Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen is, let’s admit it, the world’s greatest puberty metaphor. A boy and girl are friends. Something happens and he grows cold and distant. In the midst of his indifference he’s spirited away and must be won back. Okay, the metaphor kind of breaks down at the end there, but the separation of boy/girl best friends is very real. With that in mind author Anne Ursu has done the mildly impossible. She has updated the old tale to the 21st century, thrown in references to other Andersen tales, and generally written one of the more fascinating and beautifully written, if sad, fantasy novels for middle grade readers of the year. If there’s a book to watch this season, Breadcrumbs is it.
Hazel and Jack are best friends, now and forever. At least that’s how Hazel sees it. Sure, she knows that Jack’s a little depressed because of his mother’s mental illness, but he’s always there for her no matter what. That’s a good thing since Hazel doesn’t like dealing with her new school and she definitely doesn’t want any other friends. Then, one day, everything changes. Jack suddenly turns cold on Hazel. He refuses to be her friend, and then without warning disappears altogether. His parents give one reason for where he has gone, but when Hazel learns that Jack was spirited away by a beautiful woman in a carriage she sets off into the nearby woods to find her friend and to save him, no matter what the cost (no matter if he wants to be rescued, for that matter). Trouble is, you can read all the books about adventures that you like, but when it comes to real rescue missions nobody can prepare you for the moment when you have to face your own problems.
To my mind, Ursu does for Hans Christian Andersen in this book what Adam Gidwitz did for The Brothers Grimm in his A Tale Dark and Grimm. Which is to say, she picks him apart. Andersen was an odd author. There. I said it. His stories were rarely happy-go-lucky affairs. I mean, have you ever read The Swineherd? There’s a darkness to his tales. With Breadcrumbs that darkness isn’t there simply because this is based on one of his stories. His influence permeates everything in this tale. Hazel’s travels bring her in contact with stories that bear some resemblance to The Red Shoes and The Little Match Girl. Other stories seem to reference The Wild Swans and The Nightingale, though a bit more obliquely. No doubt there are probably other Andersen tales squirreled away in the details of these chapters. You simply have to know where to look. It got me to thinking about what Andersen’s stories have in common. If Ursu is right, it may all come down to wanting things. In this book the character of The Snow Queen is described as having “unwanting eyes”. Everyone else in this story wants something though, and is willing to go to sometimes evil lengths to get what it is they desire. Maybe that was always the key to Andersen’s tales. Every one of his villains and heroes is felled by their wants. That Hazel is able to survive this story with her own want intact is a credit to the fact that she wants Jack back partly for herself, and partly for him as well. And in wanting what is best for him, the two survive.
Notably, Ursu’s fantasyland doesn’t have a ruler. The Snow Queen lives there, but she isn’t the White Witch from Narnia. No one considers her in charge, only someone to be feared. With this in mind, what makes Ursu’s world so frightening is that the usual rules do not apply. For a girl like Hazel, fantasy worlds should work with a kind of internal logic. That logic is more than missing in this world of Ursu’s, and the result is a mirroring of the feeling kids have when they feel that anything could happen to them, and it could be bad. Reading this book you are not reassured that Hazel and Jack will get out of this world unscathed or even alive. Knowing the original story of The Snow Queen doesn’t help you out any either since Ursu plays enough with the story to avoid direct comparisons (there is no Little Robber Girl in this version, alas). When an author decides to create a fantasyland they have to determine whether or not it will be a fun fantasyland or a horrific one. Is this a place that children would want to disappear into? The child reader, in this particular case, is left feeling that this is not a fantasy world they would like to visit again. Which, of course, inevitably leads to the question of whether or not the child reader would reread this book.
Expect fantasy and reality to mix in interesting ways here. Hazel uses fantasy to escape from the reality of her life, but while most authors would make this look like a good thing, here you can see that Hazel really is making her life harder than it needs to be. Jack’s mom, similarly, has withdrawn from the real world and exists in a universe of her own, much to her family’s chagrin. Under these circumstances it’s easy to see Jack’s abduction as metaphorical. The mirror shard in his heart and the ice he surrounds himself with, coupled with the people in the fantasy world who have retreated into horrific worlds to escape their real lives . . . man, there’s a lot to pick apart here!
