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Friday, June 14, 2019

Finding Baba Yaga: A Short Novel in Verse, by Jane Yolen. Tor, Macmillan. Raincoast. 2018. $!4.50 ages 12 and up

"The longer I am in these woods,
I learn words.
I become cornucopic
with language
which rolls around my mouth
like dark chocolate,
like butterscotch,
like peppermint.

There's no one to caution my tongue,
no one to soap my mouth,
no one to bridle my brain."

I have always been drawn to Jane Yolen's writing. Some of her books remain favorites, and have a permanent place on my 'keepers' shelf. When I read about this verse novel, I knew that I would like to see a copy. Thanks to Fernanda at Raincoast for sending it to me.

As she has done before, Ms. Yolen blends traditional folklore with present-day sensibility to bring readers an engaging story about Natasha, a runaway whose emotional journey leads her to Baba Yaga and her little house with chicken feet.

An opening poem tells readers this is a not the story they think it is going to be.

"Stories retold are stories remade.
A sorrowing girl in a house.
An old witch with iron fillings.
A hut in the wood,
in the meadow, in the hood.

This is a tale
both old and new,

borrowed, narrowed,
broadened, deepened.

You think you know this story.
You do not."

What an invitation to jump right in and be immersed in this old story, told new. In a series of chapters, readers learn what life is like in a house that has no peace. A domineering and abusive father makes life so difficult that Natasha sees no solution but to run away to find herself and some peace.

"If I'd made a plan
it wouldn't be this one.
If I'd packed a bag,
it wouldn't be my backpack.
If I'd left a letter,
I couldn't have written a word.

See, it all begins and ends
with that.
A word.
But which word:

Leaving is difficult, and frightening, and even peaceful. Eventually, she finds herself at Baba Yaga's door. The house invites her in; the meeting with the Baba is a revelation; and there are numerous jobs to be done if she intends to stay. Baba Yaga, it turns out, likes 'feisty gitls'. Boys? Not so much.

"Boys, on the  other hand, she devours whole,
spitting out the little finger bones.
Even if they can dance and sing.
Even then."

When Vasalisa arrives, Natasha meets a new best friend. Their differences soon cause strife. Vasalisa's departure to marry a prince is a blow. Natasha stays on, always learning from the witch. This is a her family now, and she will continue her life in this new role, taking over for Baba in the future. 

"She promises me I'll be the Baba ever after.
For now that's quite enough."

Beautifully written in language that is smart, sensitive, magical, and memorable. This is not the only time I will read it!

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