Baba Yaga's Assistant
Emily Carroll, Illustrator
Candlewick, 2015 127 pgs
Graphic Novel/Contemporary Folklore
Masha is mourning the death of her beloved grandmother, who has raised her since the death of her mother, when she was a very young child. Masha's father has been emotionally distant since the death of his young wife and has left the caring of his daughter, a painful reminder of what he has lost, to the grandmother. Now Dad has found a new woman who he wishes to marry and has a daughter of her own. Danielle is much younger and sees Masha as a threat to her relationship with her mother. Masha, feeling left out, leaves home to apply for the job as Baba Yaga's assistant. Grandmother worked for and out-smarted the old witch many years before and Masha grew up immersed in the stories. Baba Yaga is less than welcoming and challenges Masha to several tests before allowing her access into the household. For the first test Masha must gain admittance into the famous house with chicken legs. Using flattery and keeping her head about her, Masha wins the house over. Masha, remembering Grandmother's stories, uses magical matriska dolls to clean the house and finds that she has other magical abilities as the tests continue. The biggest test of all comes when Baba Yaga assigns Masha to cook three naughty children that she captured, including Danielle. Masha must decide whether to save the children and risk losing her position or follow the old witch's orders, even if doing so violates her ethics. Masha makes her choice and our story ends with Masha happy, although not in the way the reader may have predicted.
First time author, McCoola, offers a contemporary story with solid Russian folklore elements throughout. The book does not feel overly Russian and could be set anywhere in the world, making the tale relate-able to today's American readers. It can be enjoyed with no knowledge of Russian folklore, but background of the tales add another dimension and make the book that much more fun. Veteran illustrator Carroll captures the flavor and mood of the story perfectly and presents the reader with a truly sinister witch, with sharp pointy teeth, glowing eyes, and who appears out of nowhere, often changing in size. Yet, this Baba Yaga has a heart and becomes a surrogate Grandmother for Masha, maybe not warm and fuzzy like the first one, but perfect for where Masha presently is in her life. The book is well designed and scans well. The color pallet changes, depending on whether the story is in the past or present, and the color of the speech bubbles changes depending on who is talking. The book is macabre and dark, much like the original tales. This is not a Disney-fied version of folklore, the cautionary warnings are still there encouraging children to behave--or Baba Yaga will eat you! Because of the decidedly dark nature of the story it is best suited to older elementary and middle school kids who enjoy "things that go bump in the night". The cover is deliciously creepy and will attract the intended audience. In a growing market for quality graphic novels for young people, this book will find a place and a readership.