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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Baba Yaga's Assistant, written by Marika McCoola and illsutrated by Emily Carroll. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2015. $20.00 ages 10 and up

"Masha thought back on all the stories in which children outwitted Baba Yaga. In one, a young girl bribed Baba Yaga's dog to be quiet. And gave her cat a piece of fish in return for directions.

But that's all about escaping! I need to get in.

Then she remembered the gate."

A graphic novel that uses Russian folklore as a central theme is sure to give readers a bit of a scare due to its dark and dangerous feel. Her now deceased grandmother had always shared Baba Yaga stories with Masha. She spoke about living with the old witch, in a house that walked on chicken legs. Familiarity with that character through her grandmother's tales encourages Masha to apply for the advertised job as Baba Yaga's assistant. It seems a step up from the life she is living with her inattentive father and his new family.

Baba Yaga is a formidable taskmaster, demanding that Masha complete a series of tests; the first is to actually get into the chicken-legged house. With much praise and a bribe, she makes her way inside to find a list of tasks: '1. clean house. 2. care for pets 3. prepare dinner'. They are not easily accomplished. Masha gets help by remembering her grandmother's stories. Using these old stories brings a bit of modern magic to what Masha has learned from them. Baba Yaga is frightening in her demands and demeanor. Masha is able to bring humor to the telling with acerbic dialog, accomplishing the tasks given with success. If she had a chance to tell us, I think Baba Yaga would let us know that she is cheering for the bright, inventive, young girl.

Emily Carroll's digitally created artwork is in keeping with the drama of a story well told. She uses an entirely different style for the flashbacks to the Baba Yaga tales, and to the memories of stories shared between grandmother and granddaughter. It is a very effective way of keeping readers connected to how the present is influenced by the past. The addition of sketches for Masha, Grandma, the house, and Baba Yaga herself have additional appeal.

All fairy tale fans would do well to find a copy at the library or your local bookstore. Savor it, as it is a very special modern take on a traditional folktale ... and in graphic form, no less!

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