***Don't forget to check out my interview with Anne Ursu here!***
Breadcumbs by Anne Ursu
Fairy Tale, 313 pages
September 27th 2011 from HarperCollins/Walden Pond Press
Amazon | Goodreads
I don't even know how to go about this review without gushing like an incoherent loon.
[Nope, as it turned out, all I had to do was sound really melodramatic and um...intense...Oh, boy.]
I mean, really, I don't know that I have a single bad thing to say about this book. I loved reading it for the beauty of the storytelling and for the way it made me feel, and I respected it for the same reasons as well as one very important one: Anne Ursu respects her audience.
It is very, very rare to find an author - or an adult, for that matter - who respects children and what they are capable of. So many adults who have dealings with children (parents, teachers, authors, etc) have a tendency to sugar-coat things and say that kids "aren't ready" for certain things; they pretend kids "won't understand". They have forgotten what it is to be a kid. I think, when we force ourselves, we can all remember what it was actually like to be a child and to be "treated like a child" - to have the adults around us speak of things as if we don't understand, or try to hide things from us that we already fully comprehend. As if a child isn't aware that they are growing up with divorced parents or an alcoholic mother, or an abusive father or anorexic sibling. We all joke about kids being mimics (don't they just say the darnedest things, I wonder where they come up with it), and we turn a blind eye to the fact that they are taking everything in and feeling and understanding and worrying about a lot more than we ever give them credit for.
It's so very rare, then, to find an adult who realizes the strength and understanding children really do have, and embraces it and showcases it. [Side note: I have a little story about this, but I will save it for the end, since it really has no place in this review...] I find it so refreshing and so much more powerful when an author just writes, just tells the story that needs to be told, and trusts their audience to understand it. Anne Ursu does just this. Ursu does not pander to her audience or hide from less pleasant aspects. Her story is non-flinching and not necessarily going to have a happy ending. No magic wand is ever going to be waved. There are a lot of villains in the world, and they come in all sizes, but there is no Big Bad Villain, just time. Ursu tells a story that I think will be embraced by children - who will respect it without even realizing they are doing so, or why - and will be enjoyed by adults - who will find there is more in it that they would have imagined they'd get from a middle grade novel.
There is a depth of pain to the story that I found really affecting; I didn't expect it to have such a range of experience and emotion. I don't want to turn anyone off by saying this, because it is not like it's some sob story written with the intent of making you cry. (I loathe anything that makes me feel like I'm intentionally being played.) It's just, there's an everyday pain worked into the story. There are broken homes and mental illness and that mix of longings that seem to come at a certain age - the longing to be "grown up" and figure things out coupled with the longing to have things remain easy and carefree and the same. The story is deceptive in its simplicity: a contemporary retelling of a fairly unknown fairy tale that is layered with understanding of human nature, issues of self-identity, crises of faith and a friendship so fierce its heartbreaking. It's full of these melancholic little word-gems. Which, yes, sounds a lot more emo than I'd intended it to, but that doesn't make it any less true.
It was a very full reading experience. It was funny and modern and very, very true, and I adored Hazel. There is light to balance the dark, and a healthy dose of the magic and fantasy a story like this needs to thrive. We tend to think of coming of age stories as the transition into recognized adulthood, but I think this is very much a coming of age story for the almost-teen set. It's a time when friends do start to grow apart - and the very realistic pressure that Hazel (a girl) and Jack (a boy) face to begin growing apart, along with their desperation to go on as they were, felt very authentic to me. There's also this almost-but-not-quite metafiction aspect to it that I really liked. In some ways, on top of the very well done retelling, there is a focus on storytelling and the effects of stories in our lives. Avid readers, young and old, will see many familiar names and events from their own childhood faves and classics. It was well done - fun, like an easter egg hunt, rather than feeling unoriginal.
I've talked in complete circles, I know it. But I feel like I can't say too much, and I can't say enough. I feel like there is something here for everyone. You can read it as a fairy tale retelling and leave it at that. You can enjoy it as a coming of age novel and feel a little wistful. You can find yourself in the wood, confronting your own yearning and sadness, or just glory in the beauty of a good story, well told.
There is no real villain but time.
*And now, an unrelated-but-related story from my childhood: When I was in 2nd grade, my teacher read a story called The Faithful Elephants aloud to us during story time. It's a heartbreaking kids picture book (a phrase you do not hear often) about the bombing of the Tokyo Zoo during WWII. We all cried, students, teacher and aides alike. It was one of our longest story times because it was so hard just to get through.
Afterwards, we talked about the story and about compassion; about war and mankind and history.
Years later, when I was taking a Children's Lit class, I emailed my 2nd grade teacher and said "I'm sure you don't remember me (she did), but I'm hoping you remember this" and I described what I remembered of the story. I asked her for the name of it because I wanted to present it to my class, and I thanked her for having the respect for children to be willing to read that book to us and let us connect to each other and show what we were capable of understanding and feeling. Not many teachers would be willing to read a story that would make an entire classroom of 7 year olds cry. It was a ballsy move, and I respected her for it.
She told me that the timing of my email was perfect - the very next day she was going to an annual meeting where, among other things on the agenda, they would be deciding whether to allow her to continue reading that story to her classes. She took my email in; she retained permission. (She also bought me a copy and signed it to me, thanking me; it sits proudly on my shelves to this day. She died unexpectedly the next year, and I am so sad for all of the classes of children who are going to miss out on a teacher like her. I credit her with being one of the key people who inspired my passion for books.)
This, I think, is the power of storytelling, and this is why I respect books like this, that treat children as people, so much.
I hope you'll read this, and I hope you'll share it and all of your favorite stories, with a child in your life.