceinc.com) is a former News Editor ofSLJ.



  1. Ashley P. says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you Rebecca for sharing your thoughts and passions! I can’t tell you how much reading this interview improved my week. I attended a class yesterday for my certification, and I left with the impression that I was doing programming and activities at my library all wrong. I’m a Children’s Librarian who has to think a bit outside of the box when it comes to programming for my school age kids because they simply won’t come in if I don’t. Once they get through the door and get to know me a little more, I can then sneak books and literacy things into the conversation. I’ve had huge success with non-traditional library programming, but I after yesterday I still found myself feeling like I’m doing it all wrong. You echoed my thoughts on library programming and my transition into the library world perfectly, and made me feel like there is someone else out there who is more like me. THANK YOU!

  2. It is not the building but the person doing the building. Good for you and how wonderful for those students! It is refreshing to read your enthusiasm! We also are a library always thinking outside of the box and have students here all the time. We have just launched a Minecraft world to mimic our actual building inside and out. The quests are literature based and have the player move around our collections. As they open the chest in each collection they are looking for the clue to move them to the next collection. The library is a community center and a destination!