Raising a community of readers is a fundamental objective of public libraries. Libraries make it their primary business to build readers, with story times, readers advisory, thoughtfully developed collections, and more. But libraries don’t do all the heavy lifting on their own. They get plenty of help from their communities—even at the doctor’s office.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Reach Out and Read, an organization that helps transform doctors and health care professionals into partners in literacy. Since its launch at Boston Medical Center in 1989, under the leadership of Robert Needlman and Barry Zuckerman, Reach Out and Read has been giving young children a foundation for success by donating books to pediatric care providers, reading aloud to kids in waiting rooms, and teaching families about the benefits of reading together at home.

To this day, the program’s inspiration remains a powerful memory for Needlman: he was standing in the inpatient ward when, at the end of the hallway, he noticed a mother reading to her child. “The mom became so excited,” he says, recalling how the child’s reaction to the words the mom read appeared to give her an “incredible charge of energy.”

Such experiences have kept Needlman motivated and involved with Reach Out and Read, which, 30 years after its launch, counts more than 6,000 partners in all 50 states. “There are more and more doctors who get it and use it,” Needlman says, adding that the program has become a popular way for new doctors to forge relationships with families during child wellness visits.

I’m fortunate that Needlman lives and works in the Cleveland area. When I moved to Cleveland in 1997 and discovered that he also had relocated there, it took me nearly a year to work up the courage to call him. But once we met, I quickly saw why children, doctors, and librarians so easily put their trust in the mission of Reach Out and Read.

Finding My Calling
There’s a reason the mission of Reach Out and Read especially resonates with me: I found my calling as a librarian at the intersection of youth services, early brain development, and children’s learning.

I will forever be grateful to my friends at Middle Country Public Library in Centereach, N.Y., for welcoming me into their library initiative, the Parent/Child Workshop, as well as for the development of their Family Place Libraries program. And I’m particularly grateful to my dear friend, coauthor, and inspiration Sandra Feinberg, the former director of Middle Country Public Library. Together, we worked to show how real learning happens in libraries.

But, as with many things in my life, what really inspired me in this work was a serendipitous read. One day in 1990, someone left an article in my inbox about this remarkable program happening at the Pediatric Primary Care Center in Boston—Reach Out and Read. The program was totally groundbreaking at the time. From personal experience, however, it made perfect sense.

When my first daughter was born, I was told by well-meaning librarians to read to her. At the time, there was still little information out there about the benefits of early reading, and most libraries had yet to offer programs for babies and new mothers. So, in my own intentional, somewhat selfish way, I held my daughter, Meg, and read Ann Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist aloud to us both. Why not? I wanted to hold my baby. And I wanted to read the Ann Tyler book. This scene made perfect sense to me!

I don’t think Meg has any residual memories from the experience, but I am still sentimental about that quirky novel. There was plenty more to come, of course; I recited beloved Mother Goose nursery rhymes, and my husband consistently sang to our new baby. By the time we welcomed our second daughter, Bridget, there was growing evidence suggesting a relationship between reading to kids and early language development. And we were fortunate to raise two great readers.

It’s now well documented that talking, singing, and reading to your baby encourages brain development and lays the foundation for language skills. And with some 90% of young children seeing their pediatricians regularly, Reach Out and Read offers a tremendous opportunity to reinforce early literacy in a safe, nonthreatening way. Gifting books to children and families over a series of wellness visits gives physicians the opportunity to talk to new parents about this crucial part of their children’s development. Meanwhile, volunteers in the waiting room read to families, modeling the dialogic reading methods most recommended to reinforce language development and school readiness.

Still Growing
Perri Klass, professor of journalism and pediatrics at New York University, is the national medical director of Reach Out and Read. I have long been a fan of her columns on medical school that appeared in the New York Times, as well as her early books on medical training, including A Not Entirely Benign Procedure: Four Years as a Medical Student. Klass says she discovered Needlman’s work while writing an article on the pediatrics of poverty for the Times. She interviewed him and loved the way he talked about the importance of literacy.

“Historically, we partitioned health and education,” Klass says. “But with young children, you can’t have one without the other.”

As fate would have it, Klass was doing a fellowship at Boston Medical Center when she learned that Needlman was moving to Cleveland, and, given her passion for early literacy, she decided to step in to lead the program. “Historically, we partitioned health and education,” Klass says. “But with young children, you can’t have one without the other.”

Brian Gallagher, CEO of Reach Out and Read, says the “passionate” and “engaged,” Klass is inspiring future generations of pediatricians to incorporate early childhood reading programs into their practices. And as an organization, Reach Out and Read continues to grow and evolve, adding approximately 20 new sites each month, including at neonatal intensive care units, dental clinics, public health systems, and newborn nurseries.

Meanwhile, the adoption and promotion of early literacy development programs by the American Academy of Pediatrics has helped make Reach Out and Read’s literacy mission part of a large and growing number of pediatric care and residency programs. Thirty years on, the basic principles of Reach Out and Read remain the same, though the program today is “less prescriptive” than it used to be, Gallagher says, and is now more “locally designed” and more locally funded. But it may well be one of the most cost-effective programs out there to promote healthy child development. It costs about $20 per child per year to cover books, support, and training, Gallagher notes.

Partners in Literacy
Of course, the books chosen and distributed through Reach Out and Read are an essential component in helping parents create a literacy-rich environment for their kids—meaning publishers have a major role to play.

Among the program’s largest supporters in the publishing community is Scholastic Books. Scholastic offers a catalogue specifically for Reach Out and Read programs, complete with recommended titles and volume pricing models. All About Books, a book aggregator, also offers a catalogue and volume pricing in support of Reach Out and Read.

Obviously, there’s an important role for libraries in the Reach Out and Read program, too. “When Reach Out and Read doctors prescribe a visit to the local library for their young patients, a lifetime of family reading and learning begins,” says Susan Hildreth, interim director at California’s Sonoma County Library and current American Library Association treasurer, adding that libraries are especially effective partners, whether providing books, story times, or reading activities in waiting rooms.

I know from experience how true this is. I started my own Reach Out and Read program in Syracuse, N.Y., in the early 1990s—a partnership between the Onondaga County Public Library and the State University of New York Health Sciences Center. For me, talking with the doctors and medical school students about picture books and demonstrating the technique of dialogic reading at monthly pediatric sessions was almost as joyful as reading to families with babies and toddlers in the waiting room.

As Reach Out and Read celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, why not take this opportunity to reach out and see how you might help better support early childhood literacy efforts in your community? When partners such as Reach Out and Read, public libraries, and the publishing community commit to the message, “Read to your children early and often,” we are committing to healthy kids, healthy families, and healthy communities.

Correction: This article previously misidentified Barry Zuckerman as Barry Zucker.