Sometimes, you just need a good YA read. And if it’s based upon a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale (in this case, The Snow Queen), well, so much the better. If this sounds like a win-win situation, it is my pleasure to introduce you to Anne Ursu.
I first came upon Ms. Ursu because she used to write a very excellent blog about my husband’s (and my) baseball team. It was hilarious and quirky, and above all, well-written. When I learned that she was, in fact, a published author, I immediately hit the library to check out her books. They’re quite excellent: the novels The Disapparation of James and Spilling Clarence, and the YA series The Cronus Chronicles are all worth a try. And now, her latest book, Breadcrumbs, advertised for “middle grades,” somehow combines the whimsy and storytelling of her YA fiction with the gravitas of her adult novels.
Hazel is “different.” She likes to read and imagine, and daydream during school hours. Her only friend is Jack, who has the enviable skill of being able to be both “normal” and “different” at the same time. Still, nobody’s life is perfect, and Jack’s home life leaves much to be desired, as does Hazel’s own. One day, thanks to a mischievous goblin and a magic mirror, Jack suddenly turns cold, and disappears. It is Hazel who must gather all her knowledge of heroes and quests and set out to find her best friend so that she can remind him who he is, and bring him home.
Storytelling is what Ursu does best. She has a unique perspective that is at once sad and humorous. Hazel’s experiences, both in the mundane world and in the forest where she seeks Jack, are quietly, yet intensely drawn. The dark environs of the forest are particularly vivid and even a little disturbing, especially considering the age group the book is intended for. Ursu draws on a variety of other stories and references to bring her fantasy world to life, and in so doing, invites her audience along on Hazel’s journey by re-introducing us to characters and events that we’ve all encountered on our own literary travels.
Where Breadcrumbs fails (but only a little bit) is in the characterizations. Everyone is fairly broadly drawn, and while there is some growth for Hazel and Jack, it’s not presented strongly enough to make it really stick. It’s all about the story, here, and the characters are merely conduits. Ursu’s narrative voice has such a lively personality that one almost doesn’t mind the characters’ lack of any real spark, but I could’ve wished for a little bit more from Hazel. I’m having trouble thinking of a good example, so maybe this is where the intended audience comes into play. I can well imagine that a child close to Hazel’s age would see much more of herself in the character, and would probably identify with her much more than I.
If you are a fan of of classic kid’s fantasy, you definitely need to give Breadcrumbs a read. The beautiful writing is reason enough, all on its own. There are no surprises, since we know the source material, but the application of modern themes of childhood really strikes a chord, and the delicate language is a joy to spend time with. If you try it and enjoy it, I strongly recommend that you look into Ms. Ursu’s other work as well. I look forward to whatever comes next from her.