Breadcrumbs—a retelling of “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen—seems very much like a middle grade novel in how it’s presented, where it’s reviewed, the illustrations that remind me a bit of The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, etc. Amazon says it’s for ages 8 and up, third grade and up. Based on the age of the protagonist (Hazel is 11 years old, in fifth grade) and the lack of sex and violence, this might seem to be right on. However, I really think it will be more appreciated by teens and adults looking back on childhood. There’s a subtle complexity and ambiguity to the plot that would certainly frustrate my tween readers, and the breadcrumbs of other stories sprinkled throughout the book require a reading experience that few 8 year olds will have.
“The Snow Queen” is already a pretty ambiguous fairytale. It seems that the Snow Queen should be the villain, but she’s neither good nor bad. She’s amoral, existing above the human experience. Breadcrumbs embraces this ambiguity, weaving an allegory about life changes into the fairytale. It’s powerful and beautiful and effective—the kind of book that a kid will either find at the right moment and it will resonate forever, or a kid will feel pressured to read at the wrong moment and end up hating it.
Hazel’s life has been turned upside down—her dad left and is getting married, she and her mom are struggling to get by, she’s in a new school that doesn’t suit her well. The one bright spot is her best friend, Jack. However, even this bright spot is marred because no one else understands why they’re friends. When Jack is hit by a shard of a magic mirror, he changes dramatically, pulling away from Hazel. Her mom and others say this is just normal growing up and Hazel needs to learn to deal. When Jack disappears, Hazel knows something is wrong and decides she has to go into the enchanted woods to rescue him.
I enjoyed the breadcrumbs from other stories, but they’re dropped without hints or context. Only those who have read those stories or watched those movies will be able to pick up on them. I’m guessing my kids would pick up about 2/3 of them, and my kids are pretty well read. But most well read teens and adults will catch the majority of them (there’s only one I wasn’t sure of).
In many ways, I think this book will resonate most powerfully with older readers as having beautifully and metaphorically captured some of the painful experiences of growing up, and the somewhat abrupt and ambiguous ending will feel appropriate for that reason. Nothing is summed up neatly and happily, even though this quest came to a successful end. I think this would totally annoy my daughter right now, but when she’s older it may speak to her powerfully.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Hazel is adopted from India, so she looks different from her parents and from most of the kids in her school. Her best friend is Jack, in a world where boys and girls shouldn’t still be friends in 5th grade. She knows that stories are real, that the world is more complex than just sitting still and doing what you’re told, but most people don’t recognize this. Her father left her and her mother a few months before. She feels incredibly out of place except for when she’s with Jack—with him she feels complete and accepted. This theme of not fitting in comes up in many ways throughout the book. Hazel’s desire to fit in and her insecurity about why she doesn’t is often used against her during her quest to find Jack.
When Hazel encounters the Fates, she realizes that she doesn’t know her real name—the one that would have been given to her at birth. She was several months old before she became Hazel Anderson, and she realizes she must have been called something before this. The Fates ask her how she can ever know who she is if she doesn’t even know her name. She has no answer for this.
Hazel’s dad apparently left to marry someone else. He’s moved far away and has very little contact with Hazel, although he is still talking to her mom. Her mom says it’s because he isn’t sure how to act with Hazel after what he’s done. Hazel’s mom is struggling to do what’s best, but she’s working hard to make ends meet. She’d really like Hazel to start acting more like a grown up, making an effort to get along at school and letting go of Jack.
Jack is dealing with his own issues. His mother is suffering from crippling depression, which has caused her to retreat into herself. Jack and his dad are doing their best to handle this, but it isn’t easy.
Both of these deep issues are just a back drop to the story—they matter and they’re handled deftly, but this isn’t a “very special episode” about dealing with divorce and mental illness. These problems are just part of life that have to be dealt with.
Within the enchanted wood, other parental figures aren’t what they appear—they’re overly controlling, they’re willing to kill, kidnap, or maim for what they see as the good of the child. The kids are better at looking at for each other, though. Hazel’s experience with these seemingly nice but actually dangerous parental types makes her realize that she needs to return to her own mother—she owes it to her mom not to make her deal with another loss.
The shard from the magic mirror hits Jack in the eye; it then travels to his heart, which is turned to ice.
Hazel throws a pencil box at Tyler, a classmate and friend of Jack’s who teases her. It hits him in the face, although he’s not really injured. Hazel starts seeing a counselor after this outburst.
A witch puts a huge gash in Hazel’s face. Others mention that it will leave a nasty scar. I expected it to get healed somewhere along the line (several people mention that they could do something about it), but when she comes out of the woods she notably still has it. It seems likely that she will have a dramatic facial scar for the rest of her life. Because of all the other emotional trauma in her life, she doesn’t deal with the repercussions of this in the book, but I couldn’t help but think that it will become an issue for her later.
