In celebration of Children’s Book Week, StorySnoops is once again hosting interviews with some of our friends in the literary world. Children’s Book Week is the national celebration of books and reading for youth. We hope you enjoy our special posts this week.
Anne Ursu is the award-winning author of Breadcrumbs, a contemporary retelling of The Snow Queen, and the three books in The Cronus Chronicles series—The Shadow Thieves, The Siren Song, and The Immortal Fire. She has also written two books for adult readers. Anne teaches at Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children, and lives in Minneapolis with her young son.
Hi Anne, and thanks for joining us today.
We have heard a critic call your Breadcrumbs “hypnotizing”, and we can’t think of a better adjective to describe it. Did growing up in Minnesota help you paint such a dream-like and magical snowy world?
Thank you! I certainly did call on my childhood memories writing this book. I remember the feeling of waiting for the school bus standing in snow that rose above your boots. There’s so much character to winter in Minnesota—sometimes you have big fairy flakes, sometimes it’s ice pellets that assault your skin. I vividly remember walking around with my family after an ice storm and it was like the entire world had been encased in ice—perfectly frozen, perfectly still, like it was always going to be that way. So the whole book really is filled with the texture of those memories.
Of all the fairy tales written, what was it about The Snow Queen that made you want to write an updated version of it?
As soon as I read The Snow Queen I was struck by the story of the friendship that was torn apart overnight. It seemed to me to be about how growing up changes and ends friendships, and I immediately wanted to write about that, using contemporary kids but keeping the skeleton and flavor of the fairy tale.
Many characters in this story are attempting to avoid pain by escaping reality – but they can’t feel happiness either. What inspired/prompted you to write about this theme?
That’s a very interesting question. At first, the story was about Hazel and her escapes—in her games with Jack, in her books. She’s struggling with reality and retreats into fantasy. And as she got into the woods, I found the people she encountered were all doing something similar—they choose escape, but suffer greatly as a result. I think it was important for Hazel to see that, to learn how to live in the world she has—and also for her to understand she can make a choice: numbness or reality and the joy and pain that comes with it. She figures out the real world is better—then it becomes her job to convince Jack.
Sometimes, you figure out what a book is about by writing it. I didn’t really set out to write about this theme; it just kept happening, and eventually I figured out how important it was to the story. So these ideas were ones I tried to bring out in revision.
This is a coming of age story about the inevitable pains that accompany growing up. What message do you want to convey about growing up?
I think as adults we have a tendency to want to protect our kids from any pain, to keep hard things from them, to pretend everything is always going to work out. Except growing up is tough, and part of growing up is becoming aware of the world and how hard it can be. And if we are so busy protecting our kids that we forget to keep them company in the pain and the hardship, we’re leaving them to go through it alone. And I think for Hazel, the book is about realizing how hard growing up can be, but also realizing that she’s up to it, and that these pains bring joys with them as well.
What do you have in the works? What can we look forward to reading from you next?
I have a short story coming out in the next Guys Read collection—Guys Read: The Sports Pages—and I’m just working on beginning a new book now. I’ve found that, after writing a book, it takes me a long time to get over it—I have the world and story and characters so much in my head I can’t even conceive of writing something else.
And from the girls of StorySnoops’ resident book club, the Green Oompa Loompas:
Hi Ms. Ursu! We thought your book was fantastic! It was suspenseful. We’re sure a lot of boys AND girls can relate to this book. We loved how you wrote realistic fiction at the beginning, and then put a whole bunch of fantasy the rest of the way. You described everything really well. We could seriously imagine everything you wrote about. This book is a work of art and we hope to read a lot more of your writing! Thank you for this story!
Thank you! I’m so happy you guys liked it.
We are exactly Hazel’s age and can relate to the changing and growing apart of friends, especially between boys and girls. Do you remember this happening to you when you were our age?
I do. My two best friends for much of elementary school were from the neighborhood, and one was a boy. But by fifth grade, I’d grown apart from both of them. It wasn’t something that happened overnight, like in the book, but so slowly you don’t really even notice until it’s happened. From fifth grade all through middle school my friendships shifted a lot—some of them did end overnight. And some of them were really painful.
In addition to The Snow Queen, we counted many other stories that are referenced in this book such as A Wrinkle In Time, The Little Match Girl, Harry Potter, When You Reach Me, The Golden Compass and many more. Was this meant as a special treat for those of us who love children’s books?
Yes, that was certainly part of it. I really wanted kids who’d read these books to have that fun moment of recognition when they ran across the references, and I also wanted them to have that moment of connection with Hazel. But it was also really important to me that Hazel was a reader, especially of fantasy—that that’s really how she’d connect to and understand the world. Fantasy means escape for her—until she finds herself in one, that is.
Did the wolves symbolize anything? They kept popping up. Were they watching over Hazel? (We are dying to know!!)
Oh, the wolves! In the first draft of the book, they were there as menacing creatures, threats to Hazel, just like in a fairy tale. But as I rewrote the book, they changed, and became a watchful, even protective presence. Hazel goes into the woods thinking she can trust woodsmen and has to fear wolves, and learns that it’s quite the opposite. So they really symbolized the wildness and lawlessness of the world Hazel found herself in, that you can’t take anything at face value or believe anything you’ve told. I like to think that the wolves try to protect the kids who find themselves in there—they keep Hazel from the woodsman, try to keep her out of the village, and guide her to the Little Match Girl.
Once a young reader told me she thought the wolves were sent by Adelaide and Uncle Martin to watch over Hazel. I loved that.
Thank you so much for your time Ms. Ursu! If you’d like to keep up with Anne and her latest work, you can visit her on her website. Tomorrow, please join us at StorySnoops.com for an exposé with every literary-minded adult’s favorite challenge: The Reluctant Reader!