Baba Yaga’s Assistant
by By Marika McCoola &
Illustrated by Emily Carroll
Candlewick Press, 2015
Middle Grade (8-12)
Masha is unhappy with her new, surprise stepmother, and even more overjoyed at sharing her house with a hateful younger step-sister, Dani. When it becomes clear that Dad’s been out having dinner with Jenny and her daughter while Masha stays at home alone for who knows how long, it’s too much. “Well, I’m glad you finally found a family worth your time.”
So she decides to have an adventure with Baba Yaga like her grandmother Irina before her. She had magical talent. Is it inherited? Masha answers a classified ad for an assistant wanted. She knows who placed the ad. She grew up hearing stories about magic and Baba Yaga from her grandmother.
ASSISTANT WANTED ASAP
Must have skills in hauling, obeying orders, cooking, and cleaning. Magical talent a bonus. Must be good with heights. Enter Baba Yaga’s house to apply.
Baba Yaga means Grandmother Witch, much in the tradition of Tomy dePaola’s Strega Nona. Her very old folk tales go back to the middle ages in Slavic mythology. She is considered a Forest Mother.
Mahsa’s first challenge, aside from not running away from the angry old hag hideous greeting, is to get into the house. But the old stories prove true.
In order to get the job, though, Masha must pass three tests. Like you do in any good myth. She first must clean the witch’s house. But she needs a little help from some matryoshka dolls… and the house likes to jump up and run really fast every now and then, making it even more difficult. As does the grizzly bear.
She’s a mean old crone who steals children… If they’re naughty, she turns them into goldfish and watches them flop around for fun.
There’s a practical exam, where Masha discovers she has a “talent”, not for cooking up spells, but for causing Inky Darkness with some bad memories she seems to dwell upon.
The second test is to feed the witch’s cats, and the third simply to prepare dinner. Using flashbacks to the original slavic tales of Baba Yaga, as told by her grandmother, Masha discovers creative ways to manipulate her environment and achieve the results she needs. She bathes a closet full of snakes and toads. But the dinner she must prepare is none other than her nasty little step-sister.
“Grandma, does Baba Yaga really eat children?”
“Not often. You see, Baba Yaga likes resourceful little girls… like you. And she rewards those who trick her.”
This is really the story of a girl who has lost her mother navigating her own way through ever-changing relationships with her father and her grandmother to find her place in the world. She follows a yellow-brick road to find the place where she truly belongs. And it’s not home taking care of her Dad.
Before or after you give this to your little one, it might be fun to read the original tale of Vasilisa and Baba Yaga with them. Or, then again… maybe not.
I love stories where the old crone of a witch is scary as heck but isn’t really evil, just keenly intelligent. Sometimes smart and powerful women can come across like angry monsters, but if you keep your back straight, they can offer the greatest wisdom and rewards.