After reading Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs this summer, I knew I wanted to share this outstanding book with the readers of this blog. I love fantasy books and my students do, too, but I often think that fantasy is marginalized as less literary than other genres. The existence of eternal human themes mark great works and many of the books that resonate for my students and me are fantasy tales that explore our human triumphs and failings.
At its core, Breadcrumbs is a story about childhood loneliness and friendship. I love that Hazel is the only person who realizes what has happened to her friend, Jack, and sets out to rescue him because she has read fantasy books like Harry Potter, Narnia, The Phantom Tollbooth, Coraline, When You Reach Me and of course, “The Snow Queen”. There are days when you need to beat the dragon, and equipped with her vast knowledge of fantasy motifs, Hazel knows how.
As part of the book release blog tour for Breadcrumbs, Anne has penned this elegant guest post about why she chooses to write fantasy for children. Her words remind us why fantasy matters and why teachers, librarians, and parents should celebrate and promote fantasy to the young readers in our lives.
Writing Fantasy for Children by Anne Ursu
In my younger and more foolish days I wrote novels for adults. My second book was about a family who takes their little boy to the circus and a clown accidentally makes him disappear. The magical element, I believed, allowed me to explore the very real issue of loss and how we cope with it in a more potent way than straightforward realism might. Then at a book fair I was sitting at a table behind a stack of my novels, and a very serious-looking woman with a very serious-looking pantsuit came up to me, picked up a copy of the book, and asked me, very seriously, what it was about. I told her and she knotted her brow, then put down the book. “Oh,” she said, looking seriously disdainful. “I don’t like that magic stuff.”
So I started writing for kids. Who are, first of all, more polite. And they understand intuitively that there’s no limit on what you can do in a story, and that there shouldn’t be. A boy might sail off in a giant peach, or have an enchanted tollbooth appear in his bedroom one day; a girl could wander into a wardrobe and find it opens onto a strange winter world, or through a door in her drawing room and discover an Other Mother with buttons for eyes.
Fantasy provides kids an endless field for their imagination to roam on--it tells you that anything might lie behind that weird locked door, and then whispers a hundred possibilities in your ear. And, by enticing them to and immersing them in new worlds, it gives a generation of kids a shared experience--I think the Harry Potter books provide the same collective narrative that Star Wars did when I was growing up. More, by refracting real world themes through magic’s lens, fantasy helps kids make their way through the world they are living in.
The magic of fantasy is taking internal struggles and manifesting them into external forces--it gives metaphor body, life, and breath. This was what attracted me to doing a retelling of “The Snow Queen” in the first place. In the fairy tale, a boy and girl are best friends, until the day a boy gets a piece of magic mirror in his eye and his heart turns cold. He’s suddenly cruel to the girl, and then he ties his sled to that of the Snow Queen and disappears. This is a fable about growing up and the pressures it puts on childhood friendships; they splinter, and sometimes break off entirely.
In Breadcrumbs, fifth graders Hazel and Jack have been best friends for years, and their friendship has provided each a sanctuary in a year in which Hazel’s father left and Jack watched his mom fall into mental illness. But the pressure is great, the sanctuary splinters, and then Jack meets a mysterious woman in white who offers numbness and escape, and he disappears into the woods with her.
Hazel goes into the woods in search of him and finds there manifestations of her heart’s desires--a swan skin that loans beauty, a pair of red shoes that promises grace, a kind couple who offer belonging. And, like Harry Potter with the Mirror of Erised, Hazel learns how dangerously seductive desire can be. Almost as seductive as the complete lack of feeling the woman in white will give you.
It’s a contemporary fairy tale, and by speaking of white witches and red shoes I could talk about very human struggles. That’s what fantasy offers. By speaking in the language of pretend, it can engage with the world in the full scope of its beauty and terror. It tells you that the world can be hard and cruel--Aslan is tortured, daemons are severed, Charlotte the spider dies alone. It tells you that you’re surrounded by forces you can’t control--a Black Thing that’s wrapped its way around the earth, a covetous white witch who puts a kingdom in perpetual winter. It tells you that people can be flawed, corrupt, monstrous, and worst of all, disappointing.
And it tells you that you can deal with it. Whether it’s Meg saving Charles Wallace from IT because she’s the only one who can, Frodo struggling his way to Mount Doom, or Milo saving himself from stultifying ennui, these heroes find the ability to meet the great challenges thrown at them. These kids struggle, they get scared, they face terrible choices, they doubt. But they push forward. And they overcome. “Fairy tales are more than true,” the British novelist G.K. Chesterton wrote, “not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”
Plus, you know, dragons are awesome. And while fantasy can be very serious business, it’s fun, too. And kids understand this, because they’re awesome too, because they delight in imagining what might be behind that locked door, because they’re eager to be enticed into the world of a story. Because kids are full of “that magic stuff,” and fantasy just meets them where they are.
To celebrate the release of Breadcrumbs - Walden Books Press will be giving away an iPad and an iPad cover with Breadcrumbs cover art on Twitter (in a Tweetstakes). Visit their blog for details.
On Tuesday, 10/4 at 8pm EDT Breadcrumbs author, Anne Ursu (@anneursu) and Bigger Than a Breadbox author Laurel Snyder (@LaurelSnyder) will participate in a chat hosted by my #titletalk co-host, Paul W. Hankins (@PaulWHankins), called “Magic is Real: Magic, Fantasy, and Realism in Middle Grade” under the hashtag #magicisreal.
Additional Breadcrumbs Blog Tour Stops
Tuesday, 9/27 - Review and Book Giveaway at Mundie Kids
Wednesday, 9/28 - Review and Skype Giveaway at Great Kid Books
Wednesday, 9/28 - Book Giveaway at 5 Minutes for Books
Thursday, 9/29 - Interview at Bildungsroman
Friday, 9/30 - Review, Guest Post, and Book Giveaway at Bookalicious
Saturday, 10/1 - Interview and Skype Giveaway at Kid Lit Frenzy
Sunday, 10/2 - Review, Interview, and Book Giveaway at The Reading Zone
Monday, 10/3 - Guest Post at Galleysmith
Tuesday 10/4 - Review at Galleysmith
Tuesday, 10/4 - Guest Post, Review, and Book Giveaway at The Book Smugglers
Wednesday, 10/5 - Review and Illustrator Interview at A Backwards Story
Thursday, 10/6 - Guest Post at The Mod Podge Bookshelf
Friday, 10/7 - Interview at Book Rat
The opinions expressed in The Book Whisperer are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.