About Marika McCoola
Marika McCoola has an MA in writing for children from Simmons College and is a former children’s book buyer at an independent bookstore in Massachusetts. Baba Yaga’s Assistant marks her publishing debut. She lives in Massachusetts.
About the Book: Baba Yaga’s Assistant
This graphic novel follows the story of Masha, a young teen. After the death of her grandmother, Masha doesn't know what to do with her life. Her father is absent, more involved with his fiancée than his daughter. When Masha discovers an ad seeking an assistant for Baba Yaga, she ventures into the woods to apply. But once there, Masha must pass three tests handed down from the terrifying witch, the last of which is cooking children for dinner.
What made you want to write about the traditional Baba Yaga, a witch not known by many kids today?
I grew up on folktales from around the world. I rediscovered stories of Baba Yaga in college and have always been intrigued by her as a character. Yes, Baba Yaga is a child-eating witch, but she also rewards those who outsmart her, particularly young women. You don't often find tales in which the intelligence of young women is rewarded by something other than marriage. I've also always loved postmodern books retelling or remixing folk or fairy tales, so this was a natural path for me to take.
What was at the forefront of your character development for the traditional Baba Yaga witch and Masha, a lonely yet mentally tough Cinderella-like teen?
Baba Yaga was fun. Based on the decisions she makes in the stories, she's playing a long game not known to mortals. This was such fun to write because it means she can do whatever she wants, in a secretive, sassy way. I want to be her when I'm old.
Masha also has a bit of me in her, specifically that she's bookish and is ready to head out and get what she wants. However, she's also young, still figuring out who she is and what she (ultimately) desires. Masha isn't fully formed to me as a character yet; the more I write her, the more she grows and discovers who she is.
A number of Baba Yaga stories are Cinderella stories, specifically the step-mother and step-sister(s) part, so I'd always planned on it being a part of the structure.
Did you write the story with comic panels and speech bubbles in mind or did you first write it as a traditional story?
In graduate school, author Anna Staniszewski asked the class to write the opening pages of a graphic novel. The first spread of Baba Yaga's Assistant immediately came to me. As I started thinking about it, Baba Yaga, with her iron teeth, mortar and pestle, and house on chicken legs, was a story that had to be told visually. Some authors hear their characters' voices; I see a movie in my head, pausing and zooming and rewinding to figure out the perfect frame.
Ultimately, I believe that form follows function (I went to art school and was raised by an architect, so this has been drummed into me my entire life). I believe that every story has a proper format for delivery, whether that be prose, poetry, an interactive game, a song, etc. Since writing Baba Yaga's Assistant I've come up with other stories that are meant to be picture books or novels; each idea has a proper vehicle.
How did you team up with and what was it like collaborating with illustrator, Emily Carroll?
Emily was suggested by Candlewick Press and I thought her style was perfect. Traditionally, there's no contact between author and illustrator. However, Emily reached out to me and while I suggested she look at Ivan Biliban's illustrations, I didn't add much else. The panel descriptions in the graphic novel script already have my direction, and I trusted Emily to take those and change them as needed. I got to see the artwork at each stage in the process, but didn't have many notes for Emily. When I opened the finals and saw how the color palette of the book changed to reflect the arc of the story, I knew she'd nailed it.
Did you give Emily Carroll direction on look, colors, mood, and the level of scary you were after?
Where I had a definite idea for one of these aspects, the notes were included in the panel descriptions. However, in some places I left room for the illustrator. After all, what they bring to the work makes it a stronger finished book.
How much did illustrator, Emily Carroll, change the story through her art?
When I give presentations, I take viewers through all the stages of one spread, from script to final. I do this for the spread (pages 54-55) in which the most changes were made and I talk about why. I wouldn't say Emily changed the story, she enhanced and expanded it, seeing things I didn't and tightening up the pacing.
What is the best advice you have for aspiring young writers to assist them in writing their first graphic novel?
Unlike novel writing, graphic novel scripts are about paring down text versus high word count. First, make sure it's the format for your story. Then, consider both text and image as you work. Make sure there aren't redundancies; it's a good thing to cut a line if the illustrator's work ends up making it superfluous. Don't be scared to doodle and draw as you write even if you're not illustrating the final book. Working things out on paper can be very helpful. Lastly, when you write panel descriptions, remember that it's up to you as to how much art direction you give. Sometimes you'll want to be very specific. Other times, it's worth giving the illustrator a bit of room.