If you were to consider all of the favorite characters in folk and fairy tales, Baba Yaga would certainly be near the top. Baba Yaga, one of the most important figures in Russian folklore, has appeared in literally hundreds of tales from the early days of oral tradition to the present inclusion in contemporary anthologies and in picture books. The Baba Yaga stories contain many motifs that make them truly authentic folk tales, such as good and evil, beauty and ugliness, honor and deceit.
Katya Arnold, a Russian artist, says, "She is so familiar to Russian children that she's almost a member of the family - like an elderly aunt who is either mean or nice, depending on her mood."Sometimes Baba Yaga appears as a fearsome witch who is constantly hungry for the taste of children (which magically reappear in the next story), but at times she is helpful, kind and even wise. She is always a woman of magic and indulges in incantations and perplexing cautions such as "every ques-tion that you ask will make me one year older."
The hut in which Baba Yaga lives in the woods has chicken legs that turn the house around at will. Her fence is made of bones with a gate of skulls that responds to her commands. Baba Yaga flies about in a pestle with a mortar to direct her and sweeps away her traces with a broom made of twigs. Quite often the story portrays three horsemen of white, red and black representing daylight, morning and midnight, which cavort through the storyline as time passes. The theme of many Baba Yaga stories surrounds the adage, "Work for me and I'll give you something in return."
One of the most often published Baba Yaga stories includes the fair Vassilisa. Even though she may take on another name, Vassilisa is the youngest, most beautiful and mistreated of stepchildren who must approach the fearsome Baba Yaga for assistance. She carries with her a doll, a gift from her dying mother whose admonition was to listen to its direction since it is most helpful and provides the best advice.
Adding to the treasure of Baba Yaga stories are two new picture books: A PERFECT PORK STEW by Paul Brett Johnson (Orchard) and BABA YAGA AND THE WISE DOLL retold by Hiawyn Oram and illustrated by Ruth Brown (Orchard).
Johnson grew up in Appalachia and adapted some of the stories he had heard there to those he liked from a visit to Russia. "I started with couple of stock characters from Russian lore . . . added a pinch of tall tale . . . a good dose of the sillies . . . and it wasn't long before a Perfect Pork Stew began to bubble." In this adaptation, Baba Yaga woke up on the wrong side of the bed - "something a witch ought never to do!" She burned her breakfast critter, spilled a vial of snake venom and then tripped and broke her glasses. As Ivan the Fool went by the hut pushing a wheelbarrow filled with dirt clods, Baba Yaga mistook the load for a sweet pink pig. She traded the load of dirt for a magic turnip and instructed Ivan to pop the pig into a kettle to make soup.
Since the dirt soup tasted vile, she took back the turnip to add to the soup and gave Ivan a thinking cabbage head. When the cabbage was added to the soup, Baba Yaga presented Ivan with onions that "will make all the young ladies cry for you." Before Ivan could be on his way, however, the onions ended up in the soup.
Following familiar story elements of "Stone Soup," another familiar tale, "A Perfect Pork Stew" concludes with Ivan the Fool far ahead of the bargain and the witch enjoying - almost - her dirty soup.
Johnson's art complements the humorous tale told in a rhythm and nuance of hill-country. It is a wonderful read-aloud story, and children will enjoy the silliness the author intended and mastered.
Oram's retelling of Baba Yaga includes three children, "Horrid Child, Very Horrid Child and Too Nice Child," the latter representing the tradition of Vassilisa. Too Nice, accompanied by her trusty doll, is sent to the forest to get a light from Baba Yaga with an added demand, "bring us back one of her Toads in a jeweled jacket and diamond collar." Baba Yaga gives Too Nice the task of cleaning a dirty house, which she does with the help of the doll. The next day she is set to the task of sorting poppy seeds from dirt. When the witch asks her about her visit, Too Nice admits that she has come to get a good scare. Baba Yaga is impressed. "That's the right answer, little Wise One Beyond Your Years! How did you come to be so wise and pass all my tests?"
So "gifts beget gifts" and the Toad in a pearl-encrusted jacket with a diamond collar and a long emerald leash is given to Too Nice, who quickly as One! Two! gobbles up the retched other sisters and hops away. "And Too Nice . . . stopped being nice and became . . . well . . . Just About Right."
"Baba Yaga and the Wise Doll" includes enough of the standard folklore elements with variations for a splendid story. But the artwork is what makes it an outstanding addition to the folklore collection. Ruth Brown's magnificent two-page spreads are rich in the black, brown and gray tones of the witch-world. And yet the illustrations are not dull or tiresome. There is great contrast between the shadowy and statuesque Baba Yaga (bedecked in red boots) and the simplicity of little Too Nice, who is bathed in light and innocence. One picture shows a close-up of Baba Yaga with eyes that "glowed like hot coals" and the sweet child in such a startling iridescent color that the reader must return again and again to pick up all the details that Brown has packed in to make the story such a masterpiece.
The publisher has suggested "Baba Yaga and the Wise Doll" for ages 4 through 8. I recommend it for everyone!