Pediatrician treats reading as key part of patients' lives
Host Amber Smith: Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York, invites you to be The Informed Patient with the podcast that features experts from Central New York's only academic medical center. I'm your host, Amber Smith.
Dr. Jaclyn Sisskind is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Upstate who believes in the power of books so much so that she sometimes prescribes specific books to her patients.
She recently wrote about her practice in the School Library Journal, and she's here to tell us about that. Welcome back to "The Informed Patient," Dr. Sisskind.
Jaclyn Sisskind, MD: Thank you so much for having me again.
Host Amber Smith: Now, I know you ask each of your patients what they're reading. So I'd like to ask you, what are you reading?
Jaclyn Sisskind, MD: So, last night I just finished "The Last Mapmaker." This is a book by Christina Soontornvat, and it is a fantastic book for middle-grade students about a girl who is trying to get out of where she lives and find a better life for herself. So that's the book I finished last night, but then, as far as grown-up books go, I'm reading "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow," which was a big book last year, and I didn't get a chance to read it.
Host Amber Smith: So you read some of the books that you may end up recommending to your patients, too, it sounds like.
Jaclyn Sisskind, MD: Absolutely. I never recommend a book to my patients that I haven't read first, and this time of year is really exciting for me, reading-wise and recommending-wise, because the American Library Association Youth Media Awards came out just at the end of January. that includes the Newbery (for children's literature) and the Caldecott (for children's picture book), and then a lot of others that people are not as familiar with.
And so for me, February and March is really just reading through that list and getting excited about all of the great books that came out last year.
Host Amber Smith: What's your impression of "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow" so far?
Jaclyn Sisskind, MD: I'm just at the beginning of it. I mean, I truly started the first two chapters last night because I finished "The Last Mapmaker" and wasn't quite ready for bed. It's really grabbed my attention, but I'm not that deep into it yet.
Host Amber Smith: Well, it's a controversial subject, but I know you feel strongly about the rise in book bans across the country and the impacts some of these books have had on your patients. You wrote in your essay about patients who've told you how certain books have allowed them to feel valid and worthy and not alone for the first time.
What are some of the book titles that you've seen be helpful to your patients?
Jaclyn Sisskind, MD: There are so many different books that I've recommended to my patients, and I know that you and I have spoken about that in past interviews, and I've written about them in some articles recently. I think the three books that I'm probably talking about the most with my patients right now: one is called "Different Kinds of Fruit," and that's by Kyle Lukoff, one is called "The Poet X," by Elizabeth Acevedo, and the other is "Starfish," by Lisa Fipps. These are three books that I've been recommending a lot recently because they deal with issues that my patients have been coming to me with recently.
"Starfish" is about body image and bullying. "Different Kinds of Fruit" is about a student who is struggling with their own sexual identity and learning about how they fit in with their group of friends, one of whom happens to come out as nonbinary. And "The Poet X" is a novel in verse that has won every possible award a children's book can win, and it is about a girl who's in a difficult relationship with her mom and is trying to find her way. And the way she finds herself is through poetry and spoken word.
I tend to recommend those a lot, and what really warms my heart is recently, as I've been talking about some of those books, my patients have said, "Oh, I heard about that one already, either through school or through a friend, and so it's really exciting to me that these titles are getting the traction that they deserve.
I hate to call out one particular book over another because there's so many I recommend, and I don't want anyone to be left out. But I think those are the three that I'm recommending the most recently, and it's worth noting that "Different Kinds of Fruit" and "The Poet X" are on the list of some of the most challenged titles in school districts right now, and not just in school districts, but also public libraries. And so, as much as it warms my heart that when I recommend them, people have heard about it, it really makes me sad to know that the access to these books is being limited across the country.
Host Amber Smith: What is objectionable in them? I mean, your description makes them sound like lovely books. What is objectionable?
Jaclyn Sisskind, MD: They are lovely books. They're lovely, important books, and I think what is objectional about them is that they feature characters who have not traditionally been featured in the literature that came before. So there are characters that are not white, characters that are queer, characters that have traditionally been bullied.
It's not often that an overweight child is the main protagonist in a book. Often they're the sidekick, or they're treated as someone who's not intelligent, or they're the butt of the joke. And so, to put those characters that have often been marginalized in the spotlight and say, "This is my story, this is what's happening to me," I think that's the problem that people have with a lot of these books.
Host Amber Smith: What has it accomplished by making those books unavailable? If a person goes to the library to get them, they're banned, they're not there, to the school and they can't get them, what does that accomplish?
Jaclyn Sisskind, MD: I think, honestly, it's othering, is what it's doing. I think that it is working to silence the voices of the people whose voices most need to be heard. And I think it's a problem that has two prongs.
