Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

Lynn: Hazel and Jack have been like two peas in a pod ever since Jack moved in next door when they were six.  He was wearing a pirate patch and was the only person she knew “who saw things the way they could be instead of just what they were.”  Years later, when he suddenly becomes one of the pack who makes her life miserable at her new school, Hazel’s mom tells her that it is normal for friends to grow apart as they grow up.  With Breadcrumbs (Harper/Walden Pond 2011), her gorgeously written retelling of The Snow Queen, Ursu explores questions central to the lives of children on the cusp of leaving childhood behind:   friendship and acceptance.  How far will you go to save a friend even if things will never be the same between you?  Does growing up mean the end of imagination and must you give up who you are to be accepted?

Fifth grade has been a heart numbing horror for Hazel.  Her parents’ divorce has meant leaving her progressive school for the local public school where “people always wanted to replace the marvelous things with this miserable heap of you’re-a-5th-grader-now-facts.”  Instead of “Hazel has a great imagination,” a teacher now comments that “Hazel needs to learn to follow school rules.”  At first it was bearable because it was Jack’s school and they could play at recess.  Then suddenly overnight, Jack changes and joins the taunting crowd who make her life a misery.  Hazel is sure something is wrong but she buries that belief and decides that “school is easy if you just disconnect your heart.”  Of course there IS something wrong – a shard of magical mirror is embedded in Jack’s heart and the Snow Queen has taken him away.  Hazel bravely decides she has to rescue Jack and sets out into the cold Minnesota winter, stepping through to the faerie world.

Hazel does rescue Jack but her real journey is one of personal growth as she learns that while things won’t ever be the same, growing up can happen without sacrificing who you are.  Ursu is deeply faithful to the original Grimm tale but embeds it with contemporary relevance.  Is there anything as painful as growing up?  Readers will revel in the many references both to traditional tales and modern fantasies but the solid foundation of issues so important to the age group raises this book far above the genre throng.

Although sometimes the large number of descriptive threads feels a bit crowded, Ursu’s language is wonderfully evocative.  She creates the sorts of phrases that I instantly wanted to share.  As an adult and teacher, many of them struck right at my heart, evoking the pain of a child who feels completely alone and out of place:

“Leprosy wasn’t so bad once you made it part of your routine.”

“She wondered if people would notice she was part girl, part hollowed out space.”

“He made notes in her file, making it bigger while she got smaller.”

While there is an underlying sense of melancholy to this story, it is also ultimately a hopeful and encouraging one – and one that will stay with young readers as they make their own journeys to adulthood.

Cindy: Oh, Lynn’s post makes me remember why I loved this book so when I read it earlier this summer. Yes. Yes. We have gushed before about fairy tale retellings…reimaginings…as we are both fans of them. This is another one to promote widely. In fact, when I returned to school in August, one of my 6th grade ELA teachers asked me first thing, “Have you read Breadcrumbs?” “Do we have it?” She had heard about it at a summer workshop and was eager to get her hands on it and was happy to have access to an advanced reader copy. Now that we have purchased hard cover copies for the library she is promoting it with her sixth grade students who are enjoying it a lot.

Readers who want to brush up on the original story can head to their libraries for a copy of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, or visit the Sur La Lune Fairy Tales website for their listing of annotated tales of the story and other related items, like illustrations and modern interpretations (Alice Hoffman, Francesca Lia Block, etc.)

Ursu must have had great fun in writing this. There are many “hidden” delights in addition to the Turkish Delight that well-read fairy tale readers will enjoy ferreting out. This would make a great book club book for middle grade students or mother/daughter book clubs to discuss.  As an educator it is heartbreaking for me to read the quotes about school that Lynn pulled from the book and know that for many children, those are their impressions of their time at school. And that my colleagues and I (unwittingly sometimes and by necessity other times) contribute to building that climate. There’s something I’d like to work to change. I think I’ll hunt down the audio version of this (Audible 2011) and listen to the book again. Maybe something will come to me. At the very least, I’ll have had another experience with Hazel and company and the rich language of the story. Not a bad way to spend the time as snowflakes start to fall in West Michigan…

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

2 Comments on "Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu"

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  1. callofthesea@gmail.com' Rose J. says:

    I JUST finished reading this book, and I agree, it was beautifully and amazingly written, and, as Lynn said, ‘with an underlying sense of melencholy to it…’ I tried explaining this strange heavy-light feeling to my dad, but I couldn’t quite say WHY it felt sad. I have recently come to enjoy reading books about families who are going through hard times, though I don’t exactly understand that, either!

  2. Rose, Thanks for posting. Breadcrumbs is a book that I want to reread–I hope to get it on audio at some point. Have you read A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness yet? It’s another book with a mix of realistic family hardship with magical realism and storytelling…it sounds like you are in the mood for it. But keep your tissue box handy.–Cindy

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