One day, in the magical children’s department at WPL’s Main Branch, I stumbled on one of the most beautiful books I have ever seen. It was tucked away in the fairy tale section of the non-fiction stacks and you can take it home and see for yourself: Russian Folk Tales, translated by Robert Chandler and illustrated by Ivan I. Bilbin.
These stories are ones I’ve read over and over again, as I love folktales and mythology from all over the world, and this collection is one of a kind. The full page colour illustrations in this volume are lush and creepy and entirely unique. Don’t let the junior non-fiction categorization fool you, these stories are traditional fairy tales in that they are not for the faint of heart and certainly for at least the 8-year-old and up crowd!
Amidst all the worries and stresses of everyday life, especially during COVID, it was magical to step into the familiar stories like Ivan Tsarevich, The Firebird, and The Grey Wolf, and my absolute favourite: Vasilisa the Beautiful, or as I prefer it and is sometimes referred to as Vasilisa the Brave and/or Wise.
Vasilisa the Brave is a story reminiscent of other familiar tales such as Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel. Our hero, Vasilisa, is a beautiful and kind girl who suffers living with her cruel stepmother and stepsisters, who one night send her deep into the woods to get light from the fearsome (and iconic) Baba Yaga. Vasilisa outsmarts the Baba Yaga over and over again with the help of her magical wooden doll, who completes the impossible tasks Baba Yaga asks of her and safely returns home much to the dismay of her cruel stepfamily. Vasilisa then becomes a renowned seamstress who catches the eye of a prince, and lives happily ever after.
Much to my delight, after finishing Russian Folk Tales, in a quick search of the WPL catalogue I found The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden: a historical fantasy novel that is a wintery, lush, ornately written adult retelling of Vasilisa the Brave. Arden had an amazing interview about her writing process, read more about it here.
The Bear and the Nightingale takes this classic fairy tale and is a well crafted adventure into this rich world. Vasya (a common nickname for Vasilisa) is a bright, adventurous, fully fleshed out character who sees benevolent creatures and “household spirits” no one else does – except her new cruel stepmother. The stepmother, Anna Ivanova, is not a one dimensional villain like fairy tales are apt to do. Anna is a young woman with no interest or say in the matter of her marriage, but unlike her stepdaughter, she is terrified of her similar magical capabilities and wreaks havoc because of it with the help of the enigmatic and sort-of-evil priest sent from Moscow, Konstantin.
The Bear and the Nightingale is set in the farthest corners of medieval and magical Russia. It’s a perfect read to cozy up with during the cold weather and to get lost in the world of evil bear creatures, frost demon kings, plucky heroines, and so much more. The Bear and The Nightingale is the first of a trilogy, so check out The Girl in the Tower and The Winter of the Witch, too!
— Jackie M.