The Folklore that inspired The Girl Who Speaks Bear

Guest Post by Sophie Anderson

In my debut novel, The House with Chicken Legs, I reimagined the Russian folklore character of Baba Yaga. For my second book, I wanted to reimagine another character from Russian folklore, but I wasn’t sure which one. 

Russian folklore is brimming with fascinating, vivid characters. Should I reimagine Koschei the Deathless, who hid his soul to become immortal? Or Morozko, Father Frost, whose icy touch can be unexpectedly tender? Or perhaps one of the female bogatrys (warriors) from legend, such as Nastasya Korolevichna, who is said to have shot an arrow through a ring balanced on the head of her betrothed?

I wondered if I could include the ferocious three-headed dragon Zmey Gorynych, or the enchanted Lime Tree capable of granting wishes and dropping curses, or maybe even The Flying Ship that carried an eclectic mix of characters to fortune and glory.

After many enjoyable hours spent reading folk tales, myths and legends, there was one character who my mind kept drifting back to: Ivanko the Bear’s Son. In the folk stories, Ivanko is the child of a woman and a bear. He is human to his waist, then bear from the waist down, and he has enormous strength. 

Ivanko’s story is a strange one. He makes some terrible mistakes by following his foster father’s instructions too literally, but then he outsmarts a group of water devils to win great riches. I liked Ivanko’s story, but I wasn’t inspired to reimagine it. The imagery of Ivanko’s character however – the mixture of human and bear characteristics – stayed with me and I soon knew I wanted to use that in my next book.

And so, the main character of The Girl Who Speaks Bear was born: Yanka. She was found in a bear cave as a baby, and now, at twelve years old, she is much bigger and stronger than everyone else in her village. Yanka wonders about her past, and when she wakes one day to find her legs have become bear legs, she ventures into the forest in search of answers. 

I’ve never been very good at planning my creative works, so I set off into the forest with Yanka, as unsure about her past as she was. Thankfully, there were stories to guide us. A character, named Anatoly, turned up unannounced early on in the book and began to tell Yanka stories. These stories featured the Princess Nastasya, as skilled with a bow as the bogatry Nastasya Korolevichna; Smey, a three-headed fire dragon, as ferocious as Zmey Gorynych; an enchanted Lime Tree; a Flying Ship; even Koschei and Morozko crept into these tales. 

As I wrote these short stories in the voice of Anatoly, it was clear they had been inspired by all the folk tales I’d been reading. They retained some essence of the originals, yet they also contained something new: clues to Yanka’s past.

The short stories wove their way into the main narrative, and by the end of writing the first draft, I could see they had become the map that guided Yanka (and me) on her journey of self-discovery. Of course, it took several more drafts to link all the folkloric strands together, and the help of my amazing editors! 

But today, I am proud to say that The Girl Who Speaks Bear contains a wealth of Russian folklore characters. I hope it feels like a new story, but one that harks back to the old tales, and I hope that readers who enjoy Yanka’s story might also be inspired to seek out a few of those old tales for themselves!

The Girl Who Speaks Bear is written by Sophie Anderson, Illustrated by Kathrin Honesta and published by Usborne on 5th September 2019.

Competition – For your chance to win BOTH of Sophie’s books – The House with Chicken Legs and The Girl Who Speaks Bear – send an email blog@fcbg.org.uk with the subject line SOPHIE ANDERSON and answer the following question : What is the name of the princess in The Girl Who Speaks Bear? Competition ends 30th September and the winner will be notified by email and announced on the FCBG twitter feed shortly after. Good Luck!

The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG.

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