Masha and the Firebird
written by Margaret Bateson-Hill, illustrated by Anne Wilson
(Alanna Books, 2014)
Masha and the Firebird has been inspiring schoolchildren’s creativity since it was first published and won The English Association’s 4-11 Award for Best Picture Book in 1999. Alanna Books have reissued it, along with another of Margaret Bateson-Hill’s folktale series, Lao Lao of Dragon Mountain, in a new hardback edition. Taking elements from Russian folklore, it tells the story of a little girl, Masha, who is roped into protecting the Firebird’s magical eggs from the witch Baba Yaga.
Breaking away from tradition, Masha lives with loving parents (not a wicked step-mother, as per the traditional Baba Yaga story). When her mother gives her a box of paints, her father suggests she use them to paint eggs: ‘Why the Tsar himself had a collection, exquisitely decorated with gold and jewels!’ This turns out to be good practice, as one day Masha encounters the Firebird, who asks for her help to keep her four magical eggs safe from Baba Yaga. The illustrations showing Masha’s decorating of the Firebird’s elemental eggs are beautiful (and you can vote for which one you like best here on the author’s website). All goes well with the first three eggs of Earth, Water and Air; Masha and the Firebird hide them in turn – but disaster strikes with the fourth egg, the egg of Fire, and Masha must journey deep into the forest to face Baba Yaga…
The narrative builds up with a frisson of what is going to happen, and we are lulled into a slightly false sense of security, with Baba Yaga portrayed quite cleverly as engaged in harmless foraging each time she passes by the hidden eggs. When we come face to face with her, however, she is all the more terrifying. There is also a lovely symmetry in the story, as Masha is helped on her way by creatures she herself has painted.
Anne Wilson’s mixed media illustrations are full of energy and depth of colour and texture. Both the Firebird and Baba Yaga are memorable, bursting from the constraints of the page, and Masha is an endearing heroine. Accompanying the vignette of each painted egg is a Russian rhyme that is reproduced, along with an English verse translation inside the book’s covers; and back matter provides a brief introduction to the Cyrillic script, as well as suggestions for how to decorate eggs.