This is a blog specifically created for the purposes of my Literature for Children and Young Adults class at Texas Woman's University. Coming soon will be reviews of titles ranging from children's fiction to poetry to young adult novels. Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 05, 2006


Avi. 2002. Crispin: The Cross of Lead. New York: Hyperion. ISBN 0786808284.

Crispin is the story of a young teen-aged boy in Medieval Great Britain called Asta’s son—in the absence of a formal name—who, when his mother dies, becomes a fugitive pursued by John Aycliffe, the manor’s steward who has falsely accused Asta’s son of breaking into the manor and stealing money. He is declared a “Wolf’s Head,” which means that he is seen as subhuman and subject to death by the hand of any who find him. The village priest tells him a secret: his name is Crispin. He also tells him that Crispin’s mother had her own secrets and that Crispin should return the following night to learn the truth of his past, but before he can return, he is caught in a trap and barely escapes with his life. He travels far from his village under the protection of night with nothing to eat. The only thing that brings him any solace is a leaden cross that belonged to his mother and was in her hands when she died. He becomes indentured to a traveling, ex-monk turned juggling performer nicknamed Bear who teaches him to play a pipe, to take care of himself and to value his own thoughts. The pair travel together, performing their way across the land, headed for Great Wexly where the priest had told Crispin his destiny would be realized. In the end, Crispin is surprised to learn that he’s not so much an orphan as he thought!

This is an amazing book. The language is subtle. It reveals the time and mood of the period in which the story is set, but while it is sophisticated, it is not overly so to the point of becoming cumbersome or intimidating. The dialogue is rich and believable and used skillfully to propel the story forward and to reveal speech patterns of the period without becoming overly deliberate (my favorite parts are when Bear curses and uses phrases like “by the Devil’s own spit” and “God’s holy wounds” and “Merciful Heaven”).

The following passage is a good example of how the language, setting, characterization, style and plot all work together to illustrate the daily life of the period without being obvious:

No one ever accused John Aycliffe of any kindness. In the absence of Lord Furnival he was in charge of the manor, the laws, and the peasants. To be caught in some small transgression—missing a day of work, speaking harshly of his rule, failing to attend mass—brought an unforgiving penalty. It could be a whipping, a clipping of an ear, imprisonment, or a cut-off hand. For poaching a stag, John the ale-maker’s son was put to death on the commons gallows. As judge, jury, and willing executioner, Aycliffe had but to give the word, and the offender’s life was forfeit. We all lived in fear of him.

Through succinct description, Avi gives us a view of what life might have been like in fiefdom. But since it is done through a first hand account—keeping the narrator’s voice and vocabulary “true” to the period—it is not obviously (and preachily) “historical.” The reader gets to learn how things must have been in Great Britain in the Middle Ages, but through the eyes of a fictional character about whom they care and want to see succeed. Whereas non-fiction history books might make mention of some of the same events that happen in this book, they could never come close to engaging the young reader by making him or her relate to Crispin’s plight. The themes of misunderstood “wayward” youth being put upon, living through a period of abuse and in the end triumphing over evil are ones which transcend periods. Children and adolescents can relate to these same themes—because though times change, so much stays the same.

School Library Journal says, “The accent, pacing, and inflection of this skilled narrator make it possible for listeners to enter fully into the struggles of life in the 14th century England from the perspective of a wide cast of characters.” says, “Providing plenty of period detail (appropriately gratuitous for the age group) and plenty of chase-scene suspense, Avi tells a good story, develops a couple of fairly compelling characters, and even manages to teach a little history lesson. (Fortunately, kids won’t realize that they’re learning about England’s peasant revolt of 1381 until it’s far too late.”

Publisher’s Weekly says, “Avi’s plot is engineered for maximum thrills, with twists, turns treachery aplenty, but it’s the compellingly drawn relationship between Crispin and Bear that provides the heart of this story. A page turner to delight Avi’s fans…”

Book Report says, “…superb combination of mystery, historical fiction, and a coming-of-age tale… Breathlessly paced, beautifully written and filled with details of life in the Middle Ages, this compelling novel is one of Avi’s finest.”

Newberry Award winner 2003
New York Times Best-seller

Avi is such a great book that I’ve suggested it to my teen book club. While it is great for a history lesson, it is also a good book for a discussion of politics and world governments. A sequel was published in September of 2006!

Reviewed by Joelie Key-Tissot 11/01/06.


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