Anne Ursu,
(Walden Pond, 2011)

It's been said that Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale "The Snow Queen" is really an allegory about growing up and the strain adolescence places on girl-boy friendships. Anne Ursu takes that idea and runs with it in Breadcrumbs, a layered, subtle fairy tale retelling that rewards close reading (and an English degree). I enjoyed it quite a bit but have one major caveat: I don't think I would have liked it at all when I was in the 8-12 age range it's marketed for.

The story opens in the here and now: a snowy Minnesota winter and a fifth-grade protagonist named Hazel, who is having trouble adjusting to her parents' divorce, her new school and her changing relationship with her best friend Jack. One day, a strange shard of glass falls into Jack's eye, and he's suddenly completely different, though no one but Hazel notices. And then a woman made of ice and coldness takes Jack away with her into the woods.

Hazel, of course, plunges in after him. But here's where Breadcrumbs deviates from the fantasy books Hazel herself is a fan of (there are allusions to everything from Neil Gaiman's Coraline to C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy). The magic forest might be filled with strange creatures and perilous adventures, but it really seems to be more of an internal journey through Hazel's own longings, fears and attachments than an external quest. Ursu weaves in characters from several different Andersen stories, including "The Nightingale" and "The Little Match Girl," and uses them quite brilliantly to illuminate Hazel's struggles as well as her journey towards greater understanding and maturity.

Ultimately, it's a story about growing up and letting go. And perhaps because growing up is something we have to do by ourselves, Breadcrumbs is a pretty lonely, introspective book. Although there are plenty of other characters, only Hazel is in focus, and not everyone will find this (or her) likable. The book also has some pacing issues; the first half of the book, set in the Real World, is relatively slow and not much happens. The amount of setup it actually accomplishes becomes obvious in the second half, but the woods are definitely the more interesting setting, and everything about them feels a bit rushed. The ending, too.

Still, several days after I finished reading Breadcrumbs, I found that symbols I hadn't really noticed earlier, like the clock in the woods, were continuing to unfold in my head. The former English major in me loves the density and richness of this text and its command of allusion and metaphor. Breadcrumbs is an unusual book with some beautiful writing and striking imagery. But it's definitely not going to be everyone's cup of tea, and it'd take a pretty special 8-12 year old to fall in love with it.

book review by
Jennifer Mo

9 March 2013

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