As the temperature drops and the wind picks up a chill, we decided a book that captures the wonder of winter would be perfect for our next installment of NPR's Backseat Book Club, the new feature aimed at our younger listeners. Each month we choose a book and ask young people and their parents to read along with us. And by young people, we mean all those 9- to 14-year-olds who listen to NPR programs while riding in the car or working on homework at the kitchen table. We also want young readers to join in the conversation with each month's featured author, so we encourage them to send in their questions and observations.
We have a real treat for the book club in December: a book called Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu. One look at the snow-filled woods on the cover explains why it is just the right book for this time of the year. Once you get inside, you will find a modern-day fairy tale about friendship and adventure featuring two best friends — a girl named Hazel and a boy named Jack.
Hazel and Jack are neighbors, and they've been inseparable since they were 6 years old. But now that they're 11, the social forces in their world threaten to pull them apart. In their fifth-grade universe, it's just not cool to have a BFF who's the opposite gender. To make matters worse, Hazel increasingly feels like an outsider. After her parents split up, there wasn't enough money for her to continue attending a small, new-age private school where teachers applauded her quirky imagination. Instead, she transfers to the local public school where even the presence of her best friend, Jack, is not enough to help her adjust. She struggles with the multiple choice/fill-in-the-blank curriculum. She doesn't fit in with the other students who toss around slang and wrap themselves up in a cloak of cooler-than-thou cynicism.
Hazel does not act or dress like anyone else at school, and she does not look like anyone else either — not even like her parents who adopted her in India back when she was just a baby. In truth, Hazel feels like she's from another galaxy. But none of that matters to Jack, who can waggle his eyebrows at her like a goofball and instantly make her feel better. That's why it's so devastating when Jack suddenly stops talking to Hazel and then just disappears without notice.
Hazel learns that Jack has been spirited away into the woods near their Minneapolis homes by a tall, thin woman dressed in white. Hazel always thought the small patch of woods had something magical about them. She dreamed that one day she and Jack would explore the urban forest together, leaving bread crumbs so they could find their way back home. But now it's up to Hazel to trudge into those woods alone to find her friend and the woman who took him away. On the journey, Hazel must face down her fears and some very spooky characters. And she has to face up to the possibility that maybe Jack really did want to push her away.
This is a big-hearted story about friendship and adventure that might make you quiver with apprehension at times, but it will also leave you laughing out loud at Hazel's wry observations about life. Breadcrumbs also touches on both the things we shed and the wisdom we gain as we grow older — themes that will resonate with both younger and older readers. This book may have particular appeal to any adult who grew up reading old-fashioned fairy tales. Ursu was inspired to write Breadcrumbs after reading The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen. A sharp-eyed reader might also find allusions to many other mythic literary works.
Author Anne Ursu is a native Minnesotan, and she wrote much of the book during the summer months or while living in Ohio and pining for the crunchy knee-deep snow she loved to play in as a child. So, a word of advice: Since much of this book takes place during the depths of a Minnesota winter, you might just want to grab a blanket and hot cup of cocoa before you settle in for a good read.
Ursu is also the author of the popular Cronus Chronicles trilogy about two cousins who find themselves in the world of Greek mythology. That series includes The Shadow Thieves, The Siren Song and The Immortal Fire. And here's a fun fact: Ursu was also known for several years as "Bat-Girl" in her former role as an unofficial blogger for the Minnesota Twins baseball team. Ursu now teaches, writes and lives back in Minnesota where the snow will soon be piling up in her yard.
As you read Breadcrumbs, please remember to send us your questions so we can include them in our interview with Ursu. And, if it's OK with your parents, please ask them to e-mail a picture of you snuggled up with your copy of Breadcrumbs or perhaps a picture from one of your own winter adventures. You can send those photos to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please remember to tell us your first name, last name, age, city and state. And let us know what you are doing in the photo — or describe a favorite character or scene from the Breadcrumbs book! We might just post some of those photos on our readers gallery. (You can see last month's readers gallery here.)