Monday, December 31, 2012

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

So, I’ve been super bad at posting reviews in December, evidenced by the fact that it’s January. Excuse of choice this week is the holidays and the crazy busy-ness that comes with them. So, apologies in advance for the onslaught of posts that will be made today as I catch up. New Year’s Resolution: Post the rest of these reviews for my last five months on FRIDAYS like I’m SUPPOSED to!

Anyway, on to the book of the week!

Target Audience: 9-12

Summary: Hazel and Jack were friends, once upon a time. The games they played demonstrated rich imaginations and kindred spirits. Then Jack got a sliver of a magic mirror in his eye and his heart grew cold. Soon he was snatched away by an evil woman in a sleigh into a strange magical world where snow and cold abound-a place where his frozen emotions seem perfectly at home. Does Hazel have the heart to risk everything to find her friend and bring him back?

Type of Adaptation: Modernization

I think I’ve found a new favorite middle grade author because Anne Ursu is magnificent – she’s a magnificent storyteller, she knows how to write for kids, and she doesn’t shy away from what is difficult or complicated. For all these things, I applaud her. This was an excellent book to wrap up the month. Here’s why.

Our focal character is Hazel, and while that makes this four out of four books that have neglected to name our heroine after Anderson’s character, but her name is Hazel Anderson, which makes this the second of four books to name our heroine after Anderson himself. So that's . . . something?

Actually, I really like the name Hazel for this character. As John Green said about naming his Hazel, it’s an in-between name, and Hazel Anderson is a very in-between person. She is of Indian descent (that’s Indian Indian, not American Indian, thank you Chris Columbus for centuries of confusion), adopted by white American parents who are now divorced, and she’s at that awkward age where boys and girls suddenly aren’t allowed to be friends. Given that her best friend is a boy, that is a problem.

Also, Hazel is at the awkward age where liking to read and pretend and imagine and daydream is cause for ridicule. It also gets her in trouble at school, as she has trouble focusing and following strict classroom regulations.

Hazel is a kid who just plain doesn’t know who she is, and that is done wonderfully. Her only real friend is Jack (second of four books and second of two modernizations to rename Kai Jack), who is going through turbulent transitions of his own, made more difficult by the fact that his mother suffers from chronic depression and has stopped being a capable mother.

So these are two damaged kids who feel a little less broken with each other, but no one else in their lives seems to understand that. Jack’s male friends are constantly trying to pull him away from Hazel; Hazel’s mom is constantly trying to get her to spend more time with the girls her age. And Hazel’s teachers want her to get her head out of the clouds and pay attention to the real world for once.

I love the way that Ursu has taken these very real hardships of adolescence and made them meaningful. She understands that while adults may look at these issues and dismiss them, to the kids, they are veery real and very difficult. I remember being this age. I remember being Hazel, in many ways, and I appreciate that Ursu made that a real, weighted struggle rather than portraying it as “just” something some “kids” were going through.

Anyway, at the point where we enter the story, Hazel considers being Jack’s friend her job in life. Because Jack needs her. She understands him in a way that his other friends don’t. He needs her. She needs him, too, just as much if not more, but she isn’t cognizant of that.

But then the mirror, made by a demon with a 47-syllable name that we just don’t have the time to hear so we’ll just call him ‘Mal’ (have I mentioned how much I adore Ursu’s narrative voice?), shatters, and the pieces fall down to earth, and one of them hits Jack in the eye, right after he and Hazel have had a fight about who Jack will choose to spend his after school hours with. She throws a snowball at him, hard, and then the piece of glass falls into his eye.

In this day and age, Jack is rushed to the hospital, and Hazel is stricken, convinced that she did this. Jack’s friends don’t help, taunting her and menacing her until she finally snaps and throws a pencil case at one of them.

She’s disciplined, but hardly cares as she waits anxiously to hear anything about Jack, but nothing. Even after it turns out he’s fine, he still won’t talk to her. He pointedly ignores her. She figures he’s mad about the pencil case, so she apologizes, but he still calls her a baby, teases and ridicules her, and treats her as awfully as all the other kids in her class.

Hazel can’t understand it. Her mind wants to believe that some magic is at work, some mystical force causing Jack to be this way, but she knows that doesn’t happen in the real world.

And then Jack disappears. His parents tell Hazel that he’s gone to stay with a sickly aunt, to help care for her, and for some reason, everyone believes this. Everyone except Hazel. And everyone except Tyler, the boy Hazel threw the pencil case at. Because Tyler saw something – he saw Jack disappear with a pale, elfin, white woman into the forest. And because Hazel is the only one who won’t call him crazy, he tells her.

And suddenly, Hazel has direction. For really the first time in the novel, she knows what she wants. She has to get Jack back. Even though he was horrible to her, even though she doesn’t know if there’s any such thing as magic and maybe he just doesn’t want to be her friend anymore, she still has to go and get him.