Hazel blatantly lies to her mother about where she’s going when she heads into the woods to find Jack. She kind of regrets that later, but there are no consequences for it.
When things get really rough, Hazel wants to hear her mother tell her that everything will be ok. She knows that would be a lie, but some lies are beautiful, even when you know they’re lies.
Seeing through false promises is a recurring theme in the book. Some of these are lies, some of them are just misguided good intentions.
As Hazel and a few other people know, stories are very real. Magic exists in the world, even if most people deny it. The author explicitly includes the reader among the people who know this. When Hazel can find people who acknowledge story, she fits in better with them. Tyler saw Jack leave with the Snow Queen, so he asks Hazel to help because he knows that someone like her needs to save Jack; he still doesn’t really understand, though.
Many stories, not just “The Snow Queen,” exist in this world. Hazel encounters several of them, and in fact she changes the outcome of “The Little Match Girl.” Interestingly, most of the stories she comes into contact with are by Hans Christian Andersen (and Hazel’s last name is Anderson and one of the Fates mentions that they get a lot of Andersons here in the woods). There are implications there that I could follow (maybe different worlds exist for different authors?) but only readers familiar with Andersen’s tales will even notice this.
When the mirror broke, shards went all over the world. We’re following one of the many stories that came from this. “The Little Match Girl” is another, but you have to really pay attention to follow that thread, especially as it’s a very minor subplot in this story.
Hazel asks if the Snow Queen is like the witch from Narnia. She’s told that no, the witch in Narnia is like the Snow Queen. Apparently some stories are more real than others.
Hazel realizes that tragic stories are only beautiful when you don’t have to deal with them 1st or 2nd hand. Once you can put an actual face to the people involved, it’s not so romantic.
Jack and Hazel end up giving up everything—all the stuff they have with them, their hope, any sense of the future, even the beloved baseball that helped Jack remember who he is—in the enchanted forest. They gave up a lot of this before they even entered the forest, which is part of how the Snow Queen enticed Jack to come with her.
I expected love and friendship to win out. I expected some sense of hope that things would be ok. Hazel does get Jack to come back home with her, but by that point she doesn’t even know why she’s doing it anymore—it’s her goal, so she just keeps working toward it. It’s made very clear that even if she can get Jack back home, things will never be the same. She’s already lost him and will never get things back like they were. I guess that’s part of growing up, but it’s just so depressing. I’m torn on what I think about a book that ends in such an ambiguously depressing way—I could see it being emotionally devastating to a kid who identifies too much with what Hazel is going through.
I suppose there are enough breadcrumbs of hope that I can make up stories of a better future for Hazel (her mom left a present for her—ballet slippers, which are a subtle recurring symbol of the future), but on the surface the message seems to be “Life sucks and everyone will let you down, but you keep moving forward into an equally bleak future because that’s just what you do.”
Jack and Hazel are best friends, but it seems pretty one sided. Hazel has no other friends besides Jack, but Jack is also friends with boys who routinely bully Hazel. Hazel feels incomplete without Jack, to a point where I can see why Hazel’s mom worries about this. But the book never explicitly calls this out as problematic. In fact, it’s why Hazel keeps going, even as she realizes that things are pretty hopeless. Several people tell her that he won’t want to be found—that he went with the witch of his own accord. Still she searches for him to bring him home, because that’s what friends do (in the end, he does thank her for coming to find him). She does find strength in this—she overcomes impossible odds purely on the power of her desire to find Jack—but it’s for remarkably little reward. She comes home scarred, exhausted, and lonely. I guess she may be slightly better equipped to move forward, but everything still pretty much sucks.
This review probably sounds like I don’t like this book, but I actually like it a lot. It’s beautifully written with lots of figurative language and symbolism. Writing this review made me really examine the depth of what’s here, if you take the time to dig beneath the surface.
However, I don’t think this is a book you can just hand to a kid. If they read it at the wrong time, they may hate it or even have it feed their darkest fears. However, for some kids, it will absolutely be the book that speaks to them as they most need to be spoken to. I have no doubt that in 20 years this will be on many lists of “books that had the most impact on my childhood.”
Despite the age recommendations on other sites, I recommend this for mature, well read 10 year olds and up. Further, I strongly suggest reading this with your kids, maybe out loud, to help them see the depth that’s here and so you can discuss some of the ambiguity. I highly recommend it for teens and grownups, particularly parents and educators.
Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu
Published in 2011 by Walden Pond Press
Read my personal copy