ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
And it's time now for NPR's Backseat Book Club for our younger listeners. Each month, we select a book for kids to read and revel in, and we ask them to send us their questions for the author. Our own Michele Norris explains why our December pick is perfect for a wintertime read.
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MICHELE NORRIS, HOST:
This month, we invited readers to step into a modern-day fairy tale called "Breadcrumbs." It features a fifth-grader named Hazel. She was adopted as a baby from India, and she often feels misplaced, especially after her parents split up, and she's forced to start at a new school. The one person who understands her best is her best friend, Jack, though he's facing his own family challenges. Hazel and Jack live in a snow-covered hardscrabble Minneapolis neighborhood, and yet, readers find their all-too-realistic world is also sparkling with magic and peril, especially when a woman dressed in white shows up making promises.
ANNE URSU: What if I told you that there was a place where there are extraordinary things, things with great power, things that could give you your heart's desire, things much bigger than this small, small world?
NORRIS: "Breadcrumbs" was written by Anne Ursu. You may know her from her popular "Cronus Chronicles" trilogy. Ursu confessed that "Breadcrumbs" was inspired in large part by her own childhood memories of winters in Minnesota.
URSU: So many of my memories of being a kid are sort of snow coated. You know, the feeling of walking through the snow in your moon boots, and you have to, like, raise your foot like two feet in the air, and it takes about 10 minutes just to walk down the block.
NORRIS: This is in every way a winter tale. And there's something magical about that season that is apparent from the very first page, and you described snow covering every inch of the ground in this neighborhood where the front yards are laid out like placemats.
URSU: Part of the genesis of this book came one January, and I saw a woman say she's just come to Minnesota. She said everyone was making fun of her. Why would you go to Minnesota? It's a jillion degrees below zero, and there are seven feet of snow. And she leaned in and said, I think magic is closer to the surface in the snow. And I loved that line, and I wrote it down. I said this is something. There's something here. And I think that's true and that - when you're a kid and suddenly you look out the window and it's snowing, and that seems so magical, and the world just becomes something other. And it - and everything is quiet, and it feels like it's almost your kingdom to go out and conquer.
NORRIS: That us-against-the-world outlook is at the heart of Hazel and Jack's friendship.
URSU: They're two kids. They live in a lower middle-class section of Minneapolis. Hazel's parents are divorced. Jack's mom is depressed. They go to a school that's right across from a Burger King, and so the playground smells like fast-food sausage all the time. And I just wanted them to feel very real and sort of accidentally fall into this fairy tale.
NORRIS: "Breadcrumbs" was also inspired by the fairy tales Anne Ursu read as a kid, especially tales by Hans Christian Andersen. And in classic fairy tale form, all is not as it appears to be. There's the possibility of magic but also mayhem. Remember that woman who comes bearing promises? She's a witch, and she lures Jack away into the woods. The white witch prompted this question from one of our sharp-eyed book club members.
ISABELLE VERDURY: My name is Isabelle Verdury, and I'm in sixth grade, and I'm 11 years old. My question was, did the white witch from the story have anything to do with the White Witch from "Narnia" because they both offered the Turkish Delight and they're both in a white sleigh?
URSU: That is a great question. This book is based on Hans Christian Andersen's fable "The Snow Queen," and the character of the Snow Queen is a woman in white on a sleigh who lures a boy away. And so in "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," Jadis, the White Witch, is very heavily influenced by the Snow Queen. So in my book, the white witch offers Jack some Turkish Delights sort of as a joke that she's referencing "Narnia."
NORRIS: One of our readers noted that maybe if Jack read more that he would be aware that a woman wearing all white who offers Turkish Delight is someone to be avoided.
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URSU: This is why you should always read fantasy novels. They can save your life.
NORRIS: There are references to many fantasy novels and many fairy tales throughout this book. Let's hear from Kate Purdhum.
KATE PURDHUM: I'm 11 years old, and I'm in the sixth grade. And my question was, what made you have the idea to sort of intertwine all the different fairy tales into one story?
URSU: I knew going in that Hazel would be someone who lost herself in books and was always kind of lost in her imagination. And so she would have read everything and kind of interpreted her world through books. So Jack's mother is suffering from depression, and she says the mom looked like someone had severed her daemon, which is from "The Golden Compass." Her very order-bound teacher is - looks like she came from Camazotz, the planet in "A Wrinkle in Time."
So those sort of ended up filtering in through Hazel's consciousness as I was telling the story. And then when I got to writing the woods, it became this sort of fairy-tale-like Hans Christian Andersen-ish world. What ended up happening, when you look at Andersen's fairy tales, is there's so much in there about sort of wanting and longing, and so the people in the woods in the fairy tale woods were all people who were really kind of longing for something.
NORRIS: You know, there is a sense of sadness in this book. You get a sense of a child moving forward but always kind of looking longingly over their shoulder.
URSU: You know, I think I started writing Hazel and I gave her all of these situations in which she would feel marginalized and other and then took away her best friend. And that was who was her only anchor in the entire world, and so she felt suddenly and completely alone. And you, you know, you lose friends, and you shed them along the way, and dealing with that sort of grief is such an essential part of growing up.
NORRIS: But you also gain wisdom.
URSU: You also gain wisdom. And it's one of the things I love about middle-grade fiction, is it seems to be really about kids kind of trying to figure out how to be in the world and deal with the world as the world is expanding and becoming more lawless all around them. And for Hazel who begins with this very childlike notion of happy endings and ends believing less and less in fairy tales and more and more in the real world and in functioning in the real world.
And that, you know, magic might not come and save the day, but magic can be created with memories, with a friendship, with a new friendship, with a baseball, with a pair of ballet shoes, but that that's all. That the important thing about childhood is really, you know, continuing to grow and meet the challenges that face you, and that that is the real happy ending.
NORRIS: Anne Ursu, it's been great talking to you. I am so glad that our path led us to "Breadcrumbs."
URSU: Thank you so much. It's such a delight to be here. Thank you.
NORRIS: And for January, a story about a different kind of journey, the Backseat Book Club will be reading "The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963" by Christopher Paul Curtis. You'll meet a hilarious 10-year-old named Kenny as his family heads to visit grandma as the city of Birmingham explodes with violence. It's a story that beautifully weaves humor and history. And you can find out more by going to npr.org/books. Happy reading. I'm Michele Norris.