Start part 2. I love that Hazel follows Jack into the forest, without knowing whether or not she believes this crazy story. Because she wants to believe in magic, but isn’t that impossible? But when she enters the forest, sure enough, she’s in another world. And this is a world powered by desire. Whatever you want, the forest can create for you, but always at a terrible price. The people there are so driven by their desires and their regrets about the prices they’ve paid for those desires that they have become so very twisted and broken in a way that is terrifying. This is not a world like Hogwarts or the ideal Narnia that Hazel was hoping to find.

And yet, Hazel proves strangely immune to the power of the forest, and I love the reasoning why – the forest has the power to grant a person’s greatest desire. But Hazel’s greatest desire to go back to her old life, with Jack, a desire that is entirely out of the power of the forest. But it’s all she wants, and so the forest has no control over her. I adore this.

This also sets up a wonderful parallel between Hazel and the Snow Queen. Everyone in the forest is terrified of the Snow Queen because she literally does not want anything. The people who go to her go out of their own desire, and she accepts them because she can use them, but she doesn’t care if they’re there or not. She doesn’t want them. She doesn’t want anything. And in this world, that makes her incredibly dangerous. I love it.

What I’m not quite as crazy about is how the obstacles are handled. Hazel meets with plenty of obstacles, and there are three main ones, but only one of them crosses over with the story. She accidentally steals the swanskin of a witch and is rescued by a boy whose sister was turned into a bird. She gets taken in by a couple who desperately want a child and almost succeeds at making Hazel forget who she is. And she meets the Little Match Girl in the woods and gives up her key to help so that the girl can find peace and a home.

And while I have no problems with changing the obstacles to fit the world in question, it felt awkward for me to have one the same and two different because I kept feeling like I’d just missed the princess’s palace and the robber girl somehow. Now, the couple who desperately want a child fit into the world really well, but a part of me wishes it had been all the same or none of the same.

That being said, though, I love the inclusion of the Little Match Girl, another of Anderson’s characters, into the mix of this story. I love that Hazel helps her, because she knows how the story ends, and she can’t bare to see it. So she sends the signal to the boy who helped her earlier, gives up her coat, and ensures that the Little Match Girl survives with a family. In exchange, the Match Girl gives Hazel her matches and the piece of the demon’s mirror she picked up. For everyone else, the mirror twists the visions to show the worst of the world. But the match girl has always seen the worst of the world, so to her, the mirror is the one thing in her life that doesn’t lie, and it’s the matches, with visions of hope and happiness in their flames, that are cruel and painful to see. It’s beautiful, and I love it.

I also love how Hazel changes on this journey. She starts out going because she has to rescue Jack because he needs her, and she needs her life to go back to the way it was. But over the journey, that shifts. Now, she’s rescuing Jack because she knows he doesn’t really want this, and he deserves the chance to choose it for himself, in his right mind. And she grows to the place where, if he chooses to stay, to leave her behind, to stop being her friend, she’ll accept it. But it has to be his choice.

Hazel meets the Snow Queen, who tells her that if Jack chooses to leave, he can leave, it makes no difference to her, for there will be others. But he will not choose to leave.

In the end, it’s the matches that save Jack. Hazel tries the mirror, but Jack sees the worst of who he is and retreats from it. But with the matches, Hazel reminds him of who they were, and that even if they can’t be that again, remembering who they were is important because it determines who they will become.

And Jack is freed, and they leave the forest, but they are both irrevocably changed. And the ending is ambiguous, with Jack and Hazel fully aware that their friendship will not be what it once was. But they’ve accepted that, and they’ll do the best they can.

This is a coming of age story, and it’s a marvelous one. Seriously. Well done, Anne Ursu. Checklist.

Reigned the story in? Yes. This book was really well paced and well balanced and well contained, for the most part. Hazel’s journey through the forest got a little cumbersome and unfocused at times, but not too badly. So point.

Explore the relationship between Gerda and Kai? I am thrilled that we have a relationship here so close to what Anderson wrote. I am thrilled that Ursu choose to keep the characters young and not introduce romance in the slightest. I think in many ways, that makes for a more interesting story, and this relationship, with all its flaws and uncertainties, was done incredibly well.

Define the Snow Queen? I like this take on her a lot: a person who doesn’t want anything. Isn’t that the most terrifying villain? If she doesn’t want anything, how can she have a weakness? It’s a fascinating idea, and Ursu presented it very well.

Give meaning to the journey? Yes, yes, and yes. I adore Hazel’s growth. I adore what she goes through and learns and how she changes. Beautifully done.

A winner all around. The only thing I have an concern about is that Hazel's definition of her world relies so heavily on references to current popular children's literature that I don't know how well this book will stand the test of time. But while it does, it is masterful.

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