Breadcrumbs juxtaposes realistic fiction with fantasy in an interesting way
Based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale “The Snow Queen”, Breadcrumbs is chock-full of literary allusions. Fantasy fans will recognize references to The Phantom Tollbooth, A Wrinkle in Time, Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, and the Narnia books.
Hazel, the ten-year-old main character, is an avid reader who sees the world through fantasy tropes. She is struggling with several issues--being of a different ethnicity than her adoptive family, her parents' divorce, not fitting in at her new school. Above all else in her life, Hazel values her friendship with her best friend, Jack. She doesn’t need anyone else as long as she has him. But Jack is going through a difficult time, dealing with his mother’s chronic depression, and his feelings for Hazel change, seemingly overnight. The real world reason would be that Jack, traumatized by what’s going on in his family, has become depressed as well. The allegorical interpretation is that a glass shard from a demon’s broken mirror flew into his eye, causing him to see beautiful things as ugly. Jack flees from the real world’s harsh reality into a frozen world ruled by the White Witch.
When Hazel sets off to rescue Jack, armed only with a flashlight, a few granola bars, and a baseball signed by Joe Mauer, she expects to be able to understand the rules of the wood beyond the portal. Because she is there for a good purpose, she ought to find the help and support she needs. Unfortunately for Hazel, the wood is a twisted place where nothing makes sense. Everyone in it has come because they have lost something or someone, and they deal with their losses in a variety of dysfunctional ways. The author seems to delight in turning expectations--Hazel’s and ours--on their ear. When Hazel encounters inhabitants of the woods, the ones she mistrusts and fears often prove to be helpful; while the seemingly good ones do not have her best interests at heart.
Anne Ursu’s lyrical language and imagery reminded me of Alice Hoffman. Breadcrumbs is written for children, but it’s definitely not a lighthearted romp. It’s an exploration of serious themes: friendship, belonging, depression, sacrifice, boy/girl roles (knight/princess), escaping into stories, ordering one’s world through literature, and the power of love.