“She hated this place. Nothing made sense. Nothing worked as it was supposed to. She was supposed to be learning things as she went along, gaining strength for her final battle. All she was doing was losing things, one thing at a time.”
This one should probably go under Honorable Mentions too, but it deserves its own post just because it was such an excellently-written book. Breadcrumbs by Anna Ursu takes its inspiration from the Snow Queen fairytale written by Hans Christian Anderson, but truly stands out as its own story.
Hazel, 11, has been best friends with next door neighbor Jack since she was six; no one else understands her. But one day, Jack suddenly pulls away from her for no apparent reason . Hazel has been raised on fantasy books and wants to believe there is some exotic cause for Jack’s behavior, but fears he has just become one more person who rejects her. Ursu takes a long time (about half the book) building up your empathy for Hazel and her situation, before the adventure part of the story begins. Her attention to detail, making the “real” world so real, makes it that much more exciting and strange when things suddenly become otherworldly.
Because Jack hasn’t just changed his mind about Hazel. In fact, the cause is a tiny shard of demon-made mirror that has fallen into his eye and turned his heart cold. Going out sledding, he meets a white witch and quickly agrees to go off with her. Hazel discovers the truth of his disappearance from one of the boys who always taunts her, but who is terrified by what he secretly witnessed and knows only Hazel will believe him. She decides to go off and rescue Jack, even though he’s turned against her, because that’s what friends do. She crosses the threshold of the woods where Jack was last seen, and immediately enters a different world.
There are wolf sentries and magical swanskins and unhelpful Fates and dangerous denizens in this wood. There are markets where you can buy potions of forgetfulness, and adults who seem helpful and kind but will trap you forever. What’s interesting is that Hazel, so familiar with fantasy stories, recognizes the storyline she’s a part of, the mythical journey she’s on. She often refers to books like Narnia and Wrinkle in Time and Coraline. In fact, she even notices that unlike most girls on such an adventure, she doesn’t have any friendly companions to help her.
The lack of companions, and the lack of much interaction with the adversary (or even a final showdown, since it turns out that the witch wants nothing, and will not fight her, and she needs to get through to Jack’s heart if she wants to save him), means this isn’t quite a Girls Underground story. But her quest to rescue her friend, her entry into the otherworld, and her keen awareness of her own archetype makes up for it.
“Hazel had read enough books to know that a line like this one is the line down which your life breaks in two. And you have to think very carefully about whether you want to cross it, because once you do it’s very hard to get back to the world you left behind. And sometimes you break a barrier that no one knew existed, and then everything you knew before crossing the line is gone. But sometimes you have a friend to rescue. And so you take a deep breath and then step over the line and into the darkness ahead.”