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Ruth Brown, 1998.
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Baba Yaga & the Wise Doll by Hiawyn Oram; illus. by Ruth Brown, 1998. 101p
ISBN 0-525-45947-2  $15.99   4-7 yrs

Witches, like it or not, have a strong hold on our collective imagination. Whether they are wise women in primeval forests or wicked women in dark towers, the stories in which they appear and the visual images in which they are rendered intrigue us from a very early age.

The opening image of Baba Yaga in this picture-book retelling of the traditional Russian folktale is a riveting one. The witch, dressed in variegated black with red shoes, sits in a high-backed chair. Her hat, broom, and cauldron, symbols of her power, surround her, as do her "trusty Toads," who tell her, "You are truly terrifying," to which she replies "I hope so. That's what I'm here for!" And indeed, that is what this particular witch is here for, to be a terrifying symbol of the unknown, the dang erous, and the forbidden. She anticipates and relishes the challenge she knows will come.

While the lack of any source note is disconcerting in an era when folktales are not just story collections or storybooks but are used as examples and bridges to specific cultures, variants of this familiar tale are easy to locate. The story of Baba Yaga and the wise doll has been oft retold, both in standard collections such as Virginia Haviland's Favorite Fairy Tales Told in Russia, and in dramatic picture book versions for older readers, including Marianna Mayer's Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave, which has highly ornamental illustrations and language. Oram himself has a gift for pithy turns of phrase, compressing description into action and dialogue. He has retold this story in eminently oral language, bypassing character develo pment and the dysfunctional family of usual protagonist Vasilisa in favor of a barreling plot and a child heroine named Too Nice.

Too Nice is driven from her home by her bullying sibs, Horrid and Very Horrid, who tell her, ". . . visit Baba Yaga. Bring us back one of her Toads in a jeweled jacket and a diamond collar. If you do that, we might play with you." Too Nice speaks to h er "dearest possession," her Doll, a farewell gift from her dead mother, saying, "Now what? . . . It's unbearable to stay and unbearable to go." The Doll replies (in only one of the down-to-earth wisdoms scattered throughout this book), "No one can stay and go at the same time. . . . Put me in your pocket, listen to my advice when I have any, and let's be off." And off they go. Baba Yaga sees Too Nice coming and, in all her witchy glory, goes to meet her. Brown plays up the visual shenanigans when To o Nice meets Baba Yaga-not only has Baba Yaga "pulled her nose down and her chin up until they met in a terrifying crescent," but she rides her house like a bucking bronco, her child-gobbling toadies hanging on just behind. Too Nice's first terrifying gl impse of Baba Yaga provokes an "I can't do this," but the Doll says, as good friends are wont to, "Oh yes, you can." So Too Nice knocks on the door of the House on its scaly chicken legs and is admitted to the mysterious, terrifying, and fascinating realm of Baba Yaga.

Full of the emblems of Baba Yaga's witchery-a sneering, sharp-toothed Cauldron, salivating Toads in diamond collars, jars with heaven only knows what in them, and piles and piles of dirty dishes ("Do them all by morning or Cauldron will cook you" says th e witch)-the inside of the House on chicken feet does not disappoint. Shadow and light play tag in these compositions, with the dark Baba looming over the dark house, and the golden firelight blanketing the girl as the Doll, her shadow huge on the golden wall, assists her in each task. As is often the case, the bad guy is more fun than the good guy, who in this case is a sweet-faced, wide-eyed youngster. Ruth Brown's illustrations give readers a Baba Yaga of archetypal mien. With her sweeping black cl oak, wild eyes and hair, and long, talon-like fingernails, she is an opponent whose defeat will be the stuff of legend-or folktale.

And who will defeat her? Why, the heroine, of course, that sweet-faced young girl, that innocent, protected by her mother's love. In the tradition of traditional tales, Too Nice (with the help of the magical Doll) overcomes three tasks set by Baba Yaga , and as a reward is granted one of the child-eating, diamond collared Toads. But Too Nice's triumph is different from slaying the dragon or severing the giant's head, for Baba Yaga dances with glee when Too Nice passes the final test. The young girl le arns wisdom from the old crone and wins the day, to both of their delights. "And when Too Nice led the Toad back to Horrid and Very Horrid, he wasted no time. ONE! TWO! He gobbled them up, then quietly hopped back to the forest." This is folkloric ju stice at its finest-the horrid little Horrids don't merit any sympathy-they get what they deserve. And Too Nice, "not surprisingly after all she'd been through, stopped being Too Nice and became . . . well . . . Just About Right." Looking for stories w ith strong female protagonists? Tell this one.

-- Janice Del Negro, Editor

Big Picture Image
February's Bulletin cover illustration
by Ruth Brown from
Baba Yaga & the Wise Doll,
Copyright 1998. Used by
permission of Dutton.

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This page was last updated on February 1, 1998.