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How to raise a reader: Pediatrician shares her love of books and the almost-magical benefit of reading

Upstate pediatrician Jaclyn Sisskind, MD, reads to her sons, Eli, Jacob and Ari, as her husband, Ben Gnacik, looks on. (PHOTO BY SUSAN KAHN)

Upstate pediatrician Jaclyn Sisskind, MD, reads to her sons, Eli, Jacob and Ari, as her husband, Ben Gnacik, looks on. (PHOTO BY SUSAN KAHN)


Once upon a time, there was a family with three little boys.

Ari was 8, and he liked making chalk villages and playing the drums. Eli was 4, and he liked Legos and cooking. Jacob was just a baby, too little to say what his likes would be.

Their father was a science teacher, and he liked books. Their mother was a pediatrician, and she really liked books. So the boys would grow up liking music and building things and probably a lot of other stuff -- plus books.

Their mother read lots of books, starting when she was little. And she still read lots of books as a grown-up.

She knew that reading books could help kids develop language and listening skills. That it could improve their vocabulary and spur imagination. She liked being able to expose her sons to varying points of view and expand their understanding of the world by opening the pages of a book.

In fact, reading was so spectacularly beneficial that the mother wanted books to be a part of everyone‘s life.

So, when the mother went to her office to take care of her patients, she often talked about books with them. She would ask her oldest patients if they had read any good books lately. And she would offer the parents of her youngest patients suggestions of books to read with their children.

In her own quiet way, the mother set out to teach the world how to raise children who read.

Here‘s how:

Read to babies. “It‘s a great way to establish a bond between a baby and a caregiver,” says Jaclyn Sisskind, MD.

“The baby‘s on your lap, you‘re kind of cuddling, and most of the books that are written for this age are very rhythmic, there‘s a lot of rhyme to them, and there‘s a singsong pattern to your voice as you read. That can be very soothing and entertaining to a baby.”

Make reading part of a pattern as children get older. Children do not outgrow reading and its benefits. Even teens should be encouraged to read for pleasure, she says.

Share books that you remember from childhood. Sisskind says the Boxcar Children series, Little House on the Prairie series, books by Roald Dahl, the Anne of Green Gables books by L.M. Montgomery and the Harry Potter series still hold up.

Explore newer titles, too. Websites for book suggestions: kidsreads.com, spaghettibookclub.org, slimekids.com/book-reviews, dogobooks.com, teenreads.com, goodreads.com, onlib.org and apps.npr.org/best-books-2016 

Visit the library, so everyone can select his or her own books. Sisskind says, “I think there‘s some excitement in discovering a book on your own, that you choose.”

Read with them, but also model the behavior you want in them. “They should catch you reading,” she says. “They should see books around the house."

Use books to stimulate conversation. Parenthood is full of uncomfortable subject matter. Sisskind says books can be a go-between, a way to get kids talking.

“Being able to read something together and say, ‘How did you feel about what we just read?‘ Or ‘Look what that character was going through,‘ is a way to diffuse what can be a difficult discussion,” she says.

Some of her recommendations to spark conversation:

* Books about puberty

“Who has What? All About Girls‘ Bodies and Boys‘ Bodies” by Robie H. Harris

“What‘s Happening to My Body?” by Lynda Madaras

“The Care and Keeping of You, the Body Book for Girls” by Valorie Schaefer, Cara Familian Natterson and Josee Masse

* Books that teach compassion

“Not your Typical Dragon,” by Dan Bar-el

“Red, a Crayon‘s Story,” by Michael Hall

“Wonder,” by R.J. Palacio

“Last Stop on Market Street,” by Matt de la Pena

“I Am Jazz,” by Jessica Herthel

“Exclamation Mark,” by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

“George,” by Alex Gino

* Books about serious illness and death

“Water Bugs and Dragonflies,” by Doris Stickney

“The Fall of Freddie the Leaf,” by Leo Buscaglia

“Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes,” by Eleanor Coerr

“The Copper Tree,” by Hilary Robinson

"Let My Colors Out," by Courtney Filigenzi

* Books about modern families (divorce, adoption, same-sex parents)

“When My Parents Forgot How to Be Friends,” by Jennifer Moore-Mallinos

“The Huge Bag of Worries,” by Virginia Ironside

“Two Homes,” by Claire Masurel

“Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born,” by Jamie Lee Curtis

“And Tango Makes Three,” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell

“Love Is a Family,” by Roma Downey

* Books that are just fun to read

“We Found a Hat,” by Jon Klassen

“17 Things I'm Not Allowed to Do Anymore,” by Jenny Offill

“Moira's Birthday,” by Robert Munsch

“Have I Got a Book for You!” by Melanie Watt

“I'm Bored,” by Michael Ian Black

“Interrupting Chicken,” by David Erza Stein

“A Perfectly Messed Up Story,” by Patrick McDonnell

“The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog,” by Mo Willems

Dr. Sisskind‘s list of favorite books

Books for the youngest readers:

Sandra Boynton books

“Pat the Bunny,” by Dorothy Kunhardt

“Goodnight Moon,” and “The Runaway Bunny,” by Margaret Wise Brown

Books to read aloud, for ages 2 to 6

Dr. Seuss books

“The Book With No Pictures,” by B.J. Novak

“Dragons Love Tacos,” by Adam Rubin

Books by Mo Willems

Books by Robert Munsch

“Stuck” by Oliver Jeffers

“Little Pea,” by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

“Press Here,” by Herve Tullet

“Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site,” by Sherri Duskey Rinker

“Digger Dozer Dumper,” by Hope Vestergaard

Books by Eric Carle

Shel Silverstein poetry collections

“The Adventures of Beekle,” by Dan Santant

Books for advancing readers

“Hatchet,” by Gary Paulsen

“Heroes of Olympus,” by Rick Riordan

The Boxcar Children series, by Gertrude Chandler Warner

The Little House on the Prairie series, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Books by Roald Dahl

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Books for teens

“Humans of New York,” by Brandon Stanton

“I‘ll Give You the Sun,” by Jandy Nelson

“The Book Thief,” by Markus Zusak

“Eleanor and Park,” by Rainbow Rowell

“Belzhar,” by Meg Wolitzer

“Lucy and Linh,” by Alice Pung

“Reading Lolita in Tehran,” by Azar Nafisi

Graphic novels

“Maus,” by Art Spiegelman

“Persepolis,” by Marjane Satrapi

“Fun Home,” by Alison Bechdel

“This One Summer,” by Mariko Tamaki

Upstate Health Fall 2017 coverHealthLink on Air logoThis article appears in the fall 2017 issue of Upstate Health magazine. Hear Sisskind speak about reading and children in this podcast interview from "HealthLink on Air."