by Anne Ursu
by Anne Ursu
2011 | 313 pages | Middle Grade
Breadcrumbs is a modernized retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen. The main character is Hazel Anderson, a fifth-grader who feels very much like an outsider. Because her father has left and no longer supports the family, Hazel must change schools from the progressive, creative school she loves, to the public school, where she struggles to follow the rules and make friends with her classmates. She's also adopted, and contemplating the early days of her childhood in India that she cannot remember. The only bright spot Hazel sees in her life is her best friend and next door neighbor Jack. Though Jack struggles with his own problems - namely his mother's deteriorating mental state - he always makes Hazel feel like she belongs.
Things are changing between Hazel and Jack, though. He wants to spend more and more time with the boys, sometimes leaving Hazel on her own during recess. One day, after he gets hit in the face with a snowball that inexplicably contains a shard of glass, he cruelly insults Hazel, calling her a baby and refusing to spend time with her. Hazel can't help but feel like something very wrong has happened to cause such a dramatic change in her best friend - and after a while, she learns she is right. One of Jack's friends saw him head into the woods with a woman made of snow and ice. Hazel isn't sure what waits for her among the trees, but she is sure that, even if Jack doesn't care about her anymore, she must be the one to save him.
This book is way outside my usual reading interests. I'm typically not a fantasy reader, and I'm not crazy about fairy tales. When I won this book in a giveaway, however, and then heard such great things about it from bloggers like Elizabeth Bird and Abby the Librarian, I decided to give it a chance. It took me exactly one page to be hooked, and I read the entire thing within 12 hours of starting it.
What drew me in is Anne Ursu's beautiful way with words. From the very first page, where she describes a mid-winter snowfall, I was drawn in to her language, and drank it up, wanting more. I love the way, for example, that she introduces the reader to Hazel and her neighborhood:
That morning, Hazel Anderson ran out of her small house in her white socks and green thermal pajamas. She leapt over the threshold of the house onto the front stoop where she stood, ignoring the snow biting at her ankles, to take in the white street. Everything was pristine. No cars had yet left their tracks to sully the road. The small squares of lawn that lay in front of each of the houses like perfectly aligned place mats seemed to stretch beyond the boundaries of their chain-link fences and join together as one great field of white. A thick blanket of snow covered each roof as if to warm and protect the house underneath.
Not only is this a gorgeous image, but it establishes the importance of cold and snow to the story that follows.
The book is divided into two parts. The first part is set almost entirely in the real world. The first four chapters mention no magic at all, but we do get a glimpse at the start of chapter five:
Now, the world is more than it seems to be. You know this, of course, because you read stories. You understand that there is the surface and then there are all the things that glimmer and shift underneath it. And you know that not everyone believes in those things, that there are people - a great many people - who believe the world cannot be any more than what they can see with their eyes.
But we knew better.
From there on, reality and fantasy slowly start to intermingle, so that when part two comes, and we step entirely into the fantasy realm, we are prepared.
The second half of the book expands upon the threads of Hazel's life that are introduced in part one. In the woods, she must consider bravery and cowardice, reality and imagination, friendship and loss, growth and change, compassion and coldness. Facing woodsmen, wolves, wizards, and other strange and unknown beings, Hazel has to remember who she is in order to also help Jack remember his own identity.
This book makes many allusions to other literary works. There are plenty of fairy tale beings in the woods, but even before the magical parts of the story appear, Hazel makes references to well-known and well-loved children's books such as A Wrinkle In Time and The Chronicles of Narnia, as well as to more contemporary classics, like When You Reach Me, the Harry Potter series, Coraline, and The Golden Compass. I think readers have to be pretty well-read to catch all of them - I nearly missed the nod to The Phantom Tollbooth, because I've never read it - but I loved finding those little nuggets within the text. (There was one especially well-placed Narnia reference that got a good, loud laugh out of me.)
This book is pretty quiet for an adventure story, and it's not going to strike the fancy of every reader. As Elizabeth Bird mentioned in her review, not every question posed in the woods is answered, and the ending, though honest, also doesn't leave the reader feeling fully settled. But I don't think there's anything wrong with that. This book is emotional, thought-provoking, somewhat gloomy and dark, quiet, intense and sophisticated. I think kids who read it will face a lot of challenges to both their reading capabilities and their thoughts about the way the world works, and I think that is what makes it a great book.
For me, reading Breadcrumbs was a wonderful experience. I have heard some Newbery buzz about it, and I would agree that it would be most deserving. It goes down as one of my favorite books of the year, right up there with One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street.
Anne Ursu is also the author of the Cronus Chronicles series, and you can visit her online at her website or on Twitter . Also check out 20 Questions with Anne Ursu over at There's a Book.. The illustrator of the book is Erin McGuire, who also did Lucky For Good, and the forthcoming French Ducks in Venice. She's on Twitter at @emcguirestudio. I'm really looking forward to seeing the final artwork that wasn't included in the ARC. The cover and the illustrations that open part one and part two are just gorgeous.
Breadcrumbs comes out today, September 27th!
I won an ARC of Breadcrumbs in a giveaway from There's a Book.