5th-grader Hazel's life isn't perfect. Her dad left fairly recently, meaning (among other things) that Hazel had to leave her mellow private school and start at a public school where the boys are mean and the girls don't seem to notice her. And she feels different, mostly because she lives with one foot always in the world of fantasy - Narnia and Wonderland and a dozen other realms found only in books - but also because her white parents adopted her from India when she was a baby. Not that she's the only kid of color in her school or even the only kid adopted from another country, but still, it's just another thing that sets her apart from others.
But there's one really good thing in her life and that's Jack. Her neighbor has been her best friend since they were six years old, and now they go to the same school! But things are already a bit awkward, and when Jack gets a piece of wickedly magic glass in his eye - well, first he starts acting uncharacteristically jerk-like, and then the Snow Queen comes and takes him away to her palace. Hazel, naturally, goes off into the woods to rescue him.
Hans Christian Andersen's stories are studded throughout this fantasy, with themes not just from The Snow Queen but also The Little Match Girl, The Red Shoes, The Wild Swans, The Nightingale, and probably others as well. Fantasy readers will also recognize mention of more recent books from When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead to the Narnia books to Pullman's His Dark Materials series. And like Andersen's stories, the adventures that befall Hazel range from ominous to creepy to downright dangerous. Hazel proves herself up to all the hazing, but she doesn't escape unscathed. Not only does she receive a nasty facial wound (that does NOT magically heal), but she also learns some rather tough lessons about human nature. The woods seem to bring out the worst in people, as Hazel discovers.
"She saw signs of another village in the distance - she smelled smoke and saw the faint glow of something like civilization. But there was nothing for her there. She had to go get Jack now, and anyway, she was safer out here with the wolves."Hazel's habit of never paying much attention to boring stuff around her (her parents, her teachers) doesn't stand her in good stead in the magical woods, when she wishes she knew a few survival tips. Towards the end, when she is very cold and with few resources left, she has shed her dreamy escapist tendencies in favor of a more practical, realistic viewpoint. "This is what it is to live in the world. You have to give yourself over to the cold, at least a little bit."
Hazel's time in the woods is so vivid and horrifying that it rather makes her trials with 5th-grade boys and impatient teachers feel light and not quite real by comparison. There are some loose ends; for example, a couple of visits with a girl named Adelaide and her nifty uncle seem destined to be important plot points later in the story, but they never fulfill this promise. And the final rescue of Jack from the Snow Queen is hurried and anti-climactic after all that came before. Readers may be wondering why Hazel went to all that bother in the first place, as Jack's worth is never proven to us, glass shard or no glass shard. We just have to take Hazel's rose-colored assertion that he is her heart's companion.
Of course, the point is that, now that Hazel has successfully completed her quest, she can now look beyond Jack - and her childhood - and start broadening her horizons. There is Adelaide, there are some promised ballet lessons, there are even those 5th-grade boys, who maybe aren't as bad as Hazel thought. Hazel has found herself more than a match for the world and she's ready to really live.
This stands up very well to Gardner's Into the Woods and similar fantasies, and though it doesn't match the caliber of Gidwitz's A Tale Dark and Grimm, Breadcrumbs is highly recommended for ages 9 to 11.