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Literature / Breadcrumbs

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Breadcrumbs is a 2011 children’s fantasy novel by Anne Ursu. It’s a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen set in the modern United States, dealing with themes of loss, growing up, and friendship.

Hazel and Jack have been best friends for years, bonding over their shared love of science fiction and fantasy. They spend hours playing at being superheroes and wishing they could visit places like Oz and Narnia. But now that they’re eleven, Hazel’s mom is pushing her to make some female friends, and Jack suddenly seems more interested in hanging out with his male friends than with Hazel. But just as Hazel is trying to get to the bottom of Jack’s weird behavior, he disappears—taken away by a strange woman in white. Hazel assumes the woman must be the Snow Queen from their beloved fairy tales, and she alone is in a position to rescue him. So she sets off alone. But what Hazel’s looking for and what she finds may be very different…


This book contains examples of:

  • Adults Are Useless: Hazel never gives the adults around her enough information for them to even try to be really helpful, but it’s highly unlikely they would believe her even if she did, so this is justified. Averted to some degree with Adelaide’s Cool Uncle Martin who, even if he may or may not literally believe in enchantments and witches, encourages Hazel’s search for the truth and praises her creativity.
  • Adult Fear: Most of the novel is, naturally, focused much more on the fears and struggles of children, but there is a passage where Hazel considers what her mother must be going through following Hazel’s disappearance, and realizes the horror her mother would experience over losing her daughter is just as bad as Hazel losing Jack.
  • Age-Appropriate Angst: Hazel feels the brunt of this. She is expected to be upset over her parents’ divorce and the change in schools; however, when other kids tease her and her best friend abandons her, the adults around her tell her to buck up and move on, that this is all a normal part of childhood—even though these “normal” things are, to Hazel, the more severe blow.
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  • Alone in a Crowd: Immediately following Jack’s disappearance, this is how Hazel feels. She describes herself as “a hollow space” and wonders whether the kids at school are even aware of her presence.
  • Audience Surrogate: Hazel and Jack are likely meant to share interests with the readers, and love fantasy stories and fairy tales.
  • Baleful Polymorph: Lucas and Nina trap little girls in their home by turning them into things: first birds, and then after Alice escapes, flowers.
  • The Big Bad Wolf: Inverted. The wolf actually turns out to be a helpful guide, while the woodcutter Hazel assumes is trustworthy actually turns out to be a trickster and predator.
  • Big Brother Instinct: Ben is built on this trope. He ran away from home with his little sister to protect her from an implied abusive father, steals her away from a couple who transform her into a bird, and is willing to spend his entire life living alone in the woods to keep her safe. When he meets Hazel, he treats her wound and gives her advice, as well as encouraging her to Just Whistle if she ever needs his help again.
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  • Bittersweet Ending: Hazel rescues Jack, restores their friendship, and earns the respect of the boys who bullied her, but she still has to deal with the fallout of her parents’ divorce and financial troubles. Jack is still wrestling with a deeply depressed mother and possibly some depression himself, although he now knows he doesn’t have to go through it alone.
    They lived on...somehow...ever after.
  • Coming-of-Age Story
  • Composite Character: The unnamed girl who is the last stranger Hazel meets on the road to the witch’s house; she is a mash-up of the story’s original robber girl (who takes the heroine’s clothing that keeps her warm, although Hazel gives her clothes freely rather than having them stolen), and The Little Match Girl from another Andersen story.
  • Cool Uncle: Adelaide’s uncle Martin, who bakes cookies, dramatically cracks jokes, shares interesting science facts, asks the kids to help him write a screenplay, and generally takes them very seriously when compared with the other adults in the nvel.
  • Deconstruction:
    • Of the original story’s Happy Ending. In the original story, the boy is instantly restored to his normal disposition as soon as the mirror shard comes out of his eye, and returns smoothly to his normal life. In Breadcrumbs, the shard is actually removed from Jack’s eye almost immediately, but the emotional burdens he is already dealing with cause him to continue acting out, and the end implies that it’s going to take a lot of work for him to repair his friendship and maintain his family ties.
    • Of the idealization of heroism. Hazel assumes she will be able to set out on The Quest and save her friend because that’s what heroes do; in fact, she finds out that it’s not as easy as following the right steps and trusting the right people, but that a large part of her journey actually consists of just pressing on because it’s the only option she has, even if it seems futile or she wants to give up.
  • The Determinator: Hazel.
  • Distressed Dude: Jack.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Hazel goes through a lot of crap for a children’s book, and there are no cheap solutions. The ending is not a Happily Ever After, but it is hopeful.
  • Easily Forgiven: Averted; when Jack apologizes for abusing their friendship and hurting her, Hazel is tempted to say “it’s okay”, then realizes that it really isn’t. They’re still best friends, but it’s clear that everything won’t snap back to the way it was before.
