Anne Ursu – Breadcrumbs

Fairy tale retellings have been a priority this month. But I must say, most of the ones I ended up reading were big disappointments. However, I don’t give up easily so I kept trying. And among the bad or badly written ones, I did find a gem or another. This little book was charming in so many ways and retells Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Snow Queen” (a personal favorite of mine). Plus, who can resist these adorable illustrations? I love the style and will look for more books illustrated by Erin McGuire.

by Anne Ursu

published: Haper Collins, 2011
pages: 320
artwork: Erin McGuire
copy: ebook

my rating: 7/10

first sentence: It snowed right before Jack stopped talking to Hazel, fluffy white flakes big enough to show their crystal architecture, like perfect geometric poems.

Once upon a time, Hazel and Jack were best friends. But that was before he stopped talking to her and disappeared into a forest with a mysterious woman made of ice. Now it’s up to Hazel to go in after him. Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” Breadcrumbs is a story of the struggle to hold on, and the things we leave behind.

Hazel Anderson doesn’t fit in. It took her a while to find out why but wherever she goes, she’s the odd one out. Whether it’s her dark brown skin, her big brown eyes and deep black hair or whether it’s the fact that her head is always in the clouds and she has trouble concentrating in her new school. The only bright side is her neighbor and best friend Jack. With him, she can pretend they’re superheros playing baseball (Batman is oddly lousy compared to the others) and make up stories about the “shrieking shack”.

The shrieking shack, in fact, is only one of the many references and hints tot works of children’s literature. Hazel loves Harry Potter and Narnia, Hobbits and fairy tales, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline (that made me smirk in particular), adventure stories and comic books. This love for fantasy was part of her appeal as a protagonist – at least for me. I remember my school days when nothing in the classroom was as interesting as the view out of the window (dreary as it was) where I could imagine I saw a dragon flying behind that cloud and a forest sprite dancing in the trees… Hazel is immediately likable, despite or maybe because of her lack of social skills. As an 11-year-old she desperately wishes she had quippy answers to everything or knew what to say about Jack’s mother who is “sick with sadness”. But the right words never seem to come to her and Jack is the only one who makes her belong.

This book is very much a story in two parts. The first is firmly grounded in reality. We meet an awkward but wonderful little girl with one true friend and otherwise not many things to make her happy. Being adopted and now minus one father is not the only problem Hazel has to deal with. Her best friend’s mother suffers from depression which weighs all of them down. Hazel’s mother wants her daughter to make friends with other people and to receive fewer calls from the school about Hazel’s behaviour and lack of attention.
Yes, this is a fairy tale retelling but in the first half, the only magic is in Hazel’s head. A very read, very daunting world awaits the characters and any kind of warmth Hazel can find comes from books and movies.

In the second part, the true fairy tale begins. Magic is everywhere and the structure of the novel switches to our well-known fairy tale style. Hazel walks through this enchanted wood to get her friend Jack back. On her journey, she meets many fearsome creatures and scary people, friends and people in need, strange birds and living nightmares. I won’t tell you about the ending – if you know The Snow Queen you can guess anyway – but I thought it was really well done. Maybe a bit too easy but there was a key moment that almost made my eyes a teeny tiny bit moist…

As fairy tale retellings go, this was one of the better ones. The language is beautiful and at times even poetic but still straight-forward enough for children to understand and appreciate. Maybe some people will disagree with me on this but at least one of the characters in this story seems to be of the same opinion:

“Marty,” Adelaide’s mother warned, “you’ll give them nightmares.”

“Come on, Lizzie.” He shook his head dismissively. “Kids can handle a lot more than you think they can. It’s when they get to be grown up that you have to start worrying.”

Catherynne M. Valente wrote a nice piece about grown-ups underestimating children and thinking that if a book contains too many “big words” it is not appropriate for smaller kids. But it is exactly for those big words that children should be encouraged to read these books. How else are they going to learn anything new? At an age when pretty much everything is a little bit new to them. Read the wonderful full article here: Too Smart for Kids. A Promise to the Readers of Fairyland

THE GOOD: A story of loss and letting go, of the magic inside all of us and what true friendship means. Beautifully written with a very likable heroine and a bittersweet tone to it.
THE BAD: I found the actual fairy tale part of the story less appealing than the beginning. This is a matter of personal taste, however, as the book was written very well throughout.
THE VERDICT: Recommended to young children, may there parents read along with them, enjoy a beautiful tale (and have a pair of ballet shoes at the ready for their little girls)

RATING: 7/10 A very good book with an extra half-point for the illustrations

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