Follow these Breadcrumbs to a Magical Fairy-tale Novel [Book Review]


Sometimes people change. Friends change. Marriages end. People move. Sometimes loved ones with problems, or friends in trouble, don’t want to be saved. These are the heartbreaking truths of adulthood that Anne Ursu beautifully and brilliantly explores in her mid-grade novel Breadcrumbs.

It’s hard for boys and girls to stay best friends as they grow older. Jack is the only person Hazel knows who has a real imagination. Once they played tea parties in the Arctic or Wonderland or outer space and invented superhero baseball (because superheroes need organized sports too), but lately Jack’s started playing capture the flag and football with the boys at fifth grade recess.

“Sometimes your friends change,” Hazel’s mother tries explaining. “Sometimes when you get older you grow apart” (86). The astute reader knows that the mother could as easily be speaking of her own divorce.  As a divorced woman myself, this double theme of loss struck me deeply; I identified with both Hazel and her mother. (I cried.)

Because of the divorce, the change in family finances lands Hazel in public school for the first time. Public school, unlike her previous school, stresses rules over creativity; she has trouble adjusting. She learns that “school [is] very easy … if you just disconnected your heart.” (117).  At the same time, Jack’s mother’s chronic depression turns his heart cold, and in true fairy-tale fashion he goes off with the white witch into an enchanted frozen woods, “and by the time [he] came to her palace, he felt nothing at all” (112). Hazel knows she is the only one who can save him.


Drawing by Erin McGuire

By fairy-tale, I don’t mean sanitized and happily-ever-after. Ursu’s book is breathtakingly beautiful, a moving retelling of “The Snow Queen” and a superb homage to her forbearers with her delightful allusions to “The Red Shoes,” “The Little Match Girl,” “The Swan Maiden” and of course “Hansel and Gretel” and others.

Every quest is a journey into self-knowledge, and Hazel comes to realize that just “because someone needed saving” it doesn’t mean that “they were savable” (247). The term codependence never appears in the text: Hazel is a strong heroine, a “brave knight” and not a victim — Jack must and does participate in his own saving. I still applaud Ursu for introducing to readers the truth that I hope every young woman learns before adulthood: one cannot save another.

The themes of friendship and belonging are seamlessly intermingled with questions of identity, adoption, skin color, and parental problems (depression; grief) in a rich, multilayered and fully realized whole.  Brava. Stunning and breathtakingly beautiful.

An exquisite gem. Recommended for all fairy tale girls and women.


Ursu, Anne. Breadcrumbs. Walden Pond Press / HarperCollins. 2011. Print.

A Discussion Guide is available on the author’s website.


The Secret Life of Children’s Books Set in New York City

            Although I grew up in Central New Jersey, a little over an hour from Manhattan, our family rarely went into New York. We saw the Statue of Liberty when I was young—so young that all I remember is climbing all those many stairs; afterwards, my parents stopped at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of one of the World Trade Center towers. My father, sightseeing in a t-shirt that warm summer day, was turned away from dining because he wasn’t wearing a tie. It was the 1970’s. Today my memories of 9/11 and the architectural marvel of the Twin Towers are mixed with the shame I felt upon seeing my father denied admittance.

Apart from that one visit to the Statue of Liberty and a crazy spontaneous trip to Rockefeller Center one Thanksgiving when I was in middle school, we didn’t go into New York. Everything I knew about New York I learned from Children’s books. These are some of my favorites:

house east 88 lyle

          Bernard Waber’s splendid Lyle, Lyle Crocodile features a lovable (yes: Lovable Lyle is another title in the series) crocodile who is more roommate or house-guest than pet. Crocodile or not, he has real personality. The illustrations in The House on East 88th Street recreates New York’s Upper East Side with a verisimilitude I didn’t recognize until I became an adult. Everything I know about New York brownstones I learned from Lyle.

Magic in the Park

          Ruth Chew’s 1972 Magic in the Park taught me everything I needed to know about city parks. (It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t Central Park as I’d long thought, but Prospect Park in Brooklyn.) The childhood parks of my suburban hometown lacked ravens, pigeons, lakes, and islands; a magical tree was no more fantastic that a park big enough to hold a lake!


          I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy of Jean Stafford’s 1968 Elephi, the Cat with the High IQ to re-read it and verify, so I can’t confirm if this is actually set in Manhattan or any quintessential city. Does it really matter? It feels like New York. One GoodReads reviewer confirms it is “full of 1960s NYC period details” while an Amazon reviewer claims “New Yorkers will love the book.” I absorbed its epic New York Cityness without even realizing it.  Today, as an adult, walking through my new hometown of Philadelphia, I’ll see cats surveying the world from curtained ledges above the street and think of Elephi. Regrettably, I assume this book is out of print since I’m having such difficulty finding it.

