Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu was one of my favorite books of 2011. I loved it so much that I carried my copy of it with me to ALA when I heard the author would be there to do a signing. And, since it was in my bag and I had an hour or so to spare, I found an out-of-the-way spot in the convention center and started rereading.
Hazel is having a difficult year. Her father has left their family, and now there is not enough money for Hazel to go to the private school where her creativity was valued and nurtured. Now, Hazel is in a different school, where there are many more rules and lines and tests and busywork and bullies, and all of a sudden she is not special and creative, she is a problem student, troubled and difficult. But at least Hazel has Jack, her best friend and next-door neighbor. Then, in the space of one day, Hazel's friendship with Jack changes. Suddenly he is mean to her, acting as if she doesn't exist, or worse, as if he sees her as just a pest and a bother. Everyone tells Hazel that these things happen as people grow up, but she can't accept it. Not in regards to her friendship with Jack. And then Jack disappears completely. One of his friends admits to Hazel that he saw Jack go into the forest with a mysterious woman in white, in a sleigh pulled by snow-white wolves -- a story completely at odds with Jack's parents' vague report that Jack went to visit a relative. When Hazel ventures into the woods herself, she finds that she is on a quest in a place that is somehow not just a patch of woods near the suburbs. The forest is populated by fairy tale creatures, woodsmen and wolves and all sorts of magic. And to the north there is a witch in a palace of ice -- but she only takes those who go with her willingly. Jack would never do that, Hazel argues . . . but how well does she know this new, cold-hearted Jack? Can she save him? Does Jack even want to be saved?
I'm a sucker for fairy tale retellings, and this one combines so many lovely stories, both the familiar and the less-familiar, that I couldn't help but adore it. The basic framework is The Snow Queen, of course, but there are lots of other elements of both Grimm and Andersen mixed in, and Hazel frequently references her own favorite books, so there are glimmers of Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter and Narnia and even a nod to When You Reach Me, among many others. Hazel is a character who really touched my heart; her troubles at school mirrored some of my own experience, and I wish I could have read this book when I was Hazel's age. The writing is lovely, the pacing and plotting is excellent, and all in all, I think I can count this as one of my new favorites, a book I will return to again and again.
(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)