Middle Grade Books: How Many Literary References Does It Take To Turn Off A Third Grader?

breadcrumbs coverAnne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs (2011) is a modern fairy tale that draws from the same Hans Christian Andersen story as the one on which Disney’s Frozen (2013) is loosely based: The Snow Queen.

I downloaded the e-book version of Breadcrumbs because I thought it might be a good choice for my twins, who, of course, sing Frozen’s “Let It Go!” ad nauseum. At 6 ½, they aren’t as interested in picture books or short chapter books as they once were. They’re looking for longer, meatier novels (either to read on their own or with me). Breadcrumbs is around 320 pages long and listed by HarperCollins as intended for the 8 to 12 age group.

These “recommended” age categories seem largely arbitrary, and I’ve often found that books marketed for middle grade children are ideal for my kindergarteners. I just have to vet them first (remember what happened with Patricia Pollaco’s The Butterfly, a children’s book about the Nazi occupation of France?).

In Breadcrumbs, we meet 11-year-old Hazel Anderson. She’s different. Not only is she of Indian descent, adopted into a Minnesotan family now fractured by divorce, but she also nurtures her imagination when most of her peers are squelching theirs. Her best friend is her next-door-neighbor Jack, who suddenly stops talking to her. Then he disappears, prompting Hazel to embark on an enchanted quest to save him from the Snow Queen. As a guard in the magic woods tells Hazel, it’s the “princess [] saving the knight,” while adding, “I hope the knight doesn’t mind.”

The novel touches on the ways gender stereotypes limit friendships as children enter puberty-charged adolescence. Hazel is not“going out” with Jack, but that doesn’t stop everyone from assuming it. Even her mother insists that Hazel should spend less time with Jack and more time with girls.

This novel is lovely in many ways; I particularly like how it features a character from a background we rarely see in children’s fiction and how it addresses challenges children often face during adolescence. However, I question whether my twins will like it—even in a couple of years.

Breadcrumbs may be marketed for the 8 to 12 age group, but in addition to its advanced vocabulary, it contains a multitude of literary and cultural references that I suspect many children won’t understand.

Sure, kids can just look it all up. However, when they’re already coming across such sentences as “she shed herself of the accoutrements of her absurdity,” I’m afraid my children would be spending more time on Google researching this book than actually reading it.

The novel would make more sense to readers already familiar with Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen and other fairy tales. On top of that, there are references to a slew of literary and cinematic works, including The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, The Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland, Keys to the Kingdom, The Phantom Tollbooth, and Star Wars.

Some kids are exactly like Hazel and will have no trouble recognizing these references. For other kids, such as those like Hazel’s classmate Tyler, it’s a different matter. When Tyler tells Hazel that he saw a woman take Jack, Hazel responds, “A woman in white on a sleigh. Like Narnia,” to which Jack replies, “What’s Narnia?”

Some of the literary and cultural references may remain hidden or unclear without detracting too much from a reader’s enjoyment of the story. Others would be more frustrating to skip. Take this reference to A Wrinkle in Time:

[The] art teacher was named Mrs. Blum, though in her head Hazel had always called her Mrs. Which, because she wore weird baggy clothes and seemed like the sort of person who might tesser in some dark and stormy night.

I can just imagine my daughters scrunching up their faces to ask, “Mrs. Who?,” to which I would respond, “No, Mrs. Which,” in a “Who’s on First” Abbott and Costello-type comedy routine. I can also imagine their frustration at finding that “tesser” does not appear in the dictionary. A Wrinkle in Time—a fabulous book—is one that is actually marketed for slightly older readers than Breadcrumbs is.** However arbitrary these age recommendations may be, it still suggests that knowledge of A Wrinkle in Time is far from universal for 8 to 12 year olds. I’m surprised Ursu assumes her young readers would already be familiar with it.

Overall, Breadcrumbs is best suited for readers with a pre-existing breadth of knowledge of classic fairy tales, fantasy, and other children’s literature. I just don’t know how many 8 to 12 year-olds fall into that category. Their parents might appreciate this book much more than they will.

Thoughts From Other Bloggers About Breadcrumbs:

  • Thea from The Book Smugglers (10/4/11): “Though Hans Christian Andersen’s fables are at the heart of the journey, there are countless other allusions throughout. The only thing that felt a little off to me in the whole novel was the level of Hazel’s literary prowess and how some of her thought processes felt a little older than her fifth-grade age. That said, the narrative voice of the novel is otherwise flawless. I absolutely loved this heartbreaking gem of a novel, and recommend Breadcrumbs to readers of all ages.”
  • Ana from The Book Smugglers (1/31/13): “Oh my goodness, what an amazing book! I will echo Thea’s thoughts about Breadcrumbs: this is a gem of a book that works in a myriad of ways.”
  • Amy from Bookalicious (1/6/13):“Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu is a wonderfully fun, touching story about finding your place, and what happens when your place is a person who you suddenly don’t have anymore. I’d recommend this to basically everyone I know.”

*Breadcrumbs is written by Anne Ursu and illustrated by Erin McGuire.

**On Amazon, A Wrinkle in Time is recommended for grade 6 and ages 10-15.

15 thoughts on “Middle Grade Books: How Many Literary References Does It Take To Turn Off A Third Grader?

  1. I, too, want to read the book, but agree that it will be fully understood by only a limited number of today’s children.

    I really like the way you included the excerpts of other reviews at the bottom. Extremely helpful and generous-spirited.

  2. Pingback: Racial Diversity in Children’s Books: The Pros & Cons of Subtlety | The Misfortune Of Knowing

  3. I think your kids and my son would be great buddies – they could sing Frozen songs and read chapter books together. 🙂

    David has read most of Narnia and loves Star Wars, but the Wrinkle in Time and Harry Potter references would go right over his head. I think I would read this one just for fun myself though!

    1. I bet our kids would have fun together! So far, of the books referenced in Breadcrumbs (and who knows how many references I might have missed!), my kids have only read the first Harry Potter book. I can’t wait until they read Chronicles of Narnia and A Wrinkle in Time. I’m thinking about re-reading A Wrinkle in Time soon. I loved the books in that series (particularly A Swiftly Tilting Planet).

  4. SF

    Heh, thanks for getting Let it go stuck in my head! Ahhhhh! It doesn’t take much to do that. Breadcrumbs seems good at least.

    1. Sorry about that! I definitely recommend that you check out Breadcrumbs if you’re interested in fairy tales, fantasy, and children’s literature.

  5. The references could definitely be confusing for younger readers, but the story and main character sound worth the extra effort of providing context to the references. Whenever I come across references to books I haven’t read, if I like the referring book, I write them down and add them to my to-read list. This could be a fun way to teach young readers how books are sometimes like a set of monkey bars – one read often leads to another and another.

    I hadn’t heard of this one. Thanks for reviewing it!

    1. It’s a worthwhile read, though it might be too frustrating for many readers in its intended audience. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in fairy tales, fantasy, and children’s fiction. Thanks for stopping by!

    1. I highly recommend reading A Wrinkle in Time! I wonder how it will come across to someone who reads it for the first time as an adult. I must have been 9 or 10 when I read it. I loved all the books in the series (A Swiftly Tilting Planet was my favorite one).

  6. Any book character who has this quality,”she also nurtures her imagination when most of her peers are squelching theirs,” would be one I would love to follow in story. Maybe the author’s imagination goes a little wild with the other fantasy references, but it still sounds like a fun read to make the mind travel.

I appreciate your comments (respectful dissent is welcome)!

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