The first is that it denies kids the chance, and I'm just talking about children's literature right now, certainly adults can find themselves in these books, too, right? But it takes kids that might see themselves in that book, and it decreases their opportunity for them to see themselves on the page, to see their experience represented. And that could make them feel ashamed for who they are, especially if they're being told that book is not available because it is, quote, inappropriate, right? That's telling the child: You are inappropriate. It's also going to make the child feel erased. It may make them feel less apt to speak up about an experience that they've had because they think that it's not acceptable to others So that's a big problem.
And I think that the second problem is that it denies any child the opportunity to see the experience of others through a book, right?
So there are some people who perhaps are white, perhaps are cisgendered, perhaps consider themselves to be straight, but could certainly benefit from reading about the experience of someone else their age, who is not those things. And, in a very idealistic way, I think that could make us a more accepting, peaceful society if we all listened to each other's experiences more.
And what better opportunity to do that than in childhood, in adolescence, when your brain is so open to learning and being accepting to other people's experiences.
Host Amber Smith: This is Upstate's "The Informed Patient" podcast. I'm your host, Amber Smith, and I'm talking with Dr. Jaclyn Sisskind. She's the "readiatrician," you might say. She's a pediatrician who really respects books and uses them in her practice.
So is there any middle ground? Are there any sorts of reasonable limitations on who can read what that would make everybody happy?
Jaclyn Sisskind, MD: Of course there is. I think there are resources that we have that we could be using better.
So school librarians, English teachers, elementary and middle school teachers have been specifically trained to know what is out there in the world of children's literature and to help connect kids to the book that is right for them. And so when it comes to middle ground, I think the middle ground is: Keep the book, keep all of the books in the library and in the classrooms, and trust that the people who are trained to help connect kids to the right book are doing their job and helping kids, find the right book for them or being able to gently say to them, knowing what I know about you and your current reading level, I think this book is a little bit of a stretch for you. Let's find something similar that might meet your interest but be more approachable for you. And parents can also always have a voice in what their children are reading.
But when it comes to book banning in schools and in public libraries, parents are not just making a decision for their own child. They're making a decision for every child, and I think it's very important for people to have access to these books. So if there's a particular book that a parent has a problem with, they can talk to their child or their child's educator or their child's librarian about why this particular book makes me feel uncomfortable.
It might be a great opportunity for discussion and for the parent to hear both sides of why that book is there, but to limit access to all children by taking the books out entirely is a really dangerous thing.
Host Amber Smith: Now, you being a parent yourself of readers, I'm sure you're raising your children as readers, if one of your children chose a title that you thought was a little bit of a grasp for them at that level, but they really wanted to read it, what would you do?
Jaclyn Sisskind, MD: I would let them read it. And that's happened before in our house. I think there's two kinds of reaching.
One is, this book is really too hard for you, right? Like you are in second grade, and this is a book that's intended for a 10th-grader, let's say. And I just don't think you have the stamina to get through this book, or you're going to have to be looking up all the vocabulary. But if you want to try it, try it. And that's happened.
And my son said, "I think this book's too hard for me."
And I said, I agree. And he put it down.
And then the other kind of reaching is, this book is at your level, grade-wise, but perhaps the concepts in it are going to be challenging for you. And when that has happened, I've had a conversation with my son to say, I think this book is going to talk about things that you might find scary. The book in question that he brought home was a book about the Holocaust. And so I said, you know, I think there may be things in this book that you find scary, but the things in this book really happened, and sometimes scary things happened.
So if you want, we can read this book together. This is a book I've already read, so if you want, I can give you a summary, and then you can see how you feel about experiencing it yourself.
Or, if you want, you can wait until you're a little older or the summertime, when it's not dark so early, and it won't feel scary at night, and we can read this book at a different time.
And he ended up wanting to read the book, and he did, and he said that he was glad we had had the talk beforehand because he was prepared for it.
And he knew that he could talk to me throughout the book if anything was upsetting or confusing or scary, as it was. And I think that type of template of conversation could be applied to any book: a book about gender, a book about racial inequality, a book about violence, a book about the death of a parent.
Life is full of uncomfortable things, and sometimes a book is a safe way to explore those topics because you can close it and put it down. You can talk about it with somebody. You can take your time with it. Unlike watching a TV show or a movie where it's just sort of coming at you. Of course, you can hit "pause," but it's a different type of thing. I think books are the best way to explore those uncomfortable situations.
Host Amber Smith: Now, I know with your individual patients you give personalized recommendations, but can you give us some reading recommendations for kids who are, let's say, dealing with issues of body image? I know you already mentioned "Starfish," was it?
