Hazel and Jack have always been best friends, bonding over their shared love of science fiction and fantasy. They play make-believe “superhero baseball” and hang out in a derelict house they call the Shrieking Shack. But now that they’re eleven, Hazel’s mom is pushing her to make some female friends, and Jack is more interested in hanging out with his male friends than with Hazel. Then the impossible happens: Jack is taken away by a mysterious witch, and Hazel is the only one who can rescue him. Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs is a retelling of the fairy tale “The Snow Queen,” and it’s fantastic.
Ursu perfectly captures what it’s like to be a child of about eleven, just on the cusp of puberty but not there yet. You’re old enough to know that believing in magic is considered childish, but you don’t want to live in a world without it. Social cliques are shifting, sometimes for no discernible reason, and you feel the loss of friendships without ever knowing what went wrong. And maybe your parents get divorced (Hazel’s), or maybe they’re suffering from a mental illness (Jack’s), or even if none of that happens, you’re starting to realize they don’t have all the answers. Or they don’t have the answers you want to hear, or they seem to be answering a subtly different question from the one you’re asking. Ursu uses a delicate touch with the familial issues; the book never feels like a Very Special Episode About Divorce or anything like that. Instead, the issues are woven seamlessly into the kids’ lives along with their fantasy geekdom.
Later, when Hazel ventures into the realm of fairy tales, she learns that it contains many dangers that “would have been beautiful, as a story.” She encounters a variety of odd folk and situations, all drawn not just from fairy tales but from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales in particular. (This was when I finally processed the fact that the heroine’s name is “Hazel Anderson”!) She’s offered several different kinds of oblivion; the challenge is to press onward even when peaceful forgetfulness would be easier, and to help people along the way if she can. Even if Hazel can find Jack, he may not want to be rescued; maybe he wanted the Snow Queen’s brand of oblivion.
Always present, too, is the possibility that Hazel might save Jack from the immediate physical danger but still lose him emotionally. My favorite example of this theme has long been that penultimate transformation in Patricia McKillip’s Winter Rose, but now Breadcrumbs is going right up there with it.
Erin McGuire’s illustrations are a treat, too. The ARC only has some of the drawings, but they are gorgeous and I can’t wait to see the rest. And I adore the cover: the woods, the wolves, and scrappy little Hazel looking just like she’s described in the text.
This is a beautifully written book — and intelligently written, too. Ursu never talks down to her audience in terms of vocabulary or metaphor. Kids will enjoy this, especially kids who are introspective and bookish like Hazel herself, but I think it may actually be even more enjoyable for adults. This isn’t so much a book for children as it is a book about childhood, meaningful for readers of all ages. I’m in my thirties and I loved Breadcrumbs. It took me right back to when I was Hazel’s age and dealing with some of the same heartaches she was going through. I recommend Breadcrumbs to anyone who is a geeky kid… and anyone who has ever been a geeky kid.