As an author, Ursu makes a number of choices with this book that are unexpected, but work. For example, I was a little shocked when the narrative suddenly leapt into Jack’s head partway through the text. It was unexpected, but it worked. In fact you need to be with Jack at least part of the time here or his abduction becomes rote rather than interesting (that’s my take). There’s also the fact that the quest element to this book comes roughly halfway through the story. For that reason I wouldn’t necessarily sell this one to kids as a quest or adventure novel. If they’re expecting magic sooner than 100 pages in, they are bound to be disappointed. Finally, there are the references to other works of children’s literature. Right from the start I made a note to myself that the plot of The Snow Queen (boy abandons his friendship with a girl unexpectedly) smacked of When You Reach Me. Ursu then references that very book later in the text. She also references Narnia, His Dark Materials, A Wrinkle in Time, and many others.
By the end of the tale there are a couple loose ends that may confound readers. There are souls in trouble who are never rescued. There is question of what the wolves are and why they interact with Hazel in the way that they do. There is the clock in the woods. What is it? Why is it there? Ursu dares to ask questions and leave the answers up to the readers. It’s a bold choice and one that will frustrate a lot of kids who are used to having their questions answered for them by their authors. I can see English teachers having a field day with this book, using it for a variety of writing assignments. Prepare for objections, though. Objections happen when answers are not spelled out.
Artist Erin McGuire lends her black and white illustrations to the novel, which is an interesting notion. Generally I’ve noticed that the art in a contemporary middle grade chapter book has a distinct purpose. If you’re dealing with a Roald Dahl title like The Witches, for example, then you need Quentin Blake’s pictures to take an edge off of the scariness. That’s akin to what McGuire’s pictures do here. They don’t take away all the sadness and scariness, but they do dampen it to a certain degree. Seeing Hazel helps us to deal with her misery for most of the book. What McGuire chooses to illustrate is also interesting. She doesn’t necessarily go for the obvious scenes, which is to say she doesn’t choose moments that contain a lot of action and adventure, but rather scenes of quiet magic. Kids, I think, will appreciate that. Her pictures serve the mood.
This is not the first adapted version of The Snow Queen I’ve encountered. In the anthology Firebirds author Kara Dalkey wrote a tale called “The Lady of the Ice Garden,” which sets the story in Late Heian, Japan. That story turned the Snow Queen’s abduction of Jack into something sexual, which is one way of taking it. Ursu’s way is yet another. Breadcrumbs can be an oddly dark, somewhat depressing story at times. Hazel, after all, leads a sad life and her adventures only reinforce that fact. Yet the writing is remarkable and there’s so much to think about and look into here that kids will find themselves relating easily. They may be upset by the ending (which I will not spoil), finding it a touch unfinished but some will understand that it’s a honest way to end the book. This is a book that gives readers whole worlds to discover and discuss. It reinforces the oddities of Hans Christian Andersen’s tales, and ties them into a 21st century world. 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.
On shelves September 27th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Notes on the Cover: Boy, that’s beautiful. That’s just gotta be one of the prettiest little ole covers I’ve seen in a long time. This isn’t the only cover out this year by artist Erin McGuire (Circle of Secrets, French Ducks in Paris, and Lucky for Good being the others). McGuire’s style reminds me of the artist behind K.L. Going’s The Garden of Eve (whose name I do not know). What I love about this cover, aside from the colors (which, undoubtedly, someone somewhere will dub as “girly”, consarn it) is the fact that you have a dark-skinned heroine on the jacket of a middle grade novel. More of the same, please.
First Line: “It snowed right before Jack stopped talking to Hazel, fluffy white flakes big enough to show their crystal architecture, like perfect geometric poems.”
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