© Jordan B. Nielsen, 2012

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By Anne Ursu

Reviewed by Jordan B. Nielsen

Recommended for: Both boys and girls, ages 10 and Up for some themes of troubled family life, grief and loss. The story’s main character is female, but her adventurous spirit should make her appealing to both genders. 

One Word Summary: Fluctuating.

Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs is divided into two parts, made visible by the thin gray line running down the center of the book’s fore edge, and the content and quality of the story itself is similarly fractured. At times haunting and poetic, then reaching and heavy-handed, the overall result of Breadcrumbs is a memorable, likeable story that could have been better than it was, with a little reigning in.

The tale concerns a bookish, imaginative fifth grader named Hazel, living in Minnesota. In most respects, she is the odd piece that doesn’t fit the puzzle. Hazel was adopted from India by Caucasian parents who

later divorced. In happier days, Hazel went to a small school where her creativity was nurtured and celebrated. Post-divorce, Hazel’s mother can no longer afford to send her to private school, and she’s subsequently shuffled off to a harsh public school where she is viewed as a freak. Her teachers are easily frustrated by her flighty attention span and the kids in the schoolyard take every opportunity to be nasty to her. But Hazel has one safe harbor in the storm, her best friend and neighbor, Jack. Hazel and Jack are kindred spirits, sharing a love of stories, super heroes, drawing, and make believe games that perhaps they’re a little too old for. With Jack, Hazel can be herself, free from shame.

But one snowy day everything changes. Through magical forces, Jack becomes as hollowed out and mean as the cruel boys who love to mock Hazel, and he snubs their friendship, publicly, and humiliatingly. Though her mother tries to explain to her that sometimes friends

naturally grow apart, Hazel is convinced that there’s something else going on. Her fears are confirmed when Jack suddenly disappears, having been lured into an enchanted forest at the town’s perimeter by a beguiling and very familiar White Witch. All the adults spout hypnotic nonsense about Jack staying with an elderly aunt for a while, so it’s then left to Hazel to track down and rescue her friend, even though he has forsaken her.

All of that takes place in the first act of the story (which I would argue was the stronger half). The second part is devoted to Hazel’s journey through the woods towards the castle of the White Witch, and her effort to retrieve Jack from the place he elected to go. In the forest, Hazel encounters a number of people, shades really of characters from the canon of English literature and folklore (The Fates, The Little Match Girl), and some that seem very much like the characters that she and Jack had invented themselves. This creates a nice ambiguity as to whether Hazel is experiencing this forest as a reality (albeit a magical one) or if she has slipped into some sort of dream in the style of Dorothy’s Oz.

To be sure, every twist and turn in Ursu’s Forest of Heavy Symbolism has a desired meaning and point, which diminished the spontaneity and joy of each discovery. The bevy of parental figures with ill-intentions, and abused, wayward children that Hazel meets along her way to the ultimate manipulative, smothering-mother figure herself, scream their parallels to the broken and neglectful homes that Hazel and Jack live in. However, for new readers (the intended audience, of course) who might be unfamiliar with such literary devices, perhaps the comparison won’t seem quite as blunt. 

Some of the vignettes in the woods are very well executed, most notably Hazel’s encounter with The Little Match girl in the snowy, wind whipped woods. The image of the frail, shivering child staring transfixed into a lit match in the otherwise night-blackened forest is one that sticks. Additionally, there’s a really great wink to the reader in the scene where Jack first encounters Ursu’s ‘White Witch’, which will get a good laugh out of anyone who knows anything about children’s fiction. I won’t spoil it.

Though her prose is lyrical and mostly effective, Ursu occasionally gets tripped up in her own imagery, and wordplay. ‘There were so many Jacks she had known, and he had known so many Hazels. And maybe she wasn’t going to be able to know all the Jacks that there would be. But all the Hazels that ever would be would have Jack in them, somewhere.’ Even as an adult reader, that’s a tough allusion to work through, let alone for a young reader, and there are several such instances of these overworked metaphors. 

The second act of Breadcrumbs could have been much stronger had Hazel been given a traveling companion. Of course her choice to go it alone highlights the bravery of the character, but as a consequence we lose Hazel’s voice for a large swath of the story. The book is written in the third person, and though the voice is presumably akin to that of Hazel’s, her near silence in the second half of the book left me feeling disconnected from her and was the chief reason why I felt the first half, though set in the ordinary world, was far more effecting than the magical theatrics of part two.

In all, there’s much to be appreciated and enjoyed in Ursu’s heartfelt, well-meaning story. It’s effectively transporting if not quite wholly pleasing, and its faults are inhibiting but non-lethal. For the bookish misfit it might be a home run, for this reader we’ll call it safe on third. 

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