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Turned onto reading

If your child visits Dr. Perri Klass at the Dorchester House Multi-Service Health Center, here's one thing you can count on: He or she won't leave empty-handed.

That is because Klass knows what to do with a young captive audience. She gives them books and encourages their parents to read to them and with them.

She has been doing this since 1989, when the child literacy program Reach Out and Read was founded at the old Boston City Hospital (now Boston Medical Center). The idea was to make better use of the time children and their parents spent waiting for care, by encouraging the children to read and urging their parents to read to them.

Children are given age-appropriate books when they go to the doctor, and they take them home and read them. The point is to get preschool children -- between the ages of 6 months and 5 years -- excited to hold a book in their hands.

Like many simple ideas, it's a deceptively powerful one. The notion being that if children get turned on to reading when they are young, they are less likely to fall behind their peers by the time they reach school age.

The program is a great passion for Klass, a pediatrician and acclaimed novelist and essayist who also is president and medical director of Reach Out and Read. I wonder what she does with all her spare time.

I asked Klass why literacy would be a cause for doctors to take on. ''We've already got the access," Klass explained. ''The kids are already in our office, and we have the relationship with parents."

Klass said the program is a welcome change from some of the more standard duties in pediatrics.

''In medicine, you deliver a fair number of messages that are a little negative or a little reproachful," she said. ''This is actually positive. It's saying to parents, if you do this, because of how important you are and how much your attention matters, all of a sudden books become very important to your kids."

Reach Out and Read has spread over the years to 3,500 centers nationwide. Though it operates in a wide range of communities, it probably has its greatest impact among parents and children who wouldn't necessarily make bedtime reading part of their daily routine, running the risk of missing out on a crucial part of development.

''Most of us were read to, and most of us can see that these kids are so smart," Klass said. ''It's really sad to think of a lot of them getting to school, and there just hasn't been enough stimulation for those brains to expand. You need all the somewhat silly repetitions."

Expansion in Massachusetts has been on her mind lately. Right now, the program serves 115,000 children in Massachusetts, including an estimated 75 percent of the children living in poverty. A current plan would target underperforming school districts, and rural districts in the western part of the state. That would reach an additional 50,000 children a year.

While much of the cash that keeps the program afloat is raised privately, Reach Out and Read officials are also lobbying for increased state aid. The state now kicks in a modest $500,000 a year, an amount that has remained level since 2000. The prospects for an increase are unclear. The House budget will be released later this week.

The program is really about seizing an opportunity to reach parents and children. ''We have them at that moment when people really want to get it right," Klass said. ''Even if you didn't love school, you want your kids to shine."

Doing well in school isn't the only benefit, though.

''We say to parents, with real conviction, that one of the most important things is to hear your voice," Klass said. ''He wants to be on your lap and feel safe and feel your arms around him while you read to him. And if you do that, there will be a connection between all those good feelings and that book."

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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