Phyllis Limbacha Tildes, author and illustrator of The Magic Babushka, knew something about butterflies that I didn’t know. She knew that, in Slavic culture, butterflies were once associated with witches.
Perhaps it’s because of the way caterpillars change into butterflies. Perhaps it’s because the word babushka, grandmother, sounds an awful lot like babochka, butterfly. And Russian speakers tend to hear babochka as a diminutive of baba, old woman. And in Russian fairy tales, old women are often witches.
Whatever the reason, Tildes created a butterfly woman, Baba Babochka, who reads like she came straight out of a Russian folk tale. Tildes drew her in her human form as a toothless old woman with a face as round and wrinkled as a dried out apple. She’s a shape-shifter, able to transform herself from butterfly to old woman and back at will.
Or almost at will. Nadia, the heroine of the story, first sees her in her butterfly form, trapped in a spider’s web. When Nadia frees her, she turns into an old woman. After asking Nadia promise to tell no one about her, she offers to reward her with a wish.
As it happens, Nadia is near-sighted. Too near-sighted to make pysanky eggs for Easter. Although she has many gifts, this one gift that she doesn’t have is the one she wants. So she asks Baba Babochka to make the pysanky designs that she creates into her mind into real pysanky.
Baba Babochka doesn’t seem entirely pleased with Nadia’s wish, but a promise is a promise. She gives Nadia her babushka, her headscarf (the word babushka means both old woman and headscarf), and tells Nadia to wrap white eggs in it and set them in the moonlight.
Nadia follows Baba Babochka’s instructions, and the next morning, the eggs in the babushka are as beautiful as Nadia had hoped.
But that’s when things start to go wrong. Nadia has the eggs she wished for. But who will believe that she made them?
Nadia hid the beautiful eggs – or, at least, she tried to. But magic things don’t stay hidden, and soon the tsarina’s son and the tsarina herself want Nadia to make more eggs.
But Nadia still can’t see. And she can’t explain how she made the other eggs without breaking her promise to Baba Babochka.
Tildes’s illustrations in The Magic Babushka are a perfect match for the fairy tale story. They are bright and colorful and very, very Russian, from the clothing the people wear to the borscht and blini that Nadia is served at the palace.
Children with sharp eyes might notice the magic babushka on the last spread of the story, and a butterfly flitting by. Those subtle touches in the final illustration are a perfect cap to a delightful story.
At the end of The Magic Babushka, Tildes provides a glossary, a bit of information about pysanky, and a brief historical note.
For more about pysanky, check out this free middle school lesson plan created by illustrator R.J. Hughes.
And if you’re teaching, consider having your students read both The Magic Babushka and Marushka’s Egg, and having them compare Baba Babochka and Baba Yaga.
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