Inspired by the Russian folktale “Vassilissa the Beautiful,” the latest YA novel from Sarah Porter transforms Brooklyn into an enchanted land, where young Vassa is a hero in waiting. Porter discusses the power of fairy tales and how they can teach readers to love, to believe and to survive the darkest moments of our lives.
In fairy tales, a girl walks into the woods. Or sometimes the woods come for her, invading her home with their shadowy arms, wrapping her in brambles.
When you are a small child, all the world often seems dark and wild and confusing, an enchanted and menacing forest, and the only thing that stays safe and certain is your family’s embrace—that is, if you are one of the lucky ones. If you are less lucky, you might have a father who suddenly turns into a terrifying giant, or a mother like a poisoned apple, or you might not have parents at all. Then you can find yourself lost in the dark woods, even in the quiet of your own room.
And this is why we will always need fairy tales: Far from being escapist fantasies, they offer us instructions on how to survive. You are the hero, they say; well, then, this is one way to trick a giant, and this is how you might disarm a witch, or find your way to the castle, or win love. A fairy tale is an eminently practical story. They make such a profound impression on us when we are children, because we desperately memorize everything they have to tell us about how we can defeat our worst fears.
When I was small, the Russian fairytale “Vassilissa the Beautiful” was my map through the woods, my guide to defeating the darkness. Vassilissa goes up against the witch Baba Yaga with her magic doll to help her, but also with intelligence and sensitivity, and those things are enough to save her life. I was a dreamy, introspective child, and the survival strategies Vassilissa employed seemed like they might just work for me: Pay attention. Know when someone is baiting you. Accept help, but work hard at the same time. Listen for the secrets hidden inside the most casual statements. Her story, among others, taught me how to become myself.
I grew up and moved to Brooklyn, and started teaching creative writing workshops in public schools. Reading shows us the possibility of pathways in the woods and shows us techniques for fighting monsters, but when we write, we begin to cut new paths for ourselves. The deep woods are also inside us, and it takes a long and difficult struggle to find the way through our own hearts. As they say in Russian fairy tales, “The telling is easy, but the journey is not soon done.”
My students began to tell me stories about the challenges in their own lives: the mother who’d had to stay behind in a distant country, or the stepsisters who taunted them for skin that wasn’t the same color as theirs. It was like I could hear the fairy-tale woods marching silently into the classrooms and surrounding us, and I tried in every way I could to say, “You are the hero of this story. Look closely, and listen closely—not only to the world outside you, but to the world in your mind. There are ways through, and you will find them.”
That feeling was the inspiration behind Vassa in the Night: I wanted to write about the heroism of kids like my students, who face their sadness and confusion with deep-hearted courage. So I went back to the fairy tale I loved in my childhood, and set it in modern-day Brooklyn. Vassilissa became Vassa, an angry, purple-haired girl who responds to a dare with suicidal impulsiveness, but then finds her way to a heroism she never knew could be hers.
I can only hope that Vassa in the Night is a real fairy tale. I can only hope it offers its readers strategies for survival in difficult times: Kindness is more important than fear. Witches are not as invincible as they think they are. No matter how impossible the task, begin.
And the most crucial lesson of all: You are the hero, and every journey is yours.