Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu
Walden Pond Press, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, 2011
Publishers Weekly Book of the Year
School Library Journal Book of the Year
The title Breadcrumbs conjures up an image of Hansel and Gretel trudging off into the forest sprinkling a trail of breadcrumbs behind them. The reader expects a fairytale world, but Hazel, the main character, is in a snowy world full of the reality divorced parents and a teacher with no appreciation for Hazel’s imagination. Only her best friend Jack, whose mother shows signs of mental illness, understands her. And then he stops talking to her. And then he disappears.
It snowed right before Jack stopped talking to Hazel, fluffy white flakes big enough to show their crystal architecture, like perfect geometric poems.
This blend of realistic fiction and fantasy for middle grade readers started off slowly for me. I had just geared up for Hazel’s third person point of view when a distinct narrator voice intruded in Chapter 5. The narrator’s voice, sometimes flat, returns throughout to show events happening in the fantasy world.
Mal is a goblin. He has green-brown skin, a froglike mouth, and sharp little teeth. Mal is a troll. He is seven feet tall and warty, has terrible breath, and a penchant for hanging out under bridges. Mal is an imp. He has small bat wings a high-pitched screech of a laugh, and pointy little ears. Mal is a demon. And that means he is up to no good.
Ursu’s prose is also poetic at times so perhaps she used this technique to differentiate between characters’ and narrator voices. However, the shift was jarring for me perhaps because it went on for whole chapters. Maybe I relate better to a benevolent narrator like the one in The Tale of Despereaux.
Something else that jarred me were the multiple references to the giants of children’s literature that popped up—Wrinkle in Time, The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, The Golden Compass. There’s talk of tessering and Dementors. I think I am missing a deep connection here (author Gary Schmidt says the stories “point the way toward understanding and acceptance of loss and sorrow and change, and shout to us of hope and friendship and love.”), but it felt rather heavy-handed. I didn’t need so many signposts to direct me to fantasyland. Hazel and Jack’s knowledge of Narnia and the Snow Queen were sufficient.
In Part Two, the story turns. Hazel does what she must do to save Jack from the Snow Queen. She ventures into the world of fantasy and step by ill-fated step, the reader follows into a land where Hazel learns to trusts wolves and avoid the woodsman.
Hazel had read enough books to know that a line like this one is the line down which your life breaks in two. And you have to think very carefully about whether you want to cross it, because once you do it’s very hard to get back to the world you left behind….
But sometimes you have a friend to rescue. And so you take a deep breath and then step over the line and into the darkness ahead.
Hazel carries a talisman with her, something dear to Jack, and it helps her save her friend. Whether she saves him from the Snow Queen or from his own depression caused by his mother’s mental illness doesn’t matter. What matters is that Hazel, whose own life was in turmoil, stood by a friend in need just like her friend Adelaide’s uncle advised:
So if someone’s changed overnight—by witch curse or poison apple or were–turtle—you have to show them what’s good. You show them love. That works a surprising amount of the time.
Despite my reservations about voice and multiple fantasy references, I did enjoy reading Breadcrumbs and recommend it as an important book about friendship. For those fantasy lovers who never open realistic fiction, Breadcrumbs is a bridge.
Read Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen in Seven Stories here. Ursu has cleverly woven these elements into Breadcrumbs.
Visit Anne Ursu’s website.
Award-Winning Book Challenge Status: 3/11