We have now read about Baba Yaga, who is usually depicted as a fearsome hag who lives in a traveling house balanced on chicken feet. However, in Patricia Polacco’s 1993 story, we get to see a softer side of the infamous witch. The last of her kind, this Baba Yaga longs for a child to love. Inspired by the sight of a gathering of babushkas (grannies) and some untended clothes on a line, our Baba Yaga decides to disguise herself as a loving but lonely crone. She hopes to find a family to help and a surrogate grandchild. She is successful, but is troubled by town gossip of the dangerous Baba Yaga. Finally, the moment comes when she can prove her good heart to all. This is a tender tale with a message to judge others for what they are and not how they seem.
Even in her natural state, this Baba Yaga looks wild but cute rather than frightening. Polacco draws her with very pointed, tufted ears, lots of wild grey hair and talon-like nails, with a fairy swinging playfully from her finger. Baba is aided in her disguise by cheerful looking forest animals, such as a fox, a rabbit, a frog, and a bear. All the babushkas and villagers wear layers of bright colored, patterned clothing, and Polacco’s details of the families’ homes and gatherings give a feeling of warmth and community that fits perfectly with the story’s message.
In Luba and the Wren (Picture Puffins) from 1999, Polacco tells a story that I’d first heard as The Fisherman and His Wife. I don’t know if she has recorded a Ukrainian variant, or if she decided to convert the tale to give it a new setting and flavor. Luba is the happy child of poor farmers. One day, when she is searching for mushrooms in the woods, she finds and releases a wren trapped in a net. When the little bird offers her a wish in return, Luba can think of nothing that she lacks. But, when she shares the story with her parents, they encourage her to go back to the wren and ask for a better home and property. This pleases them, but only for a while. Poor Luba is soon the unwillingly go between for her parents’ increasingly greedy and outrageous demands.
The story is bookended by papers with cheerful orange, teal and pink floral motifs that also provide lovely frames for some of the text. Luba looks appropriately innocent and rosy in her multipatterned headscarves and dresses. The small brown wren goes from friendly and freckled in the palm of Luba’s hand to red eyed and frightening with wings and tail feathers raised in outrage, on a branch far above her head. Originally, the family’s little dacha looks somewhat ramshackle, but also bright and welcoming. Luba is surrounded by affectionate farm animals. As her surroundings grow grander, her parents become more remote and the animals are generally pictured farther away and more impersonal. When all is set to right, Luba is shown snuggling with her parents while the once again friendly wren looks on.