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Story Behind the Book

Old witch tales come to a boil in ‘Baba Yaga’s Assistant’

David Wilson

“I first encountered the stories of Baba Yaga as a child,” said author Marika McCoola, recalling the books her mother and grandmother read to her. “My grandmother is originally from Poland, and so she actually was told the story of Baba Yaga by her mother.”

An enduring figure from Russian folklore, Baba Yaga is a witch who lives in the woods. “She lives in a house on chicken legs that can travel about, and she flies around in a mortar and pestle,” McCoola went on. “She’s known to be fearsome and terrifying, but she’s also known to reward those who outsmart her. So she favors intellect and brains over brawn.”


In graduate school, McCoola was suddenly struck by the idea of Baba Yaga existing in a contemporary setting. The old stories, which had been “sort of simmering in the back of my head,” seemed perfectly ripe for reinvention in a modern context — and in a very modern medium, the graphic novel.

In McCoola’s graphic novel for readers 10 or older, “Baba Yaga’s Assistant,” published this month by Candlewick, the ancient witch advertises for a helper. A girl named Masha — herself raised on Baba Yaga stories — answers the ad, embarking on a series of challenges to prove she’s smart enough for the job.

Although based on stories that are several hundred years old, McCoola said, Baba Yaga still appeals to today’s young readers. “It’s why we still retell the story of Cinderella or the story of the big bad wolf,” she said, “because the archetypes and themes in the story are still relevant today.”

“I’m a bookseller and a teacher and so I understand that not every book is for every reader,” said McCoola, who is currently at work on two more graphic novels, one based on Irish folklore. “Finding those readers, knowing they’re out there, and watching them discover the book, that’s really exciting.”


McCoola will read 7 p.m. Monday at Porter Square Books.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.