Russian folk tales retold for children ring true, even if they didn't happen

Patricia Polacco talks of sitting in front of the fireplace as a little girl, listening to her mother's mother -- her babushka -- tell stories. Many were versions of folk tales from the Ukraine, where Babushka was born. Some of them Babushka made up on her own.

"I remember, every time she'd finish a story, we'd lean toward her and say, 'Bubbie, is that a true story?' " Ms. Polacco said.


"And she'd say, 'Of course, it's true. But it may not have happened.' "

Ms. Polacco inherited her grandmother's storytelling powers, and her belief in the power of stories. She was in Baltimore last week as part of a tour to promote her latest book, "Babushka Baba Yaga" (Philomel, $14.95, ages 4-8), and she spoke with passion about the schoolchildren she has visited along the way.


"We need to offer children the notion that the imagination is a very safe, wonderful place to be in a world that is quite unsafe," Ms. Polacco said.

"And you see, the extension of the imagination is that if you go there often enough, and you see yourself as a wonderful being, that is what you will become."

But too often kids don't take the time -- or aren't allowed the time -- to daydream.

"I've seen the deficit not only in inner-city kids," Ms. Polacco said. "I've seen exactly the same deficit in very wealthy communities, where the children never have a moment in their day that isn't programmed, filled with activity -- contrived activity.

"I guess what I'm trying to say to them is, 'It's up to you, kids. Don't depend on your parents to do it. You go lie on that grass and hang on and look at those clouds and see the pictures they make.' "

Ms. Polacco has written and illustrated more than a dozen books, including "Chicken Sunday," "Rechenka's Eggs," "Thunder Cake," "Apple- mando's Dreams," "Picnic at Mudsock Meadow," "Some Birthday!" and "Just Plain Fancy." She has received several awards, including the 1992 Children's Literature and Social Responsibility Award, honoring her entire body of work, and the 1992 Gold Kite Award for illustration.

Her stories spring from many sources, just as she does. Her mother's parents were Russian Jews who immigrated to Michigan, and her father's parents were Irish.

Her father became a born-again Christian after he married Patricia's mother, and that's probably why their marriage didn't last, Patricia said.


Her mother packed up Patricia and her brother and moved to Oakland, Calif., where they lived in the integrated neighborhood that is the setting for "Chicken Sunday."

And she has drawn from the life of her husband, Enzo Polacco. He is a concentration camp survivor, an Italian Jew whose ancestors had emigrated from Poland.

"For me, it always starts with the family," she said. "I also feel very strongly about the contribution older individuals can make to very young individuals. In most of my stories, there will be an old person and a young person. And when you think about it, children and the elderly are almost in the same group. They're both ignored, in my humble opinion."

The connection between those two generations is found in her latest work, "Babushka Baba Yaga." Baba Yaga is a traditional character in Russian folklore, a horrible witch who lives in the woods, waiting to snatch children away from their families and eat them.

"I wondered: What if she's been misjudged," Ms. Polacco said. "I'm dyslexic, and I know what it's like to be teased and labeled as a kid as being dumb. The story came about because I hated the unfairness of singling someone out and assuming they're something. Of course, that's what racism is based on."

So in this story, Baba Yaga is a gentle, old woman who wants, more than anything else, to have a child. She's too old to have one herself, so she yearns to be like the babushkas who take their grandchildren for walks every morning.


One day she sneaks into a yard and "borrows" the clothes hanging on the line. She dresses up as a babushka, hiding her Mr. Spock ears under a scarf, and joins the other grandmothers. When she hears of a working mother who has no family to help her care for Victor, her 3-year-old son, Baba Yaga says she will take care of Victor and cook and clean in return for room and board.

Baba Yaga and Victor fall in love. All is wonderful until one day when the other babushkas start telling stories about the evil Baba Yaga. Afraid Victor will find out her identity and be terrified, Baba Yaga returns to the forest.

Victor is heartbroken until a turn of events allows Baba Yaga to reveal her true nature to the villagers. They admit the error of their ways, and Baba Yaga is welcomed as Victor's babushka.

As always, Ms. Polacco's pencil-and-watercolor illustrations have a folk art vibrancy, but with plenty of energy and motion. The children's faces are flushed and round; the grandmothers' faces are creased with wisdom -- the wisdom of Ms. Polacco's own babushka.


Signing sightings: Theodore Taylor, author of "To Kill the Leopard," "Sniper," "The Cay," has a new book out, a prequel/sequel to "The Cay," called "Timothy of the Cay." He will appear at the Children's Bookstore on Deepdene Road in Roland Park Wednesday from 2:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. On Thursday, from 4:30 to 6 p.m., the Children's Bookstore will play host to famed author/illustrator Chris Van Allsburg. His many award-winning works include "The Polar Express" and "Jumanji," and his latest book is "The Sweetest Fig."