Reading as Medicine
By Matt Golec
Brother and sister team Dillin and Morgan Reed are picking out books.
There are lots of choices in the giant, well-organized bookcases and the siblings from Baltimore, Vt., take their time poring over covers and showing off possible titles to take home.
Eventually, each settles on a book: Castaways of the Flying Dutchman by Brian Jacques, a pirate-y adventure, for Dillin, 10 (“Looked interesting,” he says) and Owl in the Garden by Berniece Freschet and Carol Newsom, a picture book, for Morgan, 7 (“I like to look at the pictures,” she says).
Reach Out and Read
Despite the literary surroundings, the Reeds aren’t at a bookstore or library. Instead, they have just seen a doctor at Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center’s Pediatrics Department in Windsor, Vt., where every kid gets to take home a free book.
The practice participates in a national program called Reach Out and Read, which helps provide new books to kids aged 6 months to 5 years during annual well-child visits. This practice, however, goes above and beyond by collecting gently-used books to give to all patients (and patients’ siblings) regardless of age and at every visit.
“The kids really enjoy them,” says pediatrician and chief book collector Dr. Mary Bender. “And it’s a way to get back on their good side” after swabbing their throat or poking them with a needle.
But putting books in kids’ hands generates more than goodwill. Dr. Bender explains how books lead to kids becoming better readers, writers and communicators. Parents reading out loud can help their kids develop lifelong reading habits while strengthening the parent-child bond.
Research cited by the Reach Out and Read program agrees that early reading is important: kids who are exposed to books do not struggle as much with reading in early grades. That can set them up for success later in school — and life.
Books for Wellness
Books can even be seen as medicine, of a sort. Thanks to vaccines, Dr. Bender does not see many infectious diseases and has more time to focus on overall child wellness. To treat patients’ stress and anxiety, pediatricians at Mt. Ascutney commonly prescribe exercise, relaxation techniques, less “screen time” and, of course, more books.
“Sometimes kids really do have challenging lives, and books are a great escape,” Dr. Bender says, adding that books are a nice way to wind down from a busy day. “We want there to be a book by every bed.”
Mt. Ascutney’s pediatric practice has been putting books by kids’ beds for more than a decade through the Reach Out and Read program, but about six years ago they also began giving out used books to kids who were too old for Reach Out and Read or were at the doctor’s office for something other than a well-child visit.
“I didn’t like being in the position of telling kids they couldn’t have a book,” Dr. Bender says.
There’s no firm number on how many books the practice has given away, but clinical secretary Sue Miller-Goulet estimates that between five and 20 books go out the door each day, depending on patient volume. Even at the low end, that’s more than a thousand volumes per year. “We have given away a lot of books,” Miller-Goulet says.
Miller-Goulet enjoys when kids come back to her office to show off the books they’ve picked out. She likes to ask them what they think the book will be about from looking at the cover and, if Miller-Goulet has some time, she might even start reading the first few pages with the child. The books make pediatric visits more pleasant for kids, and they help build relationships between health care providers and their patients.
“The kids who come here, once they know the routine, they’re excited to be here, excited to pick out a book,” Miller-Goulet says.
You Can Help
The book program is successful, though running it takes money and time. Financial donations help purchase the new Reach Out and Read books, while staff members buy most of the used books themselves at church, rummage and library sales. Miller-Goulet also credits “book angels” who drop off books for the program.
As for time, last year Miller-Goulet drafted Hatsy McGraw, a retired elementary school librarian, to help her keep the shelves organized and appealing to young readers. McGraw volunteers about once per week. She groups the books for bigger kids up high and the littler kids’ books down low. She restocks the shelves, filling in gaps where popular books — series like the Magic Treehouse and young adult fantasy books — have been snapped up. If kids ask, she’ll offer book recommendations, but she’s happy to let them discover books on their own.
“The idea is to keep kids reading,” McGraw says.
McGraw notes that the program is especially nice for those families who can’t afford a lot of books. “It’s pretty wonderful to know that you can take it (a book) home with you and keep it,” she says.
Douglas Reed, father of Dillin and Morgan, says his kids love the book program. He likes how it encourages reading, and also how it makes them more excited to come to the pediatrician.
“It isn’t just a doctor appointment,” Reed says. “They get some fun out of it.”
Matt Golec lives in Norwich, Vt., where he does some writing, game design, and light child care. Matt, his wife and son have lived in the Upper Valley for 10 years, though it doesn’t feel nearly that long. For more, visit mattgolec.com