Baba Yaga’s Assistant: A compelling tale by a gifted collaboration

Reposting to include Rebecca’s new review.

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsBaba Yaga’s Assistant by Marika McCoola (author) & Emily Carroll (illustrator)

BABA YAGAS ASSISTANTBaba Yaga’s Assistant, by Marika McCoola and illustrated by Emily Carroll, is a MG graphic novel that tries to work the frightening richness of the Baba Yaga folktales into the press of modern family life, but despite the great source material, the attempt falls short, though it has its moments.

The protagonist is Masha, a young girl whose father has just proposed to a woman sometime after her mother’s death. Her father had relegated most of Masha’s upbringing to her grandmother, also dead by now, and has also apparently sprung this new relationship on her somewhat out of the blue. When the first blended family dinner doesn’t go well (the younger about-to-be half-sister Dani is a terror who is just as upset about the whole thing as Masha but acts out more aggressively), Masha decides to answer a want ad for an assistant to Baba Yaga, whom her grandmother had told tales of and had herself known.

The premise of Baba Yaga’s Assistant has some strong potential, but here the inherent thriftiness of the graphic story does it some disservice. Masha’s mother isn’t much of a presence at all, partially. Because she died so young, it is difficult to feel her absence. Her father’s apparent withdrawal, meanwhile, has little emotional resonance because we see so little of it and how it develops. This makes it feel a little too much of a plot contrivance and also lends a bit of implausibility to some of the lines surrounding it. As, for instance, when Masha learns that her father has been eating family dinners with the fiancée and daughter while leaving her home alone, seemingly thinking he’s eating at the office. This, and a few other such moments, felt so unlikely and abrupt, at least without more to go on, that it pulled me right out of the story. A single scene involving some plants of her mother’s (her father is a botanist) tries to give a sense of their relationship, but it feels too short and isolated, though the artwork at least goes a ways to try and make up for that.

BabaYaga1The same sketchiness mars the family dinner with Dani being painted as a flat, predictable upset young teen almost to that point of caricature. The too-skimpy nature also bleeds into the general sense of time and place. It’s not quite clear just how old Masha is supposed to be, we have no sense of place or time really, and it becomes more than a little jarring to have Baba Yaga’s famous chicken-legged house just wandering about a few hours’ walk away from wherever they live.

The entry of the house, and Baba Yaga, does spice things up, while the connecting thread — Masha’s loving memories of her grandmother and the tales she told — does come nearer to adding a true sense of grief to the atmosphere. Baba Yaga offers up a series of tests that Masha succeeds at by recalling her grandmother’s stories and adding a pinch of her own ingenuity. The witch herself is an appealing character, a nice blend for the age of frightfulness and mystery and a hint that perhaps she isn’t so bad. But my favorite character in the story is the house itself, which has its own wry and sometimes sharp-edged personality and one which Masha must learn to deal with. The artwork surrounding the house conveys both the personality of the structure and Masha’s growing relationship with it wonderfully. The rest of the art is a little cartoony for me, especially the human figures save for Baba Yaga, and while Carrol does a nice job distinguishing the stories-within-stories (Masha’s recollections of her grandmother’s tales), those scenes were also a little busy. But others may have a different response to the art.

The arrival of Baba Yaga with some children, including Dani, that she tasks Masha to prepare for dinner (to be dinner, not to have over for dinner), could have lent a stronger sense of urgency and suspense, but gets bled too quickly of that possibility, even for a middle-grade book. Meanwhile, the arrival of the children calls up the same question of just where is this all happening, while Dani’s inclusion, out of such context, feels contrived once again.

The ending is a bit mixed, and some might question as to whether it is quite the right message to leave young children with, in regards to the entire situation. Here, again, a little more time and context would have mitigated the problem.

Baba Yaga’s Assistant could have been much more than it is, what with its sorrow over the passage of two loved ones, the complexities of modern family, and the rich folklore of its source material. But thanks to weaknesses in developing these aspects fully, and (for me, at least) a style of art that didn’t appeal much, it end up a relatively weak presentation.

~Bill Capossere


BabaYaga2

Baba Yaga's Assistant by Marika McCoola (author), Emily Carroll (illustrator)A graphic novel about the Slavic witch goddess Baba Yaga illustrated by Emily Carroll? Hell yeah! If you’ve already read Through the Woods by Carroll then you’ll know she’s perfectly suited for this material, combining rich colours with evocative imagery and a true fairy tale ambiance in Baba Yaga’s Assistant (2015).

Masha is a young girl struggling with the recent passing of her grandmother (her mother having died years ago) and her father’s attempts to integrate a new wife and step-daughter into the household. Realizing she no longer has a place in her own home, Masha decides to answer a strange advertisement in the newspaper: an assistant for Baba Yaga.

Most will already know Baba Yaga from Slavic folklore, the terrible witch who lives in the house that walks about on chicken legs. Parts of the familiar story are told to us in flashback as Masha remembers the tales told to her by her grandmother, and she uses their lessons to outwit the witch and her strange house once she enters the woods.

There are tests to pass, chores to do, and difficult choices to make — author Marika McCoola spins the old folklore into a fresh new story that will probably resonant more with readers who are already familiar with the figure of Baba Yaga (even in the original stories, she’s not always a villain).

As ever, our young heroine must use her wits and compassionate to survive the denizens of the woods, and plenty of her trials are taken straight from Slavic mythology. Though the story is simple enough to be enjoyed by children, there is a dark edge to some of the material here — though in my opinion, sometimes it’s good for young readers to get a little spooked.

It’s Emily Carroll’s artwork that really elevates the book, with the autumnal trees, purple twilights and blue-tinged Baba Yaga. In a nice touch, the panels that recount the original Baba Yaga story are depicted in a more stylized form, while Masha’s memories of her grandmother are portrayed in a more muted range of dark colours.

From magical nesting dolls to Baba Yaga’s mortar-and-pestle mode of transportation, this is a story for anyone looking for a fresh but familiar take on the famous Slavic witch-goddess.

~Rebecca Fisher

Published in 2015. Russian folklore icon Baba Yaga mentors a lonely teen in a wry graphic novel that balances gleefully between the modern and the timeless. Most children think twice before braving a haunted wood filled with terrifying beasties to match wits with a witch, but not Masha. Her beloved grandma taught her many things: that stories are useful, that magic is fickle, that nothing is too difficult or too dirty to clean. The fearsome witch of folklore needs an assistant, and Masha needs an adventure. She may be clever enough to enter Baba Yaga’s house-on-chicken-legs, but within its walls, deceit is the rule. To earn her place, Masha must pass a series of tests, outfox a territorial bear, and make dinner for her host. No easy task, with children on the menu! Spooky and poignant, Marika McCoola’s stunning debut—with richly layered art by acclaimed graphic artist Emily Carroll—is a storytelling feat and a visual feast.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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