  • Enemy Mine: A downplayed example when Tyler comes to Hazel and tells her he saw Jack being abducted by the witch. Because they’ve constantly clashed with each other, Hazel assumes he’s mocking her, but he actually came to her for help because he believes she’s the only one with the Genre Savvy to save their mutual friend.
  • Evil Is Deathly Cold: Hazel find’s the witch’s house by “following the cold”, the chill that emanates through the entire wood from her palace.
  • Eyepatch of Power: Discussed by Hazel after Jack injures his eye; she imagines that he will have to wear an eyepatch and will appreciate it because it will make him look cool and formidable.
  • Eye Scream: When Hazel throws the snowball that (unbeknowst to her) had a shard of magic mirror in it at Jack, he screams in pain “as if his face was being ripped off”; Hazel’s mom explains to her that he had a shard of “glass” in his eye.
  • Genre Savvy: Zig-zagged and deconstructed. Hazel knows a lot about Fairy Tale tropes and The Hero's Journey. Some of this information proves helpful, but more often than not, it actually gets her into trouble. She finds that people’s motivations are more complex than in Fairy Tales, and nearly every artifact she brings or finds on her journey turns out to be useless. Figures she assumes are trustworthy (like a kindly herbalist couple or a jaunty woodcutter) are actually out to hinder or harm her, and the supposedly Savage Wolves turn out to be some of the most helpful creatures she meets. Ultimately, the biggest barrier to saving Jack isn’t the magic or malice of the witch, but Jack's own emotional dysfunction.
  • Good Parents: Both played straight and subverted. Hazel’s mom is hardworking, caring, and would clearly do anything for her daughter. Hazel’s absent dad, on the other hand, is portrayed as selfish and out-of-touch with his daughter. Even in the flashback from before the divorce, although he recognizes Hazel’s love of Fairy Tales and takes her to a Renaissance festival, he smothers Hazel’s tomboyish aspirations, telling her she can’t even pretend to be a brave knight because she must be a princess, and in the present he won’t pay for Hazel’s ballet lessons because he’s spending money on his new girlfriend.
  • Graceful Ladies Like Purple: Averted; Hazel has to wear a purple coat after leaving her regular one at school, but feels that it makes her look like a little girl and resents it.
  • Happily Adopted: Zig-zagged; Hazel clearly loves her adopted mom very much and had a happy and stable childhood, but as she approaches adolescence she feels out of place, largely because she is ethnically Indian while her parents are white. During her journey in the woods, she feels a deep longing to know her birth parents—even (very briefly) considering staying with a brown-skinned couple she encounters rather than return to her mom.
  • Heritage Disconnect: Because Hazel was adopted from India as an infant, she has no recollection of or connection with Indian culture. She is bothered by this when she has nothing to share for her school’s Culture Day; this is contrasted with one of her classmates, who was adopted from China and is very in touch with her roots.
  • I Should Write a Book About This: Not necessarily a book, but at the very end Hazel does say she plans on telling the whole story to Adelaide and Uncle Martin (and some elements of the story were already in the screenplay that Martin is writing, so it could end up as a movie script).
    They probably wouldn’t believe her, not really. She wouldn’t believe it herself. But at least it would be a good story.
  • Ice Palace: The home of the witch. Possibly subverted in that it doesn’t feel cold to Hazel, and she wonders whether the palace is actually made of glass, or she’s already so cold from her trek through the snow that she can’t feel it.
  • Identity Amnesia: By the time Hazel finds Jack, he’s half frozen to death and so obsessed with the witch’s impossible puzzle that he doesn’t recognize her or remember his old life. She reminds him by telling him the story of how he got the autographed baseball, which is the only object she is still carrying with her.
    • This trope is also played metaphorically; Hazel reminds Jack of his true identity as an artist and as her best friend when he is sucked under by depression.
  • Just Whistle: After Hazel meets Ben, he tells her to blow her whistle anywhere in the woods if she needs help, and he’ll come for her. She does end up using it, but to call help for someone else, and she leaves the scene—and the whistle—before Ben arrives.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Hazel feels like all the kids in her grade look down on her, and some of them openly mock and harass her. Even one or two kids that try to be nice inevitably end up hurting her, by not fully understanding the consequences of their actions.
  • Knight in Shining Armor: Gender Flipped and deconstructed. There are plenty of references throughout the book to Hazel wanting to be a knight and being patronized for it because she’s a girl. On her journey to save Jack, she finds that heroism is much less easy and rosy than she had imagined.
  • The Lost Woods
  • Magic Mirror: One that is dropped and shattered by a malevolent demon; any shard of the mirror, no matter how small, will cause anyone touched by it to see good things as if they are ugly and bad things as if they are absolutely horrifying. None of the characters ever know about the mirror or its powers, but there’s an interlude which explains it to the reader, thus explaining the shard of “glass” Jack gets in his eye. When Hazel is given a chunk of the mirror by the little match girl and she tries to use it to remind Jack of his identity (wrongly believing it is a magic mirror that shows the truth), he sees a far more decrepit and frozen version of himself than he has already become.
