Jaclyn Sisskind MD, a pediatrician who practices in upstate New York, is such a passionate believer in the power of stories and the act of reading to enhance children's lives, that she's been dubbed the "Readiatrician." The minute Sally J. Pla found out about Jaclyn, she knew she wanted to ask her a few questions. Answers below. Read on, and be inspired!
“Readiatrician” is a brilliant name and concept! Tell us your origin story! What sparked this? Can you briefly define what the ‘Readiatrician’ is and does?
I’m just a pediatrician who loves to read! I use books in my daily practice as a way to relate to my patients. I bring books into the room when examining a patient aged 6 months to five years, using the book as a developmental screening tool. I chat about what books a patient is into as a way to distract them during their exam. I often write book prescriptions to patients when I think there is a book that might help them. I think, for many kids, asking them what they are reading catches them off guard, but I’ve found that talking about a book unlocks something, creating a new connection.
As to the name? In our family, we love a clever portmanteau and are always combining words in silly ways. One night at dinner, I was telling my kids about a book a patient had recommended. My son commented that I was not a “normal pediatrician” because I was always talking about reading and I quipped back, “of course! I’m not a normal pediatrician! I’m a readiatrician!” All our kids laughed and my alter ego was born.
Can you share some anecdotes/specific interactions where you were able to connect kids to books that helped them?
I delight in kids telling me they don’t like to read. As I do their exam and we chat, I tell them about a book they might enjoy, really selling it. I talk about the magnificent illustrations or the incredible characters or the cliffhanger-iest moments and watch them (and their caregiver) get excited about it. I talk about Lunch Lady by Jarrett Krosoczka and Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston at least three times a day.
I have been recommending Starfish by Lisa Fipps to many patients this year. In particular, there was one family where a mother was so worried about her daughter’s weight, she was actually nudging her into some unhealthy eating patterns. They read it together and, in doing so, were able to find common language to share their feelings about body image. It saved their relationship with each other and with food.
I had one teen recently who was truly struggling. Her mom died a few years ago and since then, she feels unmoored. She was slipping academically because she cannot focus. She felt low most days. She told me that she hated her body and also did not know how to tell her dad that she is bi. She said she was “tired of COVID, tired of grief, tired of everything.” But, she lit up when she mentioned a book she was reading, With the Fire on High, by Elizabeth Acevedo, and discovered I loved it too. I wrote her a prescription for seven books- all with teen protagonists. Some featured the loss of a parent, some touched on body image, some with characters who identified as queer. A few of the books encompassed all three. I also helped her find a therapist. She messaged me that the therapist is good, but the books were even better.
Where do you see it going from here? Do you have any specific or general goals for this? How do you want to grow this?
This all started by having conversations with my patients about reading and scrawling some suggestions on sticky notes. Then my husband made me custom prescription pads. I have secured grants to have books in our office, so now every child aged six months to seven years gets to take home a new book once a year. My next goal is to get funding for books for older readers. I would love to have middle grade, YA, and graphic novels in the office. What could be better than recommending a title to a patient, and then having the ability to put it right in their hands?
Once pandemic pressures ease, I am hoping to start a book club for patients and their adults, where we can explore new titles, using the waiting room as a living room after hours. There are so many books we can use to launch discussion about health topics- Rissy No Kissies by Katey Howes & Jess Engle and Don’t Hug Doug by Carrie Finison & Daniel Wiseman would be a wonderful way to talk about body safety and consent. A Boy Called Bat by Elana K Arnold & Charles Santoso could allow my patients on the autism spectrum to see themselves in a leading role. The List of Things that Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead would be an incredible resource for my patients with divorced parents. Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly is one of the best books on bullying I have ever read. It is my dream to use books like these to spark discussions with my patients and their families on a larger scale, and to see other pediatricians be inspired to do the same.
What are you concerned about, re: the kids you see in your practice and their mental health?
The pandemic has been hard on kids, but not in the way people assume. What I hear, over and over from my patients, is that the last two years have shown them that adults do not always act like adults, and that the authority figures they have been taught to trust do not always act with kids’ best interests at heart. More than ever, I see kids who feel lost, alone, or misunderstood. This is all the more true for my neurodiverse patients, non-white patients, and LGBTQIA+ patients.
The thing that concerns me most right now is the groundswell of book bans taking place across the country. When books are banned because they are considered “inappropriate,” the kids who see themselves reflected in those books are being told that they are inappropriate, simply for being who they are and having the experiences they have. I think of all the titles I prescribe to patients. Many of them are books that are contested or banned in other communities, yet they are exactly the books these patients need. What am I going to do if the school library pulls that book off the shelves? Where will my patient access a copy of the book I promised would help if the local library no longer offers it? What message does it send to my patients if the book I told them mirrors their life is not palatable to others?
Banning books does not make a problem go away. It creates a greater problem. It puts some children at a disadvantage because it gives them a skewed, inflexible, unrealistic view of the world. Worse, it erases some children entirely. I continue to use my credentials and my voice to make sure every kid has every book they need to read.
What gives you hope about the kids you see in your practice and their mental health?
My patients fill me with hope. For the most part, I see in their generation a kindness and acceptance that I have never seen before. They possess a strength I find staggering. I see patients that are open to challenging and redefining the status quo and including voices that have previously been pushed to the side. As a pediatrician, and a parent of a child on the autism spectrum, I am uplifted by new screening tools to recognize neurodiversity at younger ages and the redefinition of so many archaic terms in medicine. Recognizing how our brains develop and celebrating, not silencing, our differences, allows us to create new therapies and approaches so we can all communicate in the best way we can.
Why is reading/why are stories so important for kids? Especially kids who are hurting in some way?
We all want to be seen. We all want to see ourselves represented. We all want to feel less alone. When kids see themselves reflected in a story, they learn to value and respect themselves. When they use a story to step into someone else’s experience, they learn to value and respect everyone. They learn empathy and acceptance.
My role as a pediatrician is to see each of my patients as an individual, meet them at their level, and support all aspects of their health. Books are a way for me to connect to them and to tell them: I see you. I respect who you are. Your story is worth telling.
Jaclyn Sisskind spends her days seeing patients, teaching medical students, and calculating if she has time to stop at the library on her way home. She lives in upstate New York with her best friend, who happens to also be her husband, and their three sons.