Every culture has its rules of storytelling. Books that are more “literary” often break those rules, which either serves to irk readers or intrigue and impress them. Cloud Atlas, for instance, caused a flurry of commentary when it ended chapters in the middle of a
We don’t often expect middle grade literature to break the “rules,” we expect it to be linear and simple enough to be understood by children. BREADCRUMBS, a beautifully written book by Anne Ursu, not only breaks a few rules, the journey has so many layers I’m beginning to think this is really a story for adults in the guise of a fairy tale for children. At the very least, it’s a book for highly literate children, as it has so many nods to other books (Narnia, Coraline, Harry Potter, and When You Reach Me) to name a few.
Once upon a time, Hazel and Jack were best friends. They had been best friends since they were six, spending hot Minneapolis summers and cold Minneapolis winters together, dreaming of Hogwarts and Oz, superheroes and baseball. Now that they were eleven, it was weird for a boy and a girl to be best friends. But they couldn’t help it – Hazel and Jack fit, in that way you only read about in books. And they didn’t fit anywhere else.
And then, one day, it was over. Jack just stopped talking to Hazel. And while her mom tried to tell her that this sometimes happens to boys and girls at this age, Hazel had read enough stories to know that it’s never that simple. And it turns out, she was right. Jack’s heart had been frozen, and he was taken into the woods by a woman dressed in white to live in a palace made of ice. Now, it’s up to Hazel to venture into the woods after him. Hazel finds, however, that these woods are nothing like what she’s read about, and the Jack that Hazel went in to save isn’t the same Jack that will emerge. Or even the same Hazel.
When I was young I used to read fairy tales of the Hans Christian Anderson type. Breadcrumbs reminds me very much of those fairy tales, but grown up, more sophisticated. I have a vague recollection of what Anderson’s Snow Queen was like (Ursu was inspired by it), but you don’t have to know that story to enjoy this one.
The book reads like “literary fiction” for the first half of the book and fantasy for the second. But, like an old-school fairy tale, there’s no wizard-on-wizard action or fey coming out of the woodwork. It’s much quieter than that. As a matter of fact, as I was reading it, I never saw it as fantasy. I saw it as allegory. Because Hazel is introduced as such an imaginative child, I read her outward journey as her inward journey.
There is a great deal of loss in this book and there’s no tidy answer in the end. Sometimes we grow up and we grow apart and it’s never going to be the same again. This is how it is for Hazel and Jack, and it’s a hard lesson to learn for a lonely, artistic girl who doesn’t fit in.
Hazel is adopted (she’s from India and her parents are unspecified Caucasian), and is in the fifth grade in the midst of changes that are both typical for one her age and personal in respect to her own family situation. Her parents are recently divorced, and she is nearly abandoned by her father, who is across the country and about to get remarried. Her mother is struggling financially, which necessitates a change in schools, from a private school for creative children to a rule-bound public one. The only thing she likes about it is that her best friend Jack goes there. But we all know how boy-girl friendships change at that age. The fairy tale aspect of this book explains away how a boy could possibly change his attitude toward his best friend, a girl, seemingly overnight.
The POV shifts at times, which didn’t take me out of the story like it did for some. For the most part, it is from Hazel’s limited perspective. But it is also sometimes told through Jack’s POV, and sometimes the narrator actually speaks to the reader and opens up a slightly larger view of the magical happenings behind the scenes.
The climax is more quiet than your standard fantasy, in the way the ending to Stardust, by Neil Gaiman, is quiet (when they turned it into a movie they had to excitementize the climax so as not to disappoint the masses). It’s not a “loud” book, so I think a battle of some sort would have definitely felt wrong. The story ends a bit abruptly, in that grey area where loss meets new understanding. It’s not an uhappy ending; it’s happy because Hazel manages to navigate the challenges before her, but it’s inconclusive.
No, Hazel and Jack will not be able to return to their previous friendship. They will struggle through that loss, and find love and loss with other people as they grow up, which is one of the tragedies of growing up. And life goes on.
The vocabulary in Breadcrumbs is rich and challenging for the discerning 10 year old. There will be concepts beyond the mental grasp of young ones, but to me this only serves to keep the book timeless while those readers grow up and enjoy it with new insight.