Breadcrumbs, written by Anne Ursu with illustrations by Erin McGuire, 336 pp, RL 5

First reviewed 9/22/11, Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu is almost amazing beyond description. One of the most stunning, incredible books I have read. Please read my review.

I have a confession to make. I still believe that someday I might walk into a woods and be transported to a magical kingdom. I still think that someday I might find a beautifully smooth stone that could grant me something special if I hold it tightly and whisper just the right words. I still think that someday while visiting a museum in a foreign land I might discover an overlooked intricacy in a painting that will open the door to a hidden world for me. And, while I still believe in the existence of this kind of transformational magic, I am old enough to know that, although I try to stay in tune with the things on the edge of my vision I am most likely to find these magical places and objects in the pages of a book. I guess that's why I still read children's literature. Voraciously. I think that Anne Ursu (Cronos Chronicles) still believes in this transformational kind of magic because I don't think that anyone who doesn't could have written a book as powerfully moving, breathlessly compelling and rich with nods to its progenitors to as Breadcrumbs

Where to begin? The photo to the left is my heavily bookmarked copy of Breadcrumbs. Every beautiful sentence, every insight or thought that made me stop and say, "Yes! Yes," or "Hm," every passage that felt new and important, every detail that jumped off the page earned a blue tab. As you can see, I rarely read a page where I didn't find something I wanted to remember. I am so overwhelmed by the wonderousness of Ursu's writing that I will start exactly where she does:

Chapter One: Snowfall

It snowed right before Jack stopped talking to Hazel, fluffy white flakes big enough to show their crystal architecture, like perfect geometric poems. It was the sort of snow that transforms the world around it into a different kind of place. You know what it's like - when you wake up to find everything white and soft and quiet, when you run outside and your breath suddenly appears before you in a smoky poof, when you wonder for a moment if the world in which you woke up is not the same one you went to bed in the night before. Things like that happen, at least in the stories you read. It was the sort of snowfall that, if there was any magic to be had in the world, would make it come out.

And magic did come out.

But not the kind you were expecting.
Breadcrumbs is a spectacular, rare book for three reasons: Anne Ursu's beautiful, often poetic writing, the main character Hazel and Ursu's nods to and integration of fantasy classics that are now so much a part of any avid reader's literary vocabulary.  With Hazel, Ursu lets us know early on that she is different and devotes the most of the first half of the book to letting us get to know her. It is rare to find a fantasy  for kids with such layered, generous character development and this makes the journey that Hazel embarks on all the more compelling. As a six year old, Hazel immediately prefers her new neighbor, a boy wearing a costume eye patch, to her other neighbor, a girl who insists that their tea parties be conducted in silence. And, while Hazel is sorely disappointed when she realizes that Jack doesn't really need the eye patch, "she quickly learned that it was the wearing one that really mattered. This was a secret truth about the world, one they both understood." Hazel and Jack's understanding of each other goes beyond that. They share a rich imaginary life and, by the time they are ten, they have invented a game called "superhero baseball" in which Jack, a baseball fanatic, creates stats, strengths and weaknesses on the ball field for familiar super heroes. The two play with sticks and snowballs in the winter. But, as you read into the book (or just take a good look at the great cover art by Erin McGuire, who also provides superb interior illustrations) you realize that Hazel is different on the outside and inside. There is a moving moment early in the book when Hazel, who has had to stop attending the private, diverse Waldorf-type school and transfer to the cost-free public school after her father moves out, admits that "she had not known until this year that she was different from everyone else. When they had drama, she was the only girl who volunteered for roles in the skits. When they had art, she was the only one who painted Hogwarts. When they did writing, she was the only one who made up stories about girls with magic swords and great destinies. She felt like she was from a different planet than her schoolmates, and maybe it was true. Hazel had been adopted when she was a baby. Her parents said they flew a long way to take her home with them because they loved her so much they would travel the galaxy to get her. They could have meant that literally." Born in India, her "straight black hair, odd big brown eyes ,and dark brown skin" are different, but this really sinks in when she and her mother, white with blue eyes and light brown hair, attend Parent's Night and Hazel realizes that "everyone else came in matching sets of one kind or another." Hazel tries to connect with Susan, who was adopted from China and also has white parents, but when she says to her on Parent's Night, "You're like me," Susan gives her a look that says, "I am nothing like you."

