Scholastic Press, 2018.
Hardcover, 272 pp.
Marinka just wants a real live, living friend. Sure, her house is alive; as is her jackdaw, Jack; and her Baba (grandmother), but they are all about the business of the dead. Well, clumsy Jack is all about finding (and sometimes storing) insects—which are dead—so, nevermind.
According to Baba, Marinka is destined to be a Yaga, like she is. The Guardian has a serious job and it requires all their time and attention. The living seem dangerous. It’s also hard to make friends when you move around so much; especially when your house can just up and leave in the middle of the night.
In The House with Chicken Legs, Sophie Anderson manages the difficult feat of creating a charming magical world that can hold tension with a very real human drama of growing up and being different. Marinka is in a difficult spot; and so is everyone else in the novel. While Marinka is, no doubt, our central character, it is interesting to see how Anderson populates the book with characters who are making do (or not) with their own life situations.
For the reader, the house is pretty awesome and the travel sounds worth the restraints. Our endearment toward the house and the work Baba Yaga does creates a marvelous conflict as Markinka is increasingly disenchanted; because we can see where she is coming from, too. She’s growing up and restless and is lonely. And once we meet the friends like Benjamin and Nina, the reader wants them as friends, too.
But the rules that chafe come with serious consequences. One consequence will compel Markinka to go to enormous lengths to reverse. Anderson writes an incredibly stubborn character in Marinka, in a force-of-nature kind of way that is both beautiful and painful. I can’t help but admire Anderson’s consistency of character—in all the characters. And I appreciate her ability to write the novel into that kind of conclusion.
The House with Chicken Legs is a well-written debut, with a charm and weight that make it a rich experience. It’s also an interesting addition to the tales of Baba Yaga; a friendly, sympathetic turn that interrogates human fear. Not unlike the twist in the story that creates that ending, Marinka becomes an intriguing way of thinking about a character in a fairytale, one that doesn’t have to choose one way of existing or another, but a way that is singular to her experiences. It’s like the answer the Yaga asks the dead as they escort them to the Gate, “What do you take with you to the stars?” The answer is always suited to the life who lived it and the stories only they have to tell. The House with Chicken Legs is the story a young Marinka has to tell, you’ll not want to miss it.
Recommended for fairy tale readers and lovers of magic. Because so much of Marinka’s troubles will resonate with real children her age, I think The House with Chicken Legs will go over well with the realist fiction crowd: so if you’ve been despairing that your young reader isn’t getting enough fantasy in their diet, here you go. It also yields a friendly hint of the macabre for the uninitiated. I’d recommend this for those who love intergenerational reads and/or appealing adults in kids lit.
For readers of Jones’ Howls Moving Castle, and Levine’s Ella Enchanted. For fans of the film Coco (2017).