Breadcrumbs, by Anne Ursu (Walden Pond Press, Sept 27, 2011, ages 9-12, 320 pages)
If it weren't for Jack, Hazel would be unbearably alone. She and Jack are the best possible friends, and have been for years. But then the unthinkable happens--Jack no longer cares about her. Just something that happens when kids grow up, Hazel's mom says. But Hazel knows there is more to the story than that.
And so, when Jack disappears one snowy winter's day, taken by a woman in white, in a sleigh, Hazel follows. In a fairytale world where metaphors become real, she risks everything to keep Jack from being frozen in the realm of the Snow Queen forever.
The first half of the book sets the stage for Hazel's journey, showing the reader in lovely, heart-aching words Hazel and Jack's friendship, and why it is so important to both of them. Jack makes fifth grade in a new school bearable for Hazel--though she fits in not at all, and is taunted by other kids, one quirky look from Jack gives her strength. But more importantly, with Jack, Hazel can be herself.
"Jack was the only person she knew with an imagination, at least a real one. The only tea parties he'd have were ones in Wonderland, or the Arctic, or in the darkest reaches of space. He was the only person who saw things for what they could be instead of just what they were. He saw what lived beyond the edges of the things your eyes took in. And though they eventually grew out of Wonderland Arctic space-people tea parties, that essential thing remained the same. Hazel fit with Jack." (ARC Page 21)
And when Hazel's dad left, Jack gave her his heart--a signed baseball, his most prized possession. Jack's mom is no longer there either, metaphorically speaking--she has become so depressed that she can no longer see him. So Hazel does her absolute best to make sure that she is there for him, making sure that he knows that someone still knows he is there.
And then he isn't. So Hazel crosses into the snowy wood to find him.
"Hazel had read enough books to know that a line like this one is a line down which your life breaks in two. And you have to think very carefully bout whether you want to cross it, because once you do it's very hard to get back to the world you left behind. And sometimes you break a barrier that no one knew existed, and then everything you know before crossing the line is gone.
But sometimes you have a friend to rescue. And so you take a deep breath and then step over the line and into the darkness ahead." (ARC pp 151-152)
And Hazel's adventures begin, in a frightening, magical world where every encounter has a story to it...a place from which almost no-one returns.
This is the sort of book that makes pictures in the mind to treasure. The sort of book best appreciated by those who already have all the stories they've ever read piled up in their own minds, those who sat, or sit, in fifth grade classrooms and stare out the window imagining that there is more out there than a parking lot (and get teased by classmates in consequence). Hazel's unhappiness with her life in the "real" world will call painful sympathy from that reader, and her journey into the world beyond the snowy woods will resonate most beautifully. Especially since Anne Ursu brings this part of her story to detailed, disturbing, lovely life, with words that fly of the page.
The first 150 or so pages, though, before Hazel sets off on her journey, are almost too sad to read. Hazel's unhappiness is all too sharp and clear. The pain of her father's betrayal, the pain of being a different sort of person from the kids around her, was hard reading. Part of her difference is that she was adopted, and her black hair and dark brown skin don't match her mother's light brown and white. But mostly she is different because she is Hazel, who has read and read until her mind is full of stories, who cannot find a kindred spirit among her classmates. Except, of course, for Jack.
So I suffered with Hazel during that first half of the book in the dismal winter of fifth grade, and it was a huge relief to set off into the woods! Suddenly things were real, and in color, and beautiful and deadly, and I wasn't reading a book anymore, but inside a story. And Hazel's determination to find her friend and bring him home made it a story with heart--both fierce and moving.
Highly recommended to imaginative book-lovers, who know just how important it is to find kindred spirits, especially those who don't mind reading a book that will make them ache for the central character....
There are lots of other reviews of Breadcrumbs out there, which I've linked to in my Sunday round-ups; here's another, just posted at Jen Robinson's Book Page, which I'm sharing because she liked the first half best, and I liked the second better (but we both found a quote in common)!
GIVEAWAY: I found myself with two copies of the ARC of Breadcrumbs, and so I'd like to quickly give my second away! Let me know if you'd like it in a comment by midnight EST tonight (Monday) so I can get it in the mail tomorrow!
And the winner is Jen! (I'm trying to find an email for you, Jen--please get in touch if you don't hear from me)
(and I'm also giving away, courtesy of its publisher, two copies of Amulet: The Last Council, here)