Baba Yaga and How to Get into Harvard

My mother often brags that she has read just one book in her entire life, a young adult romance from 1942 called “Seventeenth Summer” by the author Maureen Daly. Books, to her, are dust collectors and a monumental waste of time.

She reminds me a bit of the evil captain in the Jack London novel The Sea-Wolf, who said: “My mistake was in ever opening the books.”

My philosophy is closer to that of the headmaster in the Tobias Wolff novel Old School. “When he borrowed the book he’d had no idea where this act would lead him. Make no mistake, he said: a true piece of writing is a dangerous thing. It can change your life.”

Although I never saw my mother pick up a book – she was much more interested in fashion magazines – she did me the greatest kindness by recognizing my love of reading and always encouraging it. When parents of my college-essay students ask me what’s the secret to getting their kids into Harvard or Stanford, I tell them to instill and cultivate a love of reading at the earliest age, even if you’re not an enthusiastic reader.

When my sister was born just 12 months after me, my mother coped by sticking me in a playpen – but not with toys. Instead, she left me with piles of Vogue, Mademoiselle and Charm magazines. I would flip through the pages for hours and the stacks would become soaked with urine from my diaper, my mother recalls. I’m not sure what I absorbed at that time, but I believe it was an interest in words and graphic design.

IMG_2457.jpgWhen I started reading in kindergarten, my teacher Mrs. Sheck introduced me to Jack and Jill magazine and the Honey Bunch and Norman mystery books. I found some of Jack and Jill boring, including simple sections such as “Rabbitville Gazette” and “Animal Puzzles.” But I loved turning the page to find the serialized stories about Baba Yaga, a witch who often appears in Russian folk tales. She lived with her cat in a strange dwelling named Isbushka, which stood on two chicken legs. When she traveled, the witch rode through the sky in an iron mortar, steered with a huge pestle. She had a terrible temper, was mean to her cat and outwitted Cossacks. I loved her. I still have a huge stack of the magazines in a pink trunk in my basement and hope to share them with my granddaughter Eleanor some day.

My mother got me a subscription to Jack and Jill so I could keep up with Baba Yaga’s adventures and she never hesitated to buy me a Honey Bunch book or take me to the Conely Branch Library on Martin in Detroit, where I could sit by the fireplace in the children’s section and read all afternoon.

I was able to pass along my love of reading to my sons. Phil, a graduate of Fordham University, is never without a book in his hand. My son Dan, a Harvard graduate, reminds me that there are books in every room of our house and that we were “competitive” readers when he was growing up. If someone said they were enjoying Winesburg, Ohio or a Rumor of War, invariably someone else in the family would rush to get a copy and finish ahead of the other person, in order to better critique the book at the dinner table. When the boys were growing up, we would read one chapter of a book a night. Favorites included the Childhood of Famous Americans series, including stories about Abraham Lincoln and Lou Gehrig.

“Books give children wings,” said my old friend Helen S. Williams, a children’s bookstore owner in Rochester, Michigan, who I met during my first newspaper job following college. I wrote a feature story about Williams, who was called “The Story Lady,” and got a tour of the special room in her house that was designed to foster a love of reading in kids. It had a tiny door — a special entrance for pint-sized readers — stuffed animals and piles of books.

IMG_2454Every year she would have a special birthday party in honor of Beatrix Potter. She was known for not selling a book to just anyone – a reader had to deserve to own it. Maybe not the best business sense, but something that true readers probably admired. She honored me by sending me Dandelion, a book of poetry by the Michigan author Bert Penny. I still chuckle at some of the playful verses, including one about dogs that says: “Go pinch the penny, squeeze the eagle, to gratify the regal beagle. You’ll need a mint to make, by golly, a melancholy collie jolly.”

Whether it’s Beatrix Potter, Bert Penny or Baba Yaga, just about any reading is good reading. And it can be the first step on the path to the Ivy League.

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