Finding Baba Yaga is a brand-new YA novel in poem form by renowned children’s author and poet Jane Yolen. This novel in verse is unexpected, but totally absorbing, and hard to put down. The main character and narrator, Natasha, is a teenaged girl living in a home of verbal and physical abuse:
There is no peace
in this house,
only strips of paper,
tatters of cloth,
slivers of glass,
slit lips and tongues.
I pick up the shards
and put me to bed
every night (p. 19).
Finally, the world inside the house she’s lived in becomes too much, the abuse too acute, and she leaves it, totally unprepared for the world outside that home. Eventually, though, she comes to the forest:
Above me a murder of crows discuss dinner.
A wind puzzles through the birches.
Like the hero in any good tale, I boldly walk in (p. 42).
It is in the forest that she comes upon the hut on chicken feet, meets Baba Yaga, and learns to fly the witch’s mortar and pestle. Baba Yaga rewards clever girls and it is by these rewards that Natasha finds her true place and her voice.
Vasilisa and a prince enter the forest and the story, too, but events remain firmly through the eyes (and the verse) of Natasha. Baba Yaga is a sometimes cruel witch, but she and Natasha eventually become allies in this story of being lost and finding oneself.
The Baba gives me paper
and a pen that sputters ink.
Write, she says, tell the true
Though you may have to lie to do it (p. 118).
I think that if I was fifteen years old reading Finding Baba Yaga for the first time, it would be my favorite book. It is definitely a keeper and I’ll reread it many times in the years to come. I recommend Finding Baba Yaga to poetry fans, fans of young adult fiction, and retellings of fairy tales because this book is all of these things rolled into one.
Of interest to many may be the comprehensive reading study guide for high schoolers included at the back of the text. It looks to be just as helpful a guide for a reading group.
If you’re a Baba Yaga fan, or know someone who is, I recommend two other books by Jane Yolen. Here there be Witches is beautifully illustrated in black and white by David Wilgus. I was ten years old when this short story and poetry collection was released and I bought it brand new from the bookstore. It has kept its place on my bookshelf the last twenty-three years. I recommend it for its juicy witchyness for people of any age. Here there be Witches includes a really neat Baba Yaga story, “Boris Chernevsky’s Hands,” which showcases her savage trickery on a man.
“Whirrr. Whirr. Clunkety-clank. Something flew over the dark tangled forest.” Thus starts Jane Yolen’s The Flying Witch illustrated by Vladimir Vagin. It is an early twentieth century look at what Baba Yaga is up to, and how, “a small girl — not really plump and not really skinny but somewhere in between — wandered into the forest” and was found by the iron-nosed witch. It is the story of this little girl and how she outwits and helps the witch who is intent on eating her. The story is great and the illustrations are beautiful. I read The Flying Witch to my three year-old son who asks for Baba Yaga. It is a fun book to read to yourself, as well.
[Reviewed by Hayley Arrington]