Anne Ursu. Breadcrumbs. New York: Walden Pond Press, 2011. 312 pages.
Once, there was a girl named Hazel who lived partway in the real world and partway in Narnia, in Hogwarts, in places “beyond the edges of the things your eyes took in.” At her old school, Hazel’s inner fantasy world was appreciated and the classwork tailored to it. At her new school, Hazel is considered a problem student who doesn’t pay attention or follow rules.
But the school has one saving grace: Jack goes there, too. Jack, who has always traveled with her to Hogwarts and Narnia and far outer space. Who plays superhero baseball and wonders if there is any way to defeat a soul-sucking supervillain genius.
And then one day, things just change. Hazel’s mother says it’s normal for friends to drift apart, but in an eye-blink? One minute Jack is her friend, and then he isn’t? As if someone has cast a spell and turned his heart to ice…
What I liked:
Whereas I often read fairy-tale-based stories with the original context in mind, this time I had no prior knowledge. Having read the jacket description, I could have looked up “The Snow Queen” right away, but I actually wanted to see what Breadcrumbs would be like on its own – not as a re-told and/or re-imagined “Snow Queen,” but just as itself.
Overall, it worked just fine that way. Very relatable characters (Hazel = me in fifth grade), a very believable best-friendship between her and Jack, and an equally believable personality change. And I loved Ursu’s incorporation of other fairy tales – and the way she treated more contemporary stories as fairy tales. Books like Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia, Coraline and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (disclaimer: I still have to read the latter two) seemed even more mystical, somehow.
Even better, the way Ursu incorporated pop culture references like Harry Potter and Burger King didn’t pull me out of the story. They made the story and characters feel more real. Hazel and Jack remind me of my younger cousins, whom I could easily imagine sitting together and discussing soul-sucking villains, or calling an old abandoned building the Shrieking Shack.
What also worked well were the occasional narrator intrusions, the voice that called me “you” – “So we are going to leave Hazel for a moment and step into the glimmering, shifting world. Because there is something there you need to see.” They worked because they were occasional, not overwhelming. There were meta-fiction moments, but they enhanced rather than flattened the story.
What I didn’t like:
1) There were a few moments that might’ve made more sense if I had read “The Snow Queen” first. One was the chapter, “Jack, Prince of Eternity.” Because I didn’t know about the puzzle scene in the Anderson tale, that chapter felt a bit random and unnecessary. I didn’t understand the purpose of the word in Jack’s mind.
On the other hand, after reading “The Snow Queen,” I still feel like Chapter 21 could have been elaborated a bit more. It felt like the word in Jack’s mind was just there because it’s part of the original fairy tale – it doesn’t have the same symbolic importance in Breadcrumbs as it does in “The Snow Queen.”
There was also a minor conflict earlier in the story that should’ve been much more difficult; the minor antagonist seemed to just give up, which was out of character given what we’d learned about them. Fairy tales can get away with oddly easy get-away’s, but a good re-telling needs to make the conflict at least seem more believably difficult.
2) The other big problem I have with Breadcrumbs is its assumption that science and imagination are incompatible. Case in point, this quote: “School was very easy, it turned out, if you just disconnected your heart”
Exhibit B: When the character Uncle Martin freaks out because someone calls Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley, the man who examined snowflakes under a microscope and determined that each was completely unique, a scientist:
“Snowflake Bentley. Look him up on your precious Internet. Now!”
The boy turned and started to type, his finger hunting out each letter. Martin went over to him and leaned over his shoulder. “Here! ‘When a snowflake melted,’ he said, ‘that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone.’ He was no scientist. He was a poet! How’s that for your biography, Jeremy?”
I think the distinction the book makes is too simplistic, even demeaning – implying that scientists lack the level of insight and imagination that artists and poets have.
Using the Insatiable Booksluts’ random rating scale, I’d give Breadcrumbs a 4/5 miraculously beautiful snowflakes.
The jabs at science and mathematical thinking were annoying, but the story overall was a cool (no pun intended), today-relevant re-imagining of “The Snow Queen” and other fairy tales. The characters and relationships were very believable, and the black-and-white illustrations enhanced the mood of the story.
The climax makes a bit more sense if you’ve read the original tale, and the original does give more insight into the overall conflict. But with or without the Anderson context, Breadcrumbs is one of those stories whose ending you may have to puzzle over afterwards (pun kind of intended). And maybe, to some readers, that’s a mark of less-than-clear writing – the author not elaborating enough, not following through. Maybe. But I think Ursu does give us enough pieces so that we get the picture.