Monday, March 30, 2015

Newbery Review: Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi (2003 Medal Winner)

Crispin was a fascinating read. I often got frustrated with other medieval kidlit because the main characters and their ideals would fit better in a public school classroom than in the world they were supposed to be a part of, but not Crispin. He is through and through a child of the middle ages in his thinking, and the world in which his story unravels is so realistic, it rejuvenates one's interest in the exhausted setting of medieval England. In fact, Avi almost makes medieval England a new world, one entirely different from the medieval England in your typical MG knights-in-armor story.

Crispin is an illegitimate teenage serf in Edward I's plague-ridden kingdom. He soon finds himself inexplicably wanted by his lord, and has to run. He is taken as a serf by Bear, a colorful, gruff, and oversized street entertainer. But while working with slavish loyalty for Bear, Crispin discovers his master has dark connections to the undercurrents of rebellion whispering beneath relative, dictatorial-held peace.

Like I said, the thing that drew me most to this book was Crispin's realistic voice and character development. At first, he is timid, terrified of crossing anyone in authority or breaking his caste, and is full of Catholic superstition. To him, to rebel would be to turn the world on its head. And this world he lives in is gritty and grim. The streets are full of garbage, the rickety buildings are full of disguised debauchery, and the land is full of sickness.

This isn't to say the book is hopeless in its outlook. Quite the reverse. Rather, it paints a much more realistic picture of the era than your typical Disney-fied medievalism.

That being the case, the book is really more of a Young Adult book (13-18) than a Middle Grade (8-12). In fact, its sequel is shelved in the Upper Young Adult section at my library, and I agree. The sequel is even darker and bleaker (I have not read the third book because I cannot find it), so while I would feel comfortable recommending Crispin: The Cross of Lead to a middle grade reader who can handle the same variety of despair and suffering found in MG novels such as Where the Red Fern Grows or The Long Winter, I would hold back on the sequel for those under 13, and even on Crispin for sensitive young readers. Think of the mood as slightly lighter than The Book Thief, but with more external hope juxtaposed with a pessimistic main character.

Crispin does grow and develop talents, talents other than just the stereotypical reading ability, and learns to love life despite suffering in an almost Victor Hugo/Leo Tolstoy-type epiphany.

All this to say, this book left me darkly wowed and thoughtful. Anyone who rolls their eyes at "another medieval Europe story" should look twice and read this. Like I said earlier, it's like a new Medieval England, and yet it's the real one.

Favorite Character: Crispin

Recommended age: 13+

Content level for parents: Crispin sees a hanged man, someone's throat is slit, an animal is tortured, another person is impaled, historic use of the b-word in reference to Crispin.

For more Marvelous Middle Grade reviews, visit Shannon's blog here.


  1. I do love books set in medieval times. I will have to check this one out when I have time. Thanks for the review.

  2. By the way, Amazon has Crispin: The End of Times new, used, and ebook.

  3. I remember reading this when it was new and being very impressed with the writing, the voice, and the character growth. However, I have to admit I didn't much care for the sequel.

    I'm also trying to read all of the Newbery winners, but I may never get there, as I find the older ones (from the 1930s and 40s) very slow and not terribly exciting. But I have managed to read 68 or 69 of the winners over the years. Good luck with your goal!