George Seldon’s classic 1960 The Cricket In Times Square? Meh. It was assigned reading in third or fourth grade.

            And trendy sophisticated Eloise (Kay Thompson, 1955) always seemed too entitled for my working-class tastes.

The Number One Best All-Time Children’s Book set in New York? From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler of course!

mixed up files

This 1967 E.L. Konigsburg book remains a classic. Its descriptions are so strong I still can see them 30 years later: the children pack clothes in the violin cases which act as their luggage when they run away from home. Every time I see a museum fountain with coins I want to wade in and gather up the money. And when I visit certain museums, I am still seized by the thought of crossing the red velvet rope to lie upon famous beds in bedroom exhibits.

All those authors brought New York to me.

secret life of pets

          A new story—a movie, a cartoon—recreates New York with the versimulitude of these books. The Secret Life of Pets is well plotted, entertaining, highly visual, even laugh-aloud funny for adults sans children. Best of all is the animated cityscape, beautiful, skillfully displayed. (I can’t comment on the sewers.) Someday a child-grown-up will recognize the Brooklyn Bridge and think “there’s that bridge from The Secret Life of Pets.” And that’s a good thing.

secret life pets bridge 2

          When you can’t get to New York, let New York come to you through books and film.


Let the Wild Rumpus Begin: Picture Books and Illustrated Stories

     The classic definition of a picture book is that the illustrations participate in telling the story. Without the pictures, the story fails to make sense. In Maurice Sendak’s beloved Where The Wild Things Are, the wild rumpus is only indicated through illustration: a wordless double-page spread features distinctive beasts partying their monster hearts out. In David Wiesner’s modern classic Tuesday, after pages of levitating frogs, the reader is left to surmise what happens next Tuesday with the final illustration of flying pigs.

            Closely related, and often seen as synonymous by parents and laypersons, is the illustrated story. Here the pictures are nonessential; remove them and the story remains intact. Illustrations may be lavish, although artistic design is becoming increasingly less traditional. A good example is any piece of literature set into a typically 32-page color format, from illustrated versions of Clement C. Moore’s The Night Before Christmas, Truman Capote’s The Thanksgiving Visitor, or Virginia Woolf’s Nurse Lugton’s Curtain. Of course the majority of illustrated storybooks feature texts initially intended for children, but keep in mind that to the purist, not all illustrated books are picture books.

            The popular Golden Books from my youth, my favorite The Poky Little Puppy, is a typical illustrated story. Illustrated folktales, like Paul Galdone’s The Three Billy Goats Gruff, are another subset.  Many publishers actively pursue fresh versions of non-European fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Don’t worry if you can’t draw. Although author-illustrators are increasingly being sought, most publishing houses have anArtDepartment, and they will select the artist who accompanies your words. Indeed, expect little input toward the final design. Vocabulary need not be basic. Consider Peter Rabbit’s “soporific” lettuce and the aforementioned rumpus. Publishers know parents and caregivers will be reading these books at story-times or bedtime: adults are the number one purchaser of children’s books.

Tomorrow: Easy Readers 

Writing for Children: Children’s Book genres

Ever since the commercial success of Harry Potter, children’s books are seen by many as a get-rich-quick venture. Some people think that writing for children is easier than writing for adults because young tastes are not as developed or as discriminating. On the contrary, children will put down an uninspiring book without hesitation, whereas many adults keep reading to “see if it gets better.” Because children’s publishers are the last remnant of editors who still read over-the-transom submissions, and finding an agent, while desirable, is not a necessity, there is ample room for skilled newcomers to have their talents recognized. If you want to write for children, a thorough knowledge of the field is an essential first step. This preliminary introduction cannot substitute for firsthand knowledge gathered by reading read hundreds and even thousands of children’s books, but it will acquaint you with several types of children’s books being published.

Black and White: Board Books and Concepts

            Tana Hoban’s notable Black on White illustrates simplicity. Here is a book for babies, with bold images. Board books feature pages printed on paper-covered cardboard. The thicker pages are designed for the youngest pre-reader; manually dexterity developed enough to turn a page comes later. Text is minimal. Length is eight to twelve pages. These are books for infants and toddlers, for cribs and toy boxes.

            Closely related to the board book are the Concept books: abecedaries and introductions to counting, colors, and other pre-school topics. In Donald Crew’s Freight Train, a simply-illustrated train with vibrant, multicolor boxcars huffs through the pages in a first introduction to colors. Bruce McMillan’s Beach Ball—Left Right features photographs demonstrating opposites. Plot is not necessary. Even Eric Carle’s classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar is more a catalog of an insect’s eating habits on successive days of the week than a story about an actor encountering and resolving problems.

Tommorrow: Picture Books