It snowed right before Jack stopped talking to Hazel, fluffy white flakes big enough to show their crystal architecture, like perfect geometric poems. It was the sort of snow that transforms the world around it into a different kind of place. You know what it’s like–when you wake up to find everything white and soft and quiet, when you run outside and your breath suddenly appears before you in a smoky poof, when you wonder for a moment if the world in which you woke up is not the same one that you went to bed in the night before. Things like that happen, at least in the stories you read. It was the sort of snowfall that, if there were any magic to be had in the world, would make it come out.
And magic did come out.
But not the kind you were expecting. (1-2)
Hazel and Jack have lived next to each other and been friends together since they were six, imagining worlds far different from their Minneapolis neighborhood. After her parents’ divorce though, Hazel starts attending Jack’s school and classmates there make it abundantly clear that boys and girls aren’t supposed to be friends. Hazel’s only friend suddenly begins to distance himself from her, and Hazel’s mother tries to convince her that these things happen. But Hazel is confident that something else is going on, and when Jack vanishes without a trace, Hazel seems to be the only one able to find him and bring him back to his old self.
Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Snow Queen”, Anne Ursu spends a lot of time crafting the relationship between Hazel and Jack. Fantasy fans will feel satisfaction when they recognize mentions of classic fantasy elements like Narnia, but also newer fantasy like Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. I guess that’s what adds to readers’ enjoyment of the text, as it feels like you are in on an inside joke, and can relate to Hazel. I’m assuming that if you don’t recognize Hazel’s mentions of these works of fantasy, it just adds to your impression of her weirdness and outsider status.
The rest of the story if unrushed, which strikes me as odd considering the determination Hazel has in finding Jack. There is a foreboding menace in the forest that takes the shape of watchful wolves who you’re never quite sure which side they are on. Slight references to other fairy tales are interwoven into the story, with Hazel encountering the Little Match Girl, a girl turned into a bird, and a garden of talking flowers. The descriptions get a little tedious at times, since knowing readers can predict how the story ends, but the prose has an allusive and lyrical quality to it that reminds me of the movie Snow White and the Huntsman that I just saw in theaters.
She stood looking at the line of trees that demarcated the woods as clearly as any doorway. [...]
Hazel had read enough books to know that a line like this one is the line down which your life breaks in two. And you have to think very carefully about whether you want to cross it, because once you do it’s very hard to get back to the world you left behind. And sometimes you break a barrier that no one knew existed, and then everything you knew before crossing the line is gone.
But sometimes you have a friend to rescue. And so you take a deep breath and then step over the line and into the darkness ahead. (151-152)
With about a dozen illustrations, I wonder why they even bothered to include illustrations. That’s not to say that Erin McGuire’s work is in any way deficient, because it’s not. They provide a nice break between the narration, but it’s so infrequent to find pictures in longer chapter books. Her pictures are drawn in a style that makes me think of graphic novels, with full-page “panels” creating scenes that could serve as a starting point for their own unique stories. The first and last pictures evoke each other, mimicking the placement of Hazel and Jack as they find themselves in a similar situation as before but in two totally different worlds. Overall, a nicely written modern-day fairy tale.