Review: Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu. Walden Pond Press, 2011. Currently available.

Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy

Face Value: This is definitely an intriguing cover. When I saw this cover image popping up around the blogosphere, I was interested enough to Google the title and find out more about the book. This picture captures Hazel’s trepidation as she enters the woods. It is just eerie enough to make you want to know more.

Does it break the slate? Not so much. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. It’s just…complicated. (Continue reading after the jump for more of my ruminations on why Hazel is not a Slatebreaker in this book…)

Who would we give it to? This is the perfect book for daydreamers and fairy tale lovers. Girls who love imaginative play and fantastical tales will really connect with Hazel. I also think this could be a great classroom book for teachers who are planning to do a fairy tale unit. Read and discuss some Hans Christian Andersen tales, then read Breadcrumbs. If you wanted to extend the unit you could also study Grimm fairy tales and read A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz. It would be a fairy tale bonanza!

Review: Breadcrumbs is a dreamy sort of book. Every time I sat down to read, I felt transported to the magical woods. The ominous cold became tangible. Because of this, it was not an easy book to keep in my bag and read in short spurts whenever I had the time. This is a book that requires an hour or two of straight-through reading, accompanied by a comforting warm blanket.

Hazel is a girl who is coping with a lot of change. Her parents split up, and that was a rough transition. The financial ramifications of the divorce mean that Hazel has to go to a different school – a school that doesn’t allow her to be imaginative and dreamy the way that she was at her old school. (Based on her memories from the old school, I’d guess that Hazel used to attend a Montessori or Waldorf school, and now she has to go to a public school. That’s a drastic change.) The only bright spot about this awful new school is that her best friend Jack goes there too. But things with Jack have been weird. He’s going through some changes in his life, too, and Hazel is starting to sense that Jack may be growing out of their friendship.

Hazel’s middle school crisis is complicated by the fact that she doesn’t feel that she has a place in the world. Hazel was adopted from India, and although she knows her parents love her, she sometimes wonders about her heritage and her biological family. She sees that her family is different from the other families at her new school, and she doesn’t really know how to cope with that. I appreciated how carefully Ursu approached this aspect of the character. It was important for Hazel to somehow feel that she differed from the world around her, because that was what would draw her to the characters she met in the woods. But this didn’t overwhelm the story. Yes, Hazel was adopted, but this wasn’t a book about adoption or adoptive families. And it didn’t need to be, because this was, instead, a book about growing up – just like the Snow Queen tales by Hans Christian Andersen that inspired it.

Grown ups have to make decisions. They have to know who to trust and who to doubt. Hazel struggles with this as she ventures into the woods to rescue her best friend from the clutches of the Snow Queen. She quickly learns that not every beautiful thing is good, and not every friendly person is well-meaning. Like Little Red Riding Hood in Sondheim’s Into the Woods, Hazel figures out that “nice is different than good” – but it takes a few close calls before the lesson sinks in. I’m not sure what message this sends to young readers, but my adult sensibilities picked up on a lot of “stranger danger” messages in this book. It seemed that Hazel was especially susceptible to persuasion, which made me cringe while reading. It was like that moment in a horror movie when you want to shout at the characters, “Don’t go in there! He’s an axe murderer!” Yeah, I wanted to do that for Hazel a couple of times.

I was taken aback by Hazel’s vulnerability throughout the story. We’ve seen the young naïve girl in children’s literature before, and she’s rarely Slatebreaking. I’m thinking of Alice from Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass, Dorothy in L. Frank Baum’s books, etc. In those stories, and in Breadcrumbs, the vulnerability is not so much a matter of gender but of age. Hazel is susceptible to danger because she is young and doesn’t know any better. (Jack is vulnerable due to age, too – the scheming Snow Queen uses her adult stature as a tool to capture children who are missing something in their lives.) This is troubling to me as a reader, because Hazel does not model the bold and confident attitude that I usually connect with in girl characters. She is not a Slatebreaker, but she might grow up to be one someday. I feel like Hazel is an homage to those girls in the fairy tales of the past – thus she has some qualities that keep her from being truly Slatebreaking.

Breadcrumbs is a fascinating exploration of the deeply psychological themes from Hans Christian Andersen’s tales. Hazel is a complex and compelling heroine, although she has little in common with the Anne Shirleys and Jessica Darlings of the world. It’s not a Slatebreaking book, but it is certainly a book worth reading.

Reviewed from library copy.

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2 Responses to Review: Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

  1. I like the idea of a “pre-slatebreaking” character. As important as it is for girls to read stories featuring kick-ass heroines, I think it’s also important to show that not all girls start out that way; that when you’re young, maybe you are vulnerable, but still capable of big things.

    • Brianna says:

      I think this is a great concept – after all, although Anne Shirley broke the slate over Gilbert’s head in the first book of the series, I think it took her a few books to grow into a truly slatebreaking character. (Note to self: must re-read all of the Anne books to verify.) Perhaps the a list of pre-slatebreaking characters could become a Gray Matter post.

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