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Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Fairy Tale of Tween Angst: New Books — Breadcrumbs

Courtesy HarperCollins
Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

If you’ve read any of my previous book reviews, you may have figured out that I’m a sucker for magical realism (I’m also a sucker for magical magic, but that’s beside the point). I love when I find a story that works so brilliantly as a subtle, slice-of-life drama that you don’t blink an eye at the fantastical and otherworldly elements sprinkled throughout. I have seen the excellent Breadcrumbs (which has already received many much-deserved lauds) described as a modern retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” — and it is — but there’s so much more going on here than just “let’s set an old fairy tale in modern times.”

Breadcrumbs is about childhood friendships — how solid and unchangeable they can seem, how strangely fickle and malleable they can be, and how utterly important they are either way. It’s about the way friendships, especially at that age, help us form a view of ourselves and our world. And the story just happens to have a child-stealing witch in it. And a mystical forest, and a magic mirror. But those Hans Christian Andersonian bits aren’t the story; they just help tell the story. And wonderfully so. After all, your tween years are such a surreal mishmash of hormones, emotions, pressures, and changes that it often feels like you’re roaming through an alternate universe half the time anyway.  In that sense, Breadcrumbs feels like a better bookshelf companion for Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me (another masterful piece of magical realism, or more appropriately, sci-fi realism) than anything by, say, Gregory Maguire (whose work is wonderful in a very different way).

To tell her sad and lovely story of friendship, Ursu makes genius use of not only “The Snow Queen,” but an anthology’s worth of other Andersen tales. I don’t want to spoil too much, but as ten-year-old Hazel treks through the dark and danger-filled woods in search of her missing former best friend, she runs into one Andersen character after another — and grows in some way with each encounter. My daughter is just about Hazel’s age and I can’t wait to pass Breadcrumbs on to her. But I’m going to have her read up on her Andersen first. Getting the references only adds to experience.

Best for: Tweens going through rough patches (or anybody who remembers being one); Hans Christian Andersen fans who have been longing to see any of his stories other than "The Little Mermaid" get its due; readers who enjoy their fantasy adventures with more brainwork than fisticuffs or swordplay

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