Of all the books in last year's Children's Books: 100 Titles for Reading & Sharing, my favorite title turned out to be Anne Ursu's Breadcrumbs. Anne was nice enough to answer a few questions about the book and provide valuable insight on one of the most imaginative literary works published last year.
There were a lot of allusions to other fairy tales and fictional works, including The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Was there any story you wanted to include and didn't have a chance to?
I really wanted Hazel to be a reader, and for her to try to navigate both her world and the fairy tale world through what she's learned from reading fantasy. I knew going in I would have to make some reference to Narnia — since the White Witch is based on The Snow Queen. But it just seemed to make sense that fantasy is how she makes sense of her own world — Jack's depressed mom looks to Hazel like someone severed her daemon. So the references just came in naturally as I went along. Maybe because I think in those references, too! I read a lot of Andersen fairy tales as well, thinking I would incorporate as many as I could — but I really only ended up using ones I already knew — perhaps because they live inside me in a deeper place.
Before Breadcrumbs you wrote the Cronus series of books, including The Shadow Thieves, The Siren Song, and The Immortal Fire. What's the biggest difference between writing a series of books as opposed to writing a standalone? Is it easier to build characterization in a series?
I had no idea going into writing a trilogy just how hard it would be. Each book needs to have its own arc, and then the whole series has one — and the same goes for the main characters. It was very hard to get my head around having a character go through enough of a journey in the first book to be satisfying, but still leave her a long enough path for two more books. The nice thing is once you start the second book the characters are there — you know them intimately going into the first draft, you have their voices and attitudes down. Writing a standalone book (or first book in a series) it takes a while for the character to solidify in the author's head. And then you have to go back and rebuild the character in the entire book. After writing three books with the same characters it took me a long time to even be able to conceive of doing something different.
I think my favorite part of the book is when Hazel meets the Little Matchstick Girl towards the end. Was this a scene you had always envisioned happening right before the climax?
No. As Hazel got toward the Snow Queen and Jack, I felt like I needed one more episode. I wanted her to give everything up for someone else, for a stranger — possibly ruining her entire quest out of an act of compassion. I wanted the woods to get her to a point where she realized that saving Jack wasn't the only thing that mattered, and then give her a situation where she would have to make a real choice to risk not saving him for a stranger. There might have been something unconscious as well: when I was a kid my mom took my to a theatrical version of "The Little Match Girl," not knowing it was about a girl slowly freezing to death. We were both very traumatized. It was nice to be able to save the poor Match Girl, finally.
Breadcrumbs was such a unique and wonderful book. I can't remember reading anything else quite like it. Are there any other book suggestions you can recommend for Breadcrumbs fans? Any upcoming books from you that we can look forward to in the coming year?
The year before I wrote Breadcrumbs, I read When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. And then I threw away the book I was writing — I suddenly felt if I wasn't trying to have a book with that kind of ambition, there was no point. I also very much liked that book because you can't quite put it in a category, and that really interested me. I am a huge fan of Franny Billingsley and I really recommend The Folk Keeper. That's a book that transforms what it seems to be about halfway through in a very interesting way. Also Patrice Kindl's Owl in Love — there's so much imagination in that book. I love books that challenge our conception of how stories work. And I think you find the best examples of that in middle grade literature.
As for me, I am currently doing revisions on a book that will be out next fall. I am in the stage of revision where I wander around muttering cranky and hopeless things to my cats. It's called The Real Boy, and it's my first fantasy that takes place completely in its own world. I knew that was going to be very difficult. And it was about ten times harder than that. But in the end it was nice to know I could actually write an entire book without a Harry Potter reference.