Niswonger, ETSU doctors lead development of new children's book series to encourage literacy


Parents who spend time reading aloud to their kids know it’s a precious experience. It’s wonderful to see their little minds and personalities developing, and as a parent, it’s a memory you’ll cherish for the rest of your life.

That experience is also good for the child. Studies show that kids whose parents read aloud to them will develop better literary proficiency. Doing this is so valuable, in fact, that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends pediatricians provide children’s books to parents and counsel them on how to read aloud to their kids.

Pediatricians at East Tennessee State University and Niswonger Children’s Hospital are already doing just that, and have even led development of a new children's book series to encourage literacy development and healthy behaviors during early childhood.

“As a ‘Reach Out and Read’ practice, we have been providing free children’s books to families during well child visits for several years,” said Dr. Gayatri Jaishankar, Associate Pediatric Residency Program Director at ETSU. “In fact, by the time their children are 5, our patients have a library of at least 15 books we’ve given them. Research shows that a pediatrician’s advice on how to use books with their child is helpful to parents, and facilitates children’s early brain development.”

The first new book – authored by Quillen College of Medicine student Laurie Bennie and professional storyteller Cathy Jo McMaken and illustrated by Robin Fisher and Jill Fair, designers in the ETSU Department of Biomedical Communications – includes ideas for play and a reading guide developed by Dr. Karen Schetzina, a general pediatrician and associate professor ate ETSU. It’s titled “A Rainy Day Adventure.”

Last summer, the group collected ideas for the book’s story and themes by talking with early childhood educators and parents and by conducting storytelling activities with children during ETSU’s Little Bucs summer camp and the Johnson City Public Library’s Summer Reading Program Finale.

“The primary way that these young children talked about playing was through the use of electronic devices, like television, tablets, and computers,” Schetzina said. “We hope to help parents change that with this initiative.”

Schetzina and Jaishankar are project directors of ReadNPlay for a Bright Future, a coordinated initiative aimed at supporting healthy, active living among families with young children in clinical and community settings. The new book series is part of a collection of ReadNPlay tools to enhance communication about healthy behaviors between pediatricians and families during well child visits.

“With ReadNPlay we are using books to support literacy development and encourage healthy eating, active play, and staying safe as part of the development advice that we discuss with families during well child checks,” Schetzina said. “‘A Rainy Day Adventure’ follows three friends Squirrel, Owl and Raccoon  as they overcome a rainy day, with no television available due to a power outage, and find creative ways to play together.”

Starting this fall, a new regional family literacy initiative will offer monthly parenting support groups, reading activities in local preschools, and community events. Key partners in the project include Niswonger Children’s Hospital, ETSU Department of Pediatrics, ETSU Clemmer College of Education, Johnson City Schools, and local adult education programs. The group is also planning to expand adult literacy and parent-child together classes in the region.

According to a new policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, two-thirds of U.S. children – and 80 percent of children in families living below the poverty line – do not develop reading proficiency by the third grade.

Niswonger Children’s Hospital CEO Steven Godbold explained why Niswonger is committed to improving literacy in the region.

“Research has shown a correlation between literacy levels and health outcomes,” he said. “By helping families in our community improve literacy, they will ultimately live healthier, more productive lives.”

The ReadNPlay “My Baby Book” will be available as a free interactive mobile application in 2015. Thousands of great books are available to borrow for free at your local public library. Copies of “A Rainy Day Adventure” are being provided to local libraries, preschools, and pediatric offices. For more information, visit or contact Dr. Schetzina at ReadNPlay is funded under an agreement with the State of Tennessee.

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