Anne Ursu's Breadcrumbs is a love letter to those who enjoy immersing themselves in fantasy novels. It's about a girl named Hazel who doesn't fit in at school, and can't make herself pay attention (like, say, Meg Murray), and a boy named Jack who is lured away by a snow-witch with a sleigh. There are references to classic fantasy novels (new and old) sprinkled throughout the book, many only alluded to rather than being spelled out in detail, like breadcrumbs for the reader.
Hazel and Jack are best friends. Jack is Hazel's only friend. But that's ok - he's more than enough. Until something happens to change Jack, literally overnight, and makes him reject Hazel. But when Jack disappears, Hazel never hesitates in her quest to bring him home.
Breadcrumbs is my favorite type of fantasy, one in which the fantasy world lies just out of sight of the real world, accessible if only one could crawl through the right wardrobe, or fall down the right hole. The first half of the book takes place primarily in Jack and Hazel's small Minnesota town. The second half takes place in a magical forest, filled with pitfalls for the unwary.
Though I liked the entire book, I actually enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second. I Maybe because the second half is a bit surrealistic, which isn't really my thing. Or maybe because I wasn't as immersed in the plot, and could take my time, and just appreciate Ursu's writing. Her prose is simply lovely. It's hard for me to pick passages to quote, because I flagged so many. And really, it's the kind of book in which one could find a quote-worthy passage on any random page. But here are a few examples:
"Hazel used to want a house like this—something beat-up and possibly haunted, with a dumbwaiter for passing messages, with hidden compartments that contained mysterious old books—but then she would not live next to Jack anymore, and that was not worth all the secret passages in the world." (Page 6, ARC)
"This was not the sort of nonsense Mrs. Jacobs would brook." (Page 13, ARC)
"... she stretched her face into a smile that held nothing. She looked like someone had severed her daemon." (Page 39, ARC)
Hazel is a great character. She's prickly and uncertain of where she fits in, in part because she's adopted from India, and is aware of how different she looks from her mother. She wants things that her single mother can't manage to give her, and she looks for the magic, for the story, in everything. I think that any reader who has ever hidden away inside of books, who has ever imagined being a changeling or saving the world, will be able to identify with Hazel. Jack, too, is wonderful (though we learn more of his wonderfulness through flashbacks, since he's missing, figuratively or literally, for much of the book). But here he is:
"Jack was the only person she knew with an imagination, at least a real one. The only tea parties he'd have were ones in Wonderland, or the Arctic, or in the darkest reaches of space. He was the only person who saw things for what they could be instead of just what they were. He saw what lived beyond the edges of the things your eyes took in. And though they eventually grew out of Wonderland Arctic space-people tea parties, that essential thing remained the same. Hazel fit with Jack." (Page 21, ARC)
"There were some days, ever since the summer, when the whole feel of Jack seemed to change. Like suddenly, instead of being made up of baseball and castles and superheroes and Jack-ness, he was made of something scratchy and thick." (Page 44, ARC)
I absolutely love the bit about "... made of up of baseball and castles and superheroes and Jack-ness." It's perfect! And the bit about him being the only other person who saw things for what they could be, well, that reminded me of a friend I was fortunate to have in fifth grade. I think that it's the mark of a great book when particular passages resonate as true, despite surface differences in circumstance.
I also like Hazel's relationship with her harried mother. You can tell that her mother tries, but doesn't completely understand her. But she still tries. And she's realistic in what Hazel can and can't have, and has to do whether she wants to or not. I would say that she's more of a presence than the parents in many a quest novel, and that Breadcrumbs is stronger for it.
Breadcrumbs is a book for anyone who loves stories, or who likes to see things "for what they could be instead of what they" are. It's a book for every reader who has looked at a wardrobe and thought "what if", or who has seen a path going off into the woods, and wondered if it might lead to a magical place. I think that Breadcrumbs could be read and understood by someone who hadn't read C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L'Engle, Lewis Carroll, and Philip Pullman (among others), but will be enjoyed much more by those who have. It's the perfect book to give to any reader, age 8 and up. Highly, highly recommended. We'll definitely be hearing more about this book come publication time, and I would think come award time, too. Breadcrumbs is a book that should be on every book-lover's reading list.
Publisher: Walden Pond Press (@WaldenPondPress)
Publication Date: September 27, 2011
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher. Quotes should be checked against the final printed book.
© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.