I have a file on my computer called "answers from the universe." In it, I keep little bits and pieces of personal truths that I needed to read or hear or see somehow, anything from scriptures to poems to sentences to entire paragraphs. This is because I believe truth is scattered, pieces are everywhere, and you find what you need to know only if you are looking. Looking, and gathering.
Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu tells the story of something else that was broken and scattered, a magic mirror that makes beautiful things look ugly and ugly things look beautiful. When the imps try to fly it up to heaven to tease the angels, they drop it. It shatters and some of its shards fly into the hearts of unfortunate people, one of whom is Jack, Hazel's best friend. Jack changes; he no longer wants to hang out with Hazel in the abandoned house they found (and call the Shrieking Shack), talking about stories, drawing imaginary characters, and playing super hero baseball. Instead, he's cruel to Hazel, and then he ignores her, which is hard since she's already struggling through fifth grade in the new school she had to go to when her parents divorced. Aside from Jack, she doesn't have any real friends, and she feels she doesn't fit in anywhere, except inside books. Fantasy and science fiction are her favorites, and they're Jack's favorites, too, so bits of Harry and Lyra and Meg and Lucy work themselves into their adventures. But they are in fifth grade, and things are changing, and maybe a boy and a girl can't really be friends, and then the bit of mirror—which only looks like glass to the doctor—falls into Jack's eye and everything changes.
This is a middle-grade book, and I confess: it's been awhile since I've read from this age group's books and enjoyed myself. Usually I am far too conscious of how the story is being told and of how I would've reacted to it when I was a middle-grade reader myself to actually lose myself in the book. Which is an odd point, as I was thoroughly aware of how my middle-grade self would've felt about Breadcrumbs: she would have loved it. In this retelling of Hans Christian Anderson's The Snow Queen, the first part is set mostly in contemporary America, with contemporary fifth-grade issues. Hazel, who was adopted from India and doesn't know anything about her birth parents, is one of those dreamy, artsy kids who thinks about fairy tales much more (and much more highly) than things like math and science and spelling. She watches the girls in her fifth grade class, and she tries fitting in, but she can't quite do it. She doesn't want to give up her fantasies and stories, her escapes into imagination, and she doesn't quite see the point of the games the other girls play (mostly of the friend/not-friend variety.)
My fifth-grade issues weren't the same as Hazel's, but they were similar: I didn't ever feel like I fit in, and I was shy and bookish and awkward in conversations. I wasn't artsy but I was dreamy, and I didn't just think about fairy tales, I watched for portals. I wanted to find the way out of here and into there; into the place where magic was, because magic (I never could have explained) was the only thing that might make me make sense of the world. Fifth grade was especially tough for me, because for the first time in my elementary experience, new people moved into our school. Two sets of twins, in fact, and suddenly there were all sorts of friendship competitions going on in Mr. Strong's class. The reality of being a girl, I guess, and that sort of battle wasn't my forte. (Still isn't.) So I thoroughly related to Hazel, even though my adult self was thinking come on Hazel, don't be sullen and shy, respond to that mean girl with a little bit of backbone and right in the middle of that thought is when it hit me: how I have changed since I was in Hazel's shoes.
I mean, of course, there are a myriad ways I've changed since I was ten, obviously. But the biggest thing, the thing this book made me want to get back, was the believing. The looking for portals because you were certain there had to be one somewhere. Part of growing up was hardening myself to the reality of this world: there are no portals. We are firmly here whether here makes sense or not. Believing in fairy tales or being certain that at any time I could be swept up in a time machine so I could go and live with Laura or be Anne's other bosom friend offered me no knowledge for dealing with girls who had sort-of been my friends since kindergarten (but sort-of really not) and the influx of new possibilities.
And of course, you can't believe forever. "This is what it is to live in the world," Hazel realizes. "You have to give yourself over to the cold, at least a little bit." Like Hazel, what made me let the cold in was the way that friendships didn't work. But as I pushed on with Hazel's adventures—she does find a portal, sort of, and it takes her to the place where the snow queen has taken Jack, and there she meets bits and pieces of other fairy tales and has to decide what is motivating her and how she really feels about their friendship and what kind of daughter she wants to be and, in all of those things, the kind of person she will chose to become in the real world—and I watched her learn in the fantasy world how to be strong enough to be herself in the real one, I felt that belief tugging at me. There was a threshold and a magical woods. Your father left you. You left your mother. There was a boy, and he was your best friend. Come, the cold said, and I will blow you away. That is what the cold whispered to Hazel, but the belief was the thing whispering to me. Come on, it hinted. Come back. There were the friends who weren't friends, there was all that hurt, there was wanting and not having and not knowing why. Come back and then you'll see.
And that was the little piece of truth I found in this book, which I can't even be objective enough to tell you critically whether or not I liked it. (The transition between real and fantasy was too abrupt, I think, and the ending too vague; but the pieces of faerie bumping up against the real world were delightful, and the Snow Queen a sort of anorexic evil, and how could I not love a book that references A Wrinkle in Time?) There's not an exact quote I can put down in my "answers from the universe" file, because in a sense the entire book—no, the experience of reading the book as I am now—was an answer. I put my belief in magic away and in doing so I put away some of my chances at finding the necessary magic to make things happen.
In other words, the answer from the universe I found in Breadcrumbs is to start looking for portals again.