Closing the Book on 'Kids America'

Times Staff Writer

With sadness in her stethoscope, Dr. Rita Book will spend Christmas Eve writing her last prescription.

The world's only known Doctor of Bookology (a distinction attained, naturally enough, at the University of Bookylvania) signs off her regular radio segment tonight with her trademark cackle, advising her young patients to "read two chapters and buzz me in the morning." But then Betsy Hass, the 32-year-old person behind the popular children's character, will return to join Xeno the Alien, the Duke of Words and everyone else on "Kids America" for the Christmas Eve finale of the almost 4-year-old radio show.

"It's just a tremendous tragedy," said Larry Mantle, news director at KPCC in Pasadena. "There's no question about it." KPCC is one of 26 stations across the country that carried the award-winning "Kids America."

'Merry Christmas, Kids'

In Pittsburgh, Pa., the voice of WDUQ program director Mike Ziemski oozed with irony as he talked about the end of an effort he said sparked curiosity and competitiveness among children, particularly in the area of books and reading.

"It's like, Merry Christmas, kids," he said.

Officially, "Kids America" is a casualty of underfinancing. The 90-minute program was built around call-in participation by young listeners. It originated each weekday at WNYC in New York and was syndicated by the American Public Radio network.

"Our linchpin got pulled out," said Mary Perot Nichols, president of the WNYC Communications Group. "Our biggest source of funds was the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, and they have decided not to fund the show."

"It was one of 129 entries for these (radio) funds," said Jim McElveen, a CPB spokesman in Washington. Sixteen programs received grants and "113 didn't," he said.

Because WNYC holds the trademark on all the show's characters, as well as its name, they also vanish.

For Hass, the extinction of her character--which she created over lunch one day with the show's former producer--takes on the dimensions of a major social outrage.

"I've traveled all over the country as Dr. Book," she said. "Dr. Book is virtually the only person nationally who talks directly to kids about books."

Even discussing her character, Hass finds herself slipping into it. The Bookylvanian accent, somewhere between Slavic, Swedish and South Bronx, creeps in. Suddenly, she is 'Kmodeling the white jacket, stethoscope, physician's headlamp and goofy eyeglasses she wears while broadcasting--and this is radio. She whips out a Dr. Book prescription pad, the same forms she uses to award recommendations to youthful listeners who suffer from an ailment (death of a relative, parents' divorce, loss of close friends) that might be aided by a particular title or who successfully stump her on the name of a book they describe only in the most general of terms.

'About This Drunk ...'

"For example, there was a boy who called recently and said, 'I read a book and it was about this drunk guy who falls into the river,' " she said.

"Did you know we were talking about 'Tom Sawyer'?"

(In one passage in Mark Twain's classic novel, Tom Sawyer's father becomes inebriated and tumbles into a river. Dr. Book advised her young patient to try other books by Twain, then used the occasion to point out that many well-known authors had dabbled in children's literature. "Did you know," she asked her audience, "that Ernest Hemingway once wrote a children's story?")

Hass, speaking in dialect, insisted that the Dr. Book accent was intended to sound more like Dr. Freud than Dr. Ruth, to whom the author (as "E. A. Hass") of six children's books bears more than a passing resemblance.

Led Children to Books

"There she was," Peggy Charren, head of Action for Children's Television in Newton, Mass., and a board member of "Kids America," said of Dr. Book, "leading children to books, something we couldn't need more in this country."

"She seems to have been able to pipe into something that everyone can identify with in the first place, and she does it with a genuine spirit," said Children's Book Council president John Donovan.

"She's done a remarkable job of making books and reading not only accessible to children, but also seeming to be, and in fact being, a lot of fun," Donovan said.

"It's partly a combination of her own personal enthusiasm, plus some really very solid background in children's literature and contemporary children's book publishing. It's just a real pity that a program like this has to go down the drain when I think the need is very great."

Listeners Not Mainstream

Hass herself becomes nearly rabid when discussing the response of young readers.

"Many of these children are not mainstream kids," Hass said. "You're not going to get the head cheerleader calling in here."

Often, in the course of brief conversations with some of the 6,000 children who would manage to get through daily on "Kids America's" 14 toll-free telephone lines, Hass would learn that a youthful bibliophile was disabled.

"For instance I get letters from blind children, in Braille," she said. To reply, Hass, whose salary as Dr. Book was recently raised to $125 per week, would go to the Lighthouse for the Blind, have a response typed on a Braille typewriter, and send the blind child a book-on-tape.

A Flood of Letters

She pulled out a file folder crammed with letters printed on lined paper in huge block letters or written in the hesitant script of the 8- to 12-year-olds who were her target audience.

"Dear Dr. Rita Book," wrote one 9-year-old. "I have a bad case of already-read bookitis! I need a prescription fast!"

Another child mused, "Dear Dr. Book, I was wondering, did you read every children's book that was ever written?"

Or there was the kid who said, "Dear Dr. Book, I'm wondering who you really are. I don't think your mother really named you Dr. Rita Book."

Goal Is to Reach Kids

Long a book publicist, Hass is also the creator of Incognito Mosquito, the insect detective who stars in her six books. Eager to encourage computer-hack children to discover the joy of reading, Hass also devised a software system called BookBrain, "an interactive computer data base to introduce children to books in a non-judgmental and fun way."

At least one major part of her goal, Hass said, is "for kids to get into the habit of coming into the house and picking up and apple and a book, versus picking up a candy bar and turning on the TV."

In her soul, Hass was probably always Dr. Book, even though she may in fact have been the last to discover the Doctor of Bookology lurking within her.

"I never, ever saw myself doing this," she said. "But what happened was that someone came to me with a cause I really cared about." Hass' passions on the issues of literacy and children's reading habits happened, she said, "to come out in this persona."

May Be Revived

"Kids America," Nichols said, may eventually be revived in some fashion. "We are considering our options," Nichols said cautiously, talking to the show's publicist on another line.

For now, Kathy O'Connell, the show's co-host, said, "It's a great tragedy for me, certainly, and a lot of other people have been saying exactly that."

Too many people "are really into parenting (and) very much aware of little kids and their rights" for the void to go completely unfilled, O'Connell said.

"Kids get a bad reputation in this society," she said, "that they're not interested in reading, that they're not interested in serious music. The thing is, they're not given a chance to prove they're interested.

"It's a subculture, and the only reason I'm saying it's a subculture is that they're all shorter than we are. But there's culture going on among kids."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World