  • Massively Multiplayer Crossover: The novel is dripping with references to and adaptations of other Andersen stories.
  • Minor Living Alone: Ben lives alone in the woods (with his preteen sister-turned-finch); Hazel’s narration surmises that he’s about fifteen and “too young to be living in a house with only one bed”).
  • Mundane Made Awesome: The "magic" object that rescues Jack is his autographed baseball.
  • Not Himself: Jack is changing in ways that seem out-of-character to Hazel; part of this is due to depression over his mom’s mental illness and the usual rigors of beginning adolescence, but a much more dramatic shift occurs after Jack gets a shard of the magic mirror caught in his eye and completely abandons his friendship with Hazel, becoming dismissive and mean. When she’s told that its normal for boys to start acting differently around this age, a deeply distressed Hazel tries (and fails) to reason with the adults around her, asking if it’s really normal for people to change literally overnight.
  • Only Child Syndrome: Justified; it was extremely expensive and difficult for Hazel’s parents to adopt her, and when Hazel has asked about having a sibling, they don’t have the resources to adopt again (the implication being that they’re unable to have biological children).
  • Parental Abandonment: Hazel’s dad left her and her mom several months before the start of the story, apparently for another woman.
    • There’s also Jack’s mom, who is physically present, but in the throes of severe clinical depression and thus completely disengaged from her family’s lives.
  • Parents as People: It’s not dwelt on heavily, largely because eleven-year-old Hazel can’t understand all the implications but there are several allusions to her mother’s worry over money and the pain she feels at her ex-husband leaving them for another woman. She’s often distracted by these from Hazel’s concerns.
  • Plucky Girl: Hazel.
  • The Power of Friendship
  • The Quest: The second half of the story turns into one, albeit not exactly in the way Hazel expected.
  • Race Against the Clock: There’s no mention of an actual time limit, but as soon as Hazel enters The Lost Woods she hears a ticking clock noise that seems to come from nowhere and gives her a sense of urgency. It disappears when she reaches the Snow Queen’s palace, leading her to wonder if she’s too late. Judging from Jack’s disposition when she found him, it certainly seems like it was a close thing.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Multiple characters in the woods are obsessed with replacing a child they’ve lost—even if it means kidnapping, transforming, or mutilating other children they find wandering the woods to do it.
    • Hazel sends the little match girl to live with Ben, who lost his sister of about the same age. It leaves the reader wondering if Hazel, even unconsciously, intended or invoked this trope by calling on Ben to rescue her.
  • Scars Are Forever: Hazel is gouged on the cheek by the swan woman, and it leaves a scar from her cheekbone to jaw. She has to invent an excuse when she returns home and an adult asks about it.
  • Shout-Out: Loads of them, even without counting the Andersen references mentioned above.
  • The Shrink: Mr. Lewis, the school counselor, is an example of Type 2. He genuinely wants to help Hazel, but focuses on the wrong issues (and he can’t hep Hazel when she refuses to be open with him as a result of this).
  • Snowball Fight: Hazel and Jack have one at the beginning of the novel where he catches her off-guard and she doesn’t have a chance to retaliate; there’s a bitter Call-Back to this at the novel’s turning point when she throws a snowball at him in anger and storms off. This snowball had the shard of magic mirror in it that made him vulnerable to the witch.
  • Talking Animal: Averted. Hazel tries repeatedly to speak with the wolves and ravens she encounters in the woods, only for all of them to stare blankly like real animals.
  • Tampering with Food and Drink: Nina gives Hazel tea that tastes like honey, supposedly as a restorative. Hazel wakes up in the night after having weird dreams and, after speaking with the flowers in the garden, concludes that the tea was not just that, although she doesn’t know what Nina put in it.
  • Theme Naming: Invoked. All the girls trapped at Lucas and Nina’s cottage have been given flower names by their captors. Hazel herself even plays into and subverts this, having a name that is a plant but not a flower—and she is the only one to escape the cottage.
  • The Weird Sisters: Hazel encounters a trio of elderly women spinning grey threads in the woods, who make cryptic comments about her identity and advise her not to go after Jack—clearly based on the Fates of Greek Mythology.
  • Winter Royal Lady: The Snow Queen. Downplayed in that she doesn’t actually rule anyone; in fact, most of the inhabitants of the woods try to ignore her presence altogether.
  • Woman in White / Pretty in Mink: The White Witch, naturally. She dresses in a white gown and swathes herself and her “guests” in white furs.
  • Year Inside, Hour Outside: Downplayed. Hazel spends several days in the woods—long enough that she’s sure her mother is going out of her mind with worry—but when she and Jack emerge and return home, only a few hours have passed.
  • You Must Be Cold: Non-gendered version occurs when Hazel gives her coat and gloves to the little match girl; this is in keeping with the novel’s portrayal of Hazel as a chivalric knight.


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