Dr. Perri Klass: Doctor, Writer, Professor, Literacy Advocate
Maybe Perri Klass’ love of books began as a young child, when her parents, both professors, read to her and brought her to libraries. Or maybe her passion for books, especially children’s books, took root when she had her own children and began reading to them and taking them to libraries. Maybe her commitment to integrating literacy with health care began as she traveled worldwide as an infectious disease specialist, seeing firsthand the importance of education and medicine. Whatever the source, there’s no doubt that Perri Klass—a doctor, a prolific writer, a university professor, an advocate of early literacy, a wife and mother of three, values reading and books. Klass, author of many fiction and non-fiction books, copious newspaper and magazine articles covering topics about health, parenting, travel, and knitting, received the 2006 Women’s National Book Association Award. Her role as medical director of Reach Out and Read, a national organization that trains pediatricians to introduce books during office visits and sponsors reading programs at medical clinics, further allows Klass to champion reading.
“A child that grows up without infectious diseases is a good thing. But a child that grows up without language skills, without books, isn’t a pediatric success story,” said Klass in an interview with Education Update in a patient waiting area at New York City’s Bellevue Medical Center. Oblivious to distractions inherent in a hospital, about half a dozen children, of various ages and sizes, clustered around volunteer readers seated on two blue gym mats. A basketful of books—baby board books and picture books, provided the readers fodder for their audience.
Founded more than 15 years ago, Reach Out and Read, now with 2,700 programs nationwide, instills in pediatricians and nurses the importance of linking health and literacy. The program features three components: reading in waiting rooms, discussing reading with patients, and giving children new books to keep. The goal, explained Klass, is that young children will receive 10 free books by age 5 when they enter kindergarten. Beginning with a child’s 6 month check-up and with each subsequent physical, the child receives a free book. Trained volunteer readers engage children by reading aloud while children wait for their appointments, and doctors and other health care professionals discuss with children and parents the importance of reading.
“What Reach Out and Read does,” said Klass, her enthusiasm bubbling, “is endorse the fact that the more kids are read to, the more positive attitudes they’ll develop about books. It carries over into success in school and language development.” She gestures to a curious toddler that wanders from her mother. “Look at her. She’s looking for things to learn. Reach Out and Read helps parents realize that their child wants to sit in their laps, hear their voices. It’s saying to the child, ‘you’re making time for me.’”
Born in Trinidad where her father, the late Morton Klass, worked as an anthropologist, Klass then grew up in New York City and New Jersey suburbs. Her mother, Sheila Solomon Klass, taught college English and writing, and is a novelist. Her siblings, David and Judy, are both writers. Klass says she caught the reading and writing bug very young and grew up knowing she wanted to emulate the heroines in fiction who were writers. Among these are: Emily Starr, from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novels, Harriet, from Louise Fitzhugh’s ever popular Harriet the Spy, and Little Women’s Jo March, who Klass named her daughter Josephine after.
Klass attended Harvard College, intending to study evolutionary biology. Her interest in parasites and international medical issues, such as immigration, lead her to Harvard Medical School, where as a student, she began writing about her experiences for The New York Times. She had her first son while a medical student. With her husband, Larry Wolff, she wrote several articles about traveling with a young child, including how her incessant reading of a picture book, The Cow Who Fell in the Canal, kept her three-year-old son occupied while waiting for Wolff to descend the treacherous steps of Mexico’s Chichen Itza, a vast Mayan ruin. She attributes a great deal of her success to her husband’s patience and tolerance, stressing that medical students need lots of support. “There’s no way anyone can go through medical training and at the same time do a good job being someone’s spouse or parent. You say, these years will be hard but I’ll pay you back.” She was the only woman medical student with a child and remembers only two men students with children. Her advice to others: “You can’t put your personal life on hold. Having children changes your life completely, for women and men. No one ever told me, ‘you’ll really miss your baby.’ But it’s still worth it,” she said.
Her involvement in Reach Out and Read developed “haphazardly” she says, stemming from an interview with one of the founders. She’s eager to see the program expand, especially for families where English isn’t the first language. While ROR mostly serves populations in public health clinics and hospitals, it can and should, says Klass, extend to private practices. “Just because people aren’t poor, we can’t assume they know the importance of reading. A lot of kids are growing up with less family contact, with less attention from parents. If everyone is looking at a different screen in the house, that’s not serving young children very well.”
Having first trained professionals at Bellevue’s Reach Out and Read program 12 years ago, Klass moved back to New York in August as Professor of Journalism and Pediatrics at New York University. Overseeing the Bellevue clinic- and introducing residents to ROR—is one of her responsibilities. “We want residents to feel so strongly that Reach Out and Read should be part of a primary care environment that they’ll insist upon it when they get jobs,” she said.
How does Klass find time to do all she does? “I feel like I don’t. I feel like I’m always behind, always late and not doing enough. Just like everyone else.”