Title: Vassa in the Night
Author: Sarah Porter
Publisher: Tor Teen, 2016
Genre: YA Fairy Tale Retellings, YA Fantasy, YA Magical Realism
I was lured in by the beautiful cover…I’ll admit it. I’m a coverwhore. I’m pathetic.
The book…was confusing. But I guess that’s magical realism for you, right? Took me three days to come to a conclusion about this book. I had to figure out a way to feel about what I just read. Parts of it were very cool; parts of it were gross. Parts of the book had me lost…
The best way to describe it: The Emperor had no clothes. We all just thought he did. Do you know what I’m trying to say? Well, maybe it’s best if I go right into the description and you might understand what I’m trying to say.
Vassa lives with two sisters from mixed parentage. She carries a little wooden doll, Erg (the doll chose her own name and that’s what she came up with) around with her. Erg is always hungry and is a kleptomaniac. The sisters blame Vassa for the missing items: Stephanie gets mad when Vassa denies it, and Chelsea thinks it’s a cry for help. One night, after her locket goes missing, Stephanie gets really angry at Vassa. She decides to make it seem like the light bulbs all went out and they need to buy more. And she expects Vassa to go buy some.
Now, at this point in the story, we are told that nights have been getting longer. Everyone can feel it, but the sun still comes up every morning, so there’s really nothing anyone can do but remark on it. There’s a prologue that explains it, but I’m not going to spoil the whole book for you. Let’s just say night becomes personified…which is kinda cool.
So Vassa has to get light bulbs, and the only store open in Brooklyn last midnight is a creepy dancing store (yes, a dancing store) called BY’s, owned by an old crone named Babs Yaga (This reminds me of the original fairy tale of Baba Yaga). When Vassa leaves, Chelse tries to talk her out of going…because everyone that goes in to the store only comes out as a head on a pike. Supposedly shoplifters, the customers are on display for all those who dare venture in to this IN-convenience store…that dances…on chicken legs. I was already confused by now.
So Vassa goes in…pissed that her sister Stephanie (all us Stephanies get back raps) would purposely send her into a dangerous situation. She sings the song that gets the store to let her in, and minutes later she’s among the aisles of BY’s. Severed hands attempt to tuck products into her pocket, but she gets them out before Babs can see: Vassa makes a case that she can’t be considered a shoplifter if the stolen items are still in her hand. Babes considers this and tells Vassa she won’t cut her head off, but she must work in the store for three nights…and she can’t go home.
These three nights will be the most challenging nights of her life: she notices that a strange motorcyclist circles the lot over and over, forever trapped. Erg lets Vassa know that there’s more to the store than meets the eye (really? The dancing chicken-legged store and the heads on pikes didn’t give that away?), and that Vassa is the only one that can set things right. But she’s set up for failure from the beginning…what is really going on a BY’s? And why does Babs keep telling Vassa she’s only half a person?
Is It Clasroom-Appropriate?
I guess so. If you want to focus on magical realism, there is a case to be made for this book. Conveniently, Tor Teen included a study guide along with the book for classroom use at the end of the book.
Some examples from the back of the book (I saved them in case I ever decide to use this book for teaching purposes…this is only a couple examples…some are spoilery so I didn’t want to include them, and there were A LOT:
Research and Writing Activities
WRITE: Vassa’s journey begins when leaves home to buy lightbulbs at BY’s. In the character of Chelsea or Stephanie, write a journal entry describing your feelings immediately after Vassa has left the house, noting whether you think Vassa is acting naïvely or intelligently and if/ how you feel a sense of responsibility for her departure.
DIAGRAM: The author creates an almost telescopic setting for her novel, beginning with Night, narrowing to Brooklyn, then closer in to a neighborhood, and ultimately into dreams and memories. Create a diagram of the most important settings in the story and annotate each point with key events that take place in that setting. What was the most surprising or revealing discovery you made as you completed your diagram?
MIXED MEDIA: Vassa’s half-and stepsister are distracted by a BY’s television advertisement. Using clues from the story, and your imagination, make a video recreation of the advertisement to share with friends or classmates.
RESEARCH AND CREATE: Who is Baba Yaga? Is she kind or cruel? Is she one person or three? Why does she live in such a strange house?
Go to the library or online to research answers to the questions. In the character of Baba Yaga (in first person), write a poem, song lyrics, dramatic monologue or other theatrical piece beginning with the words, “I am.”
WRITE: Has reading Vassa in the Night changed your perspective on how your family’s past impacts your sense of self? Write an opinion piece, using an interpretation of the novel as your basis for exploring the reasons it is good to know your family history and ways to keep this knowledge in perspective as you develop your own personal identity. LIST: List at least eight events, characters, or images found in both the traditional Vassilissa tale and the novel. (If desired, also read other Russian folktales, particularly “The Firebird,” to find other shared matter.) For each list entry, note how the author reinterprets the notion for a contemporary reader and setting. (Note: This exercise is best done after completing “Before Reading” activity #3.)
As I said, just a couple examples, which I appreciate that they included.
Lexile.com suggests 13-18, and I think that’s a pretty good estimate. I don’t know if younger students will understand all the underlying “philosophical” questions posed in the book, and though there’s no swearing or sex, there is a lot of violence. So be prepared for that. The actual Lexile score is 840L, which is high (as I said, probably because of the “deeper meanings” involved), but there’s no HL, so I guess Lexile doesn’t consider the gore to be mature subject matter. I probably would think older or advanced readers best for this book, as even I struggled with it.
Ugh. Do you see what I mean yet about my statement, “The Emperor has no clothes?” Let me elaborate here…
So I feel that Porter thought she was writing a magical book with deep themes. Ok, I’ll give her that. It’s got magic, and there’s some stuff at the end that makes an impact on the reader involving Vassa and her mom. Great. But I also think this is one of those scenarios where the book is overly pretentious. It acts like it is better than it is. Maybe it’s the magical realism, though I think many authors pull that off well. Remember, the Emperor was apparently wearing rich robes and just no one could see them…until a little boy pointed out that the Emperor was really just buck naked.
So I mean…you might read this and think, “OMG, this is brilliant! Wow!” I read it as, “OMG, wtf is going on? Why…how…what…huh?” So my final decision is to give Vassa in the Night ★★★☆☆. I kept reading, but I just didn’t get it. I don’t see the clothes. Maybe you will…?
How did y’all feel about Vassa in the Night? Is Porter a genius, or just a weirdo with poetic intentions? Tiny people parties, bleeding swans, flying eyeballs…an acid trip gone bad? Or utter brilliance, and Porter is a misunderstood genius? Feel free to weigh in! 🤔