cover image Perfect Pork Stew

Perfect Pork Stew

Paul Brett Johnson. Scholastic, $15.95 (1699pp) ISBN 978-0-531-30070-1

Johnson (Too Quiet for These Old Bones) says, in the foreword to this rambling, rustic yarn, that he ""started with a couple of stock characters from Russian lore""--the witch Baba Yaga and naif Ivan the Fool--then ""added a pinch of tall tale, a bit of swapping motif."" In the resulting goulash, gilded spires rise behind a green-and-yellow forest of birches, and Ivan pushes a wooden wheelbarrow down a path near the sorceress's log house. Baba Yaga is having a bad day (""First, she burned the breakfast critter... [then] she tripped and fell and broke her spectacles""). To the crone, whose blurry vision is suggested in Johnson's drawings by grainy colored-pencil rubbings, the lumpy dirt in Ivan's cart looks like a sweet pink pig. She acquires the imagined pig with a series of promises to the boy (e.g., a magic cabbage, a magic turnip). Thinking she's up to something, he helps her cook ""a perfect pork stew,"" using the mud and vegetables. Russian elements surface (Ivan calls Baba Yaga ""babushka""), but the locale could be any town, and Baba Yaga's hooked and warty blue nose, green tongue and black hair belong to a stereotypical witch. Johnson melts the pot perhaps too efficiently: he creates a predictable narrative that's derivative of Stone Soup, as well as a series of images that, while homespun, ultimately come off as uninspired. Ages 5-9. (Mar.)