Paul Tough

An Essay By Paul Tough

August 13, 2012

My sister taught me to read. She is four years older than me, and she was appalled, when she was young and I was younger, that she could read and I couldn’t. So she took my education into her own hands, sitting me down and making sure I was paying attention while she carefully drew letters on a little blackboard, sounding out words for me, writing up vocabulary lists. Best of all, she would read to me: Dr. Seuss, Beatrix Potter, Richard Scarry, Beverly Cleary. At first, I think, I loved the sisterly attention as much as I loved the books themselves. But gradually, the books grew on me, and before long I was devouring them on my own.

As a teenager, I was an undiscriminating reader, blissfully unaware of the lines between high culture and low. I read it all: the classic works of the western canon, pulpy novelizations of disaster movies from the 70s, paperback collections of “Wizard of Id” comics. To me, it was all great literature.

Now I have a little boy of my own – Ellington just turned 3 – and this time around, I get to be the teacher. My wife and I haven’t pulled out the blackboards and vocabulary lists quite yet, but we both read with our son all the time. For me, reading with Ellington is a rare pleasure, not just because I get to watch up close as his curiosity develops, his imagination blossoms, and his memory grows sharper, but also because it gives me a chance to revisit, with him, so many of the books I read with my sister as a child. In many cases, they are quite literally the same books; my mother, thinking ahead, stored boxes and boxes of our old children’s books in the basement for decades, and when Ellington was born, she shipped them off to us in bulk.

Rereading the books of my childhood, I’ve been amazed, all over again, by what a towering literary figure Dr. Seuss really is (what other 20th-century American author has written more undisputed classics, and yes, I’m including “Hop on Pop”?); at how consistently strange and beautiful is Margaret Wise Brown’s prose, from the quiet, perfect imagery of “Goodnight Moon” to the surreal sentences of “Sailor Dog.” But I’ve also been pleased to discover, with Ellington, some new children’s authors who can hold their own with the greats of that earlier era. Our favorite right now is Tad Hills, the author of “How Rocket Learned to Read.” Rocket is a clumsy and clueless dog who doesn’t know how to read; his teacher, a patient little yellow bird, reads him story after story, and the pleasure of those stories transforms Rocket first into a reader, and then into a writer.

They remind me of someone, but I just can’t figure out who.