Baba Yaga’s Assistant: Guest Review by Selah Janel

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Alrighty, we’ve had ghosts, we’ve had vampires and the underworld, we’ve had a full-on ghost dimension. So how about a witch? And not just a witch, but one of the most infamous witches that kids today have never heard of.

Masha is dealing with the recent death of her grandmother, who also seems to be her connection to Russian stories and her heritage. She’s also lost her mother and is watching her once closed-off father start to have a new relationship with a woman who has a daughter of her own. To make matters worse, the daughter that may become her step-sister is younger and a brat. Convinced there’s no place for her in her own family, Masha answers a very unique wanted ad and finds herself at the mercy of Baba Yaga, seeking to become her assistant.

I still don’t see how this can be a debut book because it is So. Good. From the start you realize that the author has a huge sense of the folklore. I like that Masha’s grandmother is hinted to have also had dealings with the witch, and that in this take on the modern, suburban world, children are very much aware of who Baba Yaga is. Everything just clicks together well and I love it. From the tests Masha has to take to the bear, to her eventual handling of Baba Yaga when her future step-sister shows up, this has some great takes on sense of self and family relationships that aren’t overly cliché or saccharine. Masha isn’t a naïve protagonist or a snarky teen – she’s portrayed as an individual who has to think on her feet, who has justified feelings, and who is doing her best. I like that the adults around her aren’t portrayed as perfect or villains, and I particularly love the ending. Somehow you get a resolution between family members while still getting the ending you secretly want. It’s great.

Baba herself is just fantastic – she’s creepy yet not so scary that you’re put off by her. There’s a humor there, and a huge sense of her age and many adventures and lifetimes, as there should be. It would be a huge misstep to cast her as a token antagonist, because while she can be that, that’s not really who she is. In that regard, she’s very much like older faerie stories – she is who she is, good or ill.

Marika McCoola does a fantastic job of incorporating folklore via the grandmother, and like I said, I love the decision to plop Baba Yaga into this portrayal of the world as urban legend. It’s not something I’m used to seeing, and since she’s one of my favorite characters in folklore, I absolutely eat this up. It’s so easy to identify with Masha. I ached for how lost she felt, and there were definitely a few times that had me hissing through my teeth at the people around her. She’s not perfect, though, and has to learn on her feet to avoid some potentially devastating mishaps.

Emily Carroll (Through the Woods) does the art, and it’s just magnificent. Creepy but vibrant, there’s a fine line between feeling tense and wanting to dive into this world that carries through the whole book. Love love love. I could see anyone from older elementary school kids through middle school loving this, but honestly because I doubt the folklore is familiar to a lot of people, I think readers of all ages will enjoy it. The characters are easy to identify with, plus it’s a great mix of adventure and creepy. Definitely a good one for parents to read with their kids, for middle school kids to kick back with, or for teens and adults to learn about folklore through.

5/5

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Selah Janel

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