Jaclyn Sisskind, MD: Yeah, so "Starfish" is a novel in verse by Lisa Fipps. It is such a fantastic book. I think anyone who has talked to me since probably the middle of 2020 until now has heard me talk about "Starfish."
I have a book club that I run now for pediatricians at Upstate. It's called Pedia Lit, and we read one book a month, and Starfish was our first book because I think it's so important for adults, for health care providers, anyone who was a kid or works with kids should read this book, so I recommend "Starfish" often.
Also there's a book called "Taking Up Space," by Alyson Gerber, that I think is very good.
So "Starfish" talks about a girl who is overweight and dealing with bullies.
"Taking Up Space" talks about a girl who thinks she is overweight, but she's actually working through an eating disorder. And so it's the opposite side of things. It's an excellent book and a book that shows therapy and the positive impact that teachers and guidance counselors can have, in a really approachable light. So, I love that book.
Another one that I think is just a fun one is called "Fat Chance, Charlie Vega." This is by Crystal Maldonado, and it's a book for high school students about a girl who is overweight but very proud of who she is and is dealing with the people in her life who are telling her that she should be a different size.
Host Amber Smith: What about books for dealing with the loss of a parent?
Jaclyn Sisskind, MD: "Red, White, and Whole" is a great book that deals with a girl who's losing her mother to leukemia, and it's set in the 1980s, so I liked it a lot just because the soundtrack and the styles were very much my youth. But the kids that I've recommended it to said that "Wow, this hurt my soul a little bit," but they said they liked that it was a vintage book, which made me sad because it was set in the '80s, and I'm not vintage yet. But that book is by Rajani LaRocca, and it's just a wonderful story. It was a Newbery Honor book last year.
Also, there's a new picture book that just came out called "Sitting Shiva." It's by Erin Silver, and it's illustrated by Michelle Theodore. This is a book that talks about a girl whose mother just died, and they're working through the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva, which is a seven-day mourning period right after death. And the purpose of it is that the family is not alone, and the girl does not want all these people in the house.
And then she starts to understand how that community afterwards can help you work through the emotions of sadness. And I think that this book really applies, even though it's about a Jewish tradition. It's a lovely picture book for anybody who's going through loss.
Host Amber Smith: What about some books for someone who's feeling surrounded by bad news?
Jaclyn Sisskind, MD: "Everywhere Blue," by Joanne Fritz, is a book about a girl whose family is struggling. Her parents aren't communicating well, her older brother has run away from college, and she's just trying to deal with all of that. Plus the regular stresses and drama of being a middle school girl. And I think it's a book a lot of people can identify with.
But also, sometimes when you're feeling like you're surrounded by bad news, you just want to read a book that makes you feel happy and hear about a person who was in a bad situation and came out OK. And so for me, that book is "Donuts and Other Proclamations of Love," by Jared Reck. Written for high school students, it's funny, and it's sweet, and it's got some sad, deep parts to it, but in the end it just has the ending that you want it to.
Host Amber Smith: And what about for kids who are struggling with loneliness?
Jaclyn Sisskind, MD: There are two books by the same author that I just love for this sort of thing. Both of the books are by Erin Entrada Kelly.
One is called "We Dream of Space." The other is "Hello, Universe."
"We Dream of Space" is about a girl -- it's also set in the '80s -- it's a girl who feels lonely in her family. Her parents are on the brink of divorce. She and her brothers aren't connecting very well, and she really hooks into the astronauts that are going up in the (space shuttle) Challenger and wants to be an astronaut and really connects with them. And the story brings you through leading up to and then after the disaster and how she finds friends and solace in her family.
And "Hello, Universe," also by the same author, is about a boy who's just a loner and finds his group of friends in a very unconventional way.
Host Amber Smith: Well, Dr. Sisskind, thank you so much for making time to talk with me.
Jaclyn Sisskind, MD: Thank you so much for having me. And Amber, I just wanted to say at the end, if people are interested, and want to know what they can do about book banning in their community, there are a couple very small things that make a big difference. One is just to speak up, talking about the books that you love and why you love them.
If you are on social media, putting out a tweet or an Instagram post, this was a great book and here's why, it makes a big difference, especially if you tag the author in it. Speaking up at school board meetings and supporting your teachers and librarians, especially if you see that something like this is happening in your community.
The first thing to do is reach out to teachers and librarians and say, how can I help? When's the next meeting? Writing letters of support. Those are always to get voices out there fighting for the books and for everyone to have access to them.
Host Amber Smith: My guest has been Dr. Jaclyn Sisskind, a pediatrician from Upstate Medical University who's enthusiastic about reading. "The Informed Patient" is a podcast covering health, science and medicine, brought to you by Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York, and produced by Jim Howe. Find our archive of previous episodes at upstate.edu/informed.
This is your host, Amber Smith, thanking you for listening.