Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu is story divided sharply into two halves.  The first half is about Hazel and her friend Jack, neighbors and best friends, each with his or her own set of individual problems.  Hazel’s dad has left her and her mom to make a new family; Jack’s mom is in the grips of some sort of depression that renders her incapable of interacting with him.  In addition to the up-ending of her family’s life, Hazel is also struggling at school–struggling to fit in, to pay attention, to care.  However, Jack’s friendship makes Hazel’s life tolerable, and whatever pleasure she takes in life is all because of the fun she has with Jack.  About half-way through the story, though, something horrific and other-worldly happens to Jack.  A sliver of glass enters his eye accidentally, and the enchanted sliver goes to his heart and makes it as cold as ice.  His now-cold heart ceases to care about Hazel, and it leads him into the enchanted forest where he falls under the spell of the Snow Queen.  At this point, the story cracks open and we enter the forest with Hazel to rescue Jack.  It’s no longer a world of fifth grade bullies and homework avoidance.  Instead, it’s up to Hazel to find Jack in a world where nothing makes sense:  there are wolves, but are they friendly wolves?  Aren’t the woodcutters always the good guys?  What happens when someone chooses darkness over light?

If it’s fantasy and adventure the middle grade reader is after, Breadcrumbs has it.  The enchanted forest is snowy and ice cold, and Hazel encounters all kinds of creepy and downright scary people (beings?).  Hazel reaches deep into herself and, fueled by her love for her friend, does something that no one in her real life would ever expect her to do:  face the evil witch and live to tell about it.  However, there’s much more to it than that, though I’m at a loss to really dissect it and put it into words.  Replete with literary allusions and even archetypes, Breadcrumbs hovers on the edge of meaning–growing up, friendship, selfhood, it’s all in this story, but it’s right under the edge.   I think much of this might be lost on its target audience; I struggle with identifying it all myself.  Sometimes while reading it I felt like it was all just a mish-mash, that things should line up a bit better.  If the Snow Queen is the White Witch from Narnia, let her be that (there are a few nods to Narnia in this story).  What is it with those wolves?  Never one to purposefully read anything the least bit frightening, I even think a low-grade nightmare I had one night was influenced by something Hazel experiences in the alter-world she enters to rescue her friend.  However, despite its being a crazy patchwork of stories, Ursu paints a veneer of beautiful meaning over the whole.  Here are a few of my favorite passages that showcase this:

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 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 know better.  (68)

If that isn’t an argument for fairy tale and fantasy, I’ve never read one.

She had stepped into the woods in the park and landed in an entirely different place.  She knew this might happen.  She’d been to Narnia, Wonderland, Hogwarts, Dictionopolis.  She had tessered, fallen through the rabbit hole, crossed the ice bridge into the unknown world beyond.  Hazel knew this world.  And it should have made it easier.

But it did not.  (160)

Hooked yet?  😉  (And yes, apparently those but clauses are a stylistic pattern of Ursu’s in this book.)

Mostly I think this book is about friendship.  It made me cry, which is almost always a sign of a good great book.  I give it a Highly Recommended, especially for the fairy tale or fantasy lover.  🙂 (Walden Pond Press, 2011)

Reviews elsewhere and related links:

Breadcrumbs is a finalist for the middle grade fantasy/sci fi category of the Cybils .  Choosing between it and The Cheshire Cheese Cat by Carmen Deedy and Randall Wright (linked to my rather sparse review), the only two books in the category I’ve read, would be impossible.  I love them both.  (How lame is that?) I hope one of them wins!  The Cybils will be announced tomorrow,  and I’ll post the final Armchair Cybils link-up later in the day, or as soon as I can get to it.  This has been fun!

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14 thoughts on “Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu”

  1. I have this one on my shelf still waiting to be read. It seems weird to go from half the book contemporary school/life issues to the last half fantasy. Was it a smooth transition or was it as “Huh?” as it sounds?

  2. Megan, there is an inkling that things will change, plus just reading it as fantasy there is that expectation anyway. I believe that first quote I shared is from the first half of the book, if that helps. It’s not shocking, really, given the tone of the story, either.

  3. Great review. I really loved this book–and intend to review it in full sometime, but I’m not sure whether sometime will ever arrive. I loved the references to Narnia especially, and the way Jack’s soullessness makes him a math genius (as opposed to a creative one).

    1. Bekah, You’ve put into words something I didn’t even realize or think about while reading this book. There are certainly a lot of layers to it! I hope you find time to write your review; I’ve love to read your thoughts!

  4. Hi Amy. I checked this out of the library the other day and THOUGHT it was here that I read about it!

    After rereading your review, I’m thinking I’ll read it myself before deciding whether to read it aloud to the girls…

  5. Janet,

    Yeah, I think it would be a little much for my girls yet, but maybe not for your older dd. I don’t know. I think I’ve gotten more sensitive to scary/creepy things as I’ve gotten older.

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