No matter where she goes, Hazel doesn’t quite fit in. She’s too imaginative, too distractible, a bit too in touch with all the hidden magic of the world—and not nearly concerned enough with her fifth-grade peers’ budding interest in popularity and dating. The fact that she was adopted from India as a baby isn’t a huge issue in her life or her relationship with her parents, but her growing awareness that “everyone else came in matching sets of one kind or another” contributes to her alienation and also subtly underlines her classmates’ sense of her difference.
Fortunately, she has her best friend and next-door neighbor Jack, her partner in imagination and whimsy, who has been there for her all her life. Just as he’s seen her through her parents’ divorce and her father’s recent departure, she’s supported him through his mother’s worsening depression. At school, however, Jack is now torn between Hazel and his other friends, and after he gets a sliver of glass stuck in his eye one winter day, he rejects her, then disappears altogether. Here’s where the plot gets twisty: he’s lured into the forest by the Snow Queen, and Hazel, deciphering this, embarks on a quest to retrieve him that leads her through the many perils the magical forest has to offer.
The world she enters, a sort of crossroads where numerous fairy-tale events and characters intersect and that exists outside of geography, is exactly the kind of twilight realm readers will love to imagine lurking just past the everyday boundaries of forest and river and horizon that they see every day but rarely cross. Ursu expertly weaves shivery magic throughout the mundane winter landscape of the book’s opening, so that the fairy-tale departure feels utterly possible. At the same time, she infuses the folkloric flourishes with urgent emotion, giving each dangerous magical lure modern resonance (and, quite often, delicious creepiness to boot). Occasional black-and-white full-page illustrations, artfully smudgy, heighten the atmospheric touches, providing a visual sense of the forest’s vastness and the blanketing snow’s eerie coziness. The folk and fairy tales featured (many of them lesser-known stories) play on the themes of parental longing, lost and lonely children, changing identities, and escape from the world’s cruelties; all of their iterations rework conceptions of villains, heroes, and victims with thoughtful complexity, so that characters all subvert expectations in some way. With every encounter, Hazel learns new things about herself and her world, escaping perils that go far beyond mere physical danger.
Richly referential, Breadcrumbs acknowledges its close kinship not just to the fairy tales it re-envisions but to a whole tapestry of classic and modern children’s fantasy, from C. S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle to Philip Pullman and Neil [End Page 67] Gaiman, with well-chosen details of name, place, and character that will delight those in the know without alienating the uninitiated; it’s also akin to Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me (BCCB 9/09) in the way it delves into the confusing no-man’s-land between childhood and adolescence and all the pain of the transition through it. Hazel emerges from the ordeal stronger and more willing to engage with the real world, a result that cements the links between reality and fantasy that Ursu so richly explores. The evocative magical landscape, superbly developed characters (particularly dreamy, self-doubting, determined Hazel and lost Jack), and the piercing sadness of a faltering childhood friendship give this delicately written fantasy wide and lingering appeal. (See p. 114 for publication information.)