BooksforTopics Reading for Pleasure Recommendations
Book Title: The House with Chicken Legs
Author: Sophie Anderson
Illustrator: Melissa Castrillón (cover) & Elisa Paganelli (illustrations)
Publication Date: May 2018
Most Suitable For: Years 5-6
Over the last few months there has been a real buzz around The House With Chicken Legs, due to be published at the beginning of May. I was so excited to receive an early copy to read in advance and find out for myself what all the hype is about. Happily I can say that it did not disappoint and what I discovered was a wildly imaginative and highly unusual story (in the best of ways) brimming with wonder, magic, folklore and compassion.
Marinka is a 12-year-old girl who lives with her grandmother, Baba Yaga. Together they live in a house with chicken legs and move around from place to place, fulfilling their role of ‘guardians of the gate’ by guiding the spirits of the deceased through the gateway between life and death. Before the spirits pass through the gate, Baba Yaga listens to their stories and celebrates their life with them. Marinka’s destiny appears to be already decided; she is to train to become a Yaga like her grandmother and this means that she is never allowed to go to school or make friends with the living. Increasingly Marinka realises that she does not want to live the life of a Yaga and begins to take big risks as she experiences a rising desire to make some real friends and sample a 'normal' existence. What follows is an emotive coming-of-age story that sees Marinka working to resolve the tensions between her own desires and the path she is expected to follow.
There are a number of delightfully unusual elements in this story. First is Marinka’s wonderful house, which takes on the role of a memorable character in its own right, and one that will be very quick to earn the affections of readers young and old. What’s not to love about a house that plays hide-and-seek with you or scoops you up onto the roof and takes you for a super fast ride through the forest? The idea of a hut that travels around on chicken-like legs is borrowed from traditional Slavic folklore, but here it is reimagined as a cross between a playful, loveable pet and a caring (and sometimes stubborn) guardian. There is a real lot to love about The House With Chicken Legs but for me, the house absolutely was the stand-out feature. Marinka is also a very likeable protagonist who is sparky, courageous and increasingly compassionate.
Another unusual element of this story is that it deals quite directly with the topic of death, a subject that is important to address but requires the right amount of sensitivity (especially in a children’s story). I have to admit that I raised an eyebrow on the first page when the narrator asserts in a somewhat matter-of-fact way, “Dead people, I’ve seen plenty of those.” But I was very quickly won over by the warmth of the fantasy context in which the topics of death and grief are explored. What Anderson achieves by addressing the topic so directly is actually quite impressive, especially the way in which, as the story unfolds, any unease at the macabre quickly dissolves as it becomes clear that celebrating lives defines the dead characters more than the sense of absence they leave behind. In Marinka's world (just like in the real one), listening, remembering and telling stories are hugely valuable ways of processing grief.
Sophie Anderson is a wonderful storyteller and has very skilfully crafted a compelling and believable magical world that is an enchanting amalgamation between traditional and modern. I really enjoyed how, through Marinka's eyes, I found myself able to explore elements of a Slavic folk story in a fresh and relatable way, and how Anderson’s emotive narrative invites the reader to meet the characters and events with a large amount of compassion.
This is a magical and captivating narrative that dances its way through darkness and light, joy and grief and life and death and I’m highly recommending it for Years 5 and 6.
Many thanks to the publisher for kindly sending me a review copy of this book.