Besides their intense imaginative play, Hazel and Jack have bonded over recent rifts in their families. When Hazel's dad moves out Jack quietly offers up his most prize possession, a fly ball that he caught and had signed by his hero, Joe Maurer. When Jack's mom slips into a serious depression that leaves her lifeless, like "she had her dæmon removed," Hazel sense that Jack needs her to keep him playing and imagining and out of the house where his mom wears the same yoga pants day after day and sits in the recliner watching cable news. When Hazel begins attending Jack's school, even though they are in separate classes, Jack balances the time he spends with his longtime school buddies with that he shares with Hazel, be it on the daily bus rides or at recesses. Jack's friends, Tyler and Bobby are in Hazel's class and tease her relentlessly. When, to her dismay, Jack abandons his friendship with Hazel, he takes up with the boys full time. Yet, it is Tyler, the boy Hazel throws her pencil case at in a moment of anger, who approaches her when Jack disappears. The outlines of Andersen's Snow Queen come into play when a shard from a wicked mirror created by a horrible monster lands in Jack's eye and travels to his heart at the very same moment that Hazel, in another fit of anger, throws a snowball at his head while on the playground. A few days latter Jack has disappeared all together but, thanks to Tyler, Hazel knows where to look for him. The journey she takes is over fairy tale terrain that may feel familiar to some readers, while at the same time seemingly breaking all the rules of a quest story. Before Jack is lost to her Hazel and teases out a story with a friend and her screenwriter uncle in which they start with the villain and try to determine what she wants because "everyone in a story wants something, especially the villains. And the hero's job is to stop them from getting it." This holds true for the Snow Queen in the story as well. Hazel's true challenge is to convince Jack that he wants to leave her snow fortress and return home. It is the shard of glass that has frozen his heart and made this a difficult decision (and there are a handful of chapters that tell the story of the mirror, how it breaks and what effects the shards have) but the reality of the situation is that neither he or Hazel have happy lives to return to. But, to live her life without Jack, in the enchanted snowy woods or in her home, is the worst thing possible.

As an adult reader, I love the way Ursu has grounded Breadcrumbs squarely in the world of magical literature and in Hazel she has created a character who is very well read and coursing with imagination. Before Breadcrumbs is half over Ursu (or Hazel) has referenced peripherally or specifically named almost all the greats from the fantasy cannon. Hazel's last name, Anderson, is a nod to Hans Christian Andersen, author of the story The Snow Queen, which serves as a framework for Breadcrumbs. Nods to Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland, The Hobbit, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Wizard of Oz, Coraline and Garth Nix's Keys to the Kingdom series are well placed. Then there are mentions by name of A Wrinkle in Time and The Golden Compass (and the amazing, unforgettable Lee Scorsby and his dæmon Hester) and the Chronicles of Narnia, including a laugh out loud scene when Jack climbs into the sleigh of the Snow Queen. Looking down at him with a sly smile she asks, "Would you like some Turkish delight?" When Jack seems confused she says, "Just a little joke. Let's go." And, to top it off, there is a marvelous, echoing unnamed mention of Rebecca Stead's 2009 Knock-Your-Socks-Off Newbery winner, When You Reach Me. As Hazel rides the school bus alone after the inexplicable loss of her best friend Jack she attempts to bury her nose in her new library book. But, when she reads that the girl in the book was reading A Wrinkle in Time and "she was best friends with a boy who lived in the apartment below. Then one day he stopped talking to her. Hazel closed the book." In June of this year Betsy Bird reviewed Breadcrumbs over at Fuse #8 calling it the book to watch this season. She is always a month or two ahead of me in her reading and leaps and bounds beyond me in her astute observations and comments on children's literature and a true arbiter of taste. I'd like to end my review with her final words calling Breadcrumbs, "A strange, amazing, sad, thoughtful, one-of-a-kind original. You will find no other book out there quite like this one, no matter how hard you try."

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