Reading is an essentially solitary activity. We work to make it communal, either formally in school or more informally in book groups, but ultimately the encounter between reader and book is one that happens in isolation. The reader brings his or her experience to bear on the words the writer has given, creating an individual text that is greater than the sum of its parts.
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Often that experience the reader applies is with other books. The books we have read before help us read the book in front of us now. We recognize character types, plot lines, settings, themes and so on, and we layer what we find in this newest book on top of them. This process is one of the things I find most enjoyable about reading.
If I'm pleased to recognize echoes of other books in my newest reading, though, I'm positively thrilled when I find overt references. Because, idiotically, even though I know that gajillions of other people have read many of the same books I have, I am both thrilled and mildly astonished when I see that the author of the very book that I am reading knows and clearly loves books that I know and love.
I think I first experienced this in a book called Stoneflight, by Georgess McHargue. The main character, Janie, finds a stone griffin on the roof of her apartment building, and it comes to life when she polishes it. I remember the shock I felt when Janie referred to A Wrinkle in Time. This, to me, was more mind-bending than a Tesseract.
And even though I have read many more books that reference my own reading, I still feel that little thrill of connection that out there in the world is someone who, at least in this one regard, is a little like me.
Which brings me to Breadcrumbs, by Anne Ursu. Hazel, its fifth-grader protagonist, is going to a new, awful school and has reached that moment when it's not easy to be friends with a boy anymore. Her best friend, Jack, is pulling away—and then he is really pulled away, kidnapped by a witch into a wintry fairyland governed by the rules of fairy tales. It's up to Hazel to bring him back, in a story that resonates with echoes of Andersen's "Snow Queen."
From the beginning, Ursu makes it clear that she loves children's books, transferring that love onto Hazel. On page two, on the morning after a snowfall, she goes outside, and "[i]t was like she'd walked out of a dusty old wardrobe and found Narnia." A little later on, Hazel finds herself wondering "if her teacher came from that planet at the end of Wrinkle in Time where everyone has to be exactly the same." In her new school, "she was the only one who painted Hogwarts" in art class. "She felt like she was from a different planet in her schoolmates." Any reading child encountering Hazel will know exactly who she is and how she feels.
Ursu expertly plays on the connection between readers when Hazel reluctantly agrees to visit Adelaide, the daughter of her mother's friend. Hazel is skeptical, until Adelaide and her uncle begin talking about daemons. "Have you read The Golden Compass?" she asks Hazel. "Like a thousand times," Hazel thinks. And she decides to trust Adelaide, just as readers have decided to trust Ursu.
Hazel needs to use all of the wisdom she's picked up from her books and her fairy tales to rescue Jack. Readers get to join in the fun, rooting for Hazel to recognize the fairy-tale motifs that they have already spotted, to see the narrative patterns that they know so well.
It's a fantastic adventure with a wholly appealing heroine—and with the added thrill that readers will feel when they see that Ursu is just a little like them.
Vicky Smith is the children's and YA editor at Kirkus.