Newbery Project #11: 2003’s Crispin: The Cross of Lead


There was a giant gap in this blog between February and June and this book is the main culprit.

My goal was to read a Newbery a week. For a while I was ahead of schedule. Then it took me over a week to finish Moon Over Manifest, but that was okay, I was still on track. Because I was ahead of my reading schedule, I was writing posts for books I’d read a few weeks ago. I let myself get a little lazier, but I chugged along. And then we got to Crispin: The Cross of Lead.

I was actually plenty excited to read this. Before the project I never would have dreamed of picking it up, but Good Masters, Sweet Ladies! had convinced me to be interested in the Middle Ages. I was looking forward to reading another story from the time period.

Crispin is the story of a poor (in every sense of the word), nameless boy whose mother dies in the first page or so of the book, Bambi style. He understandably does not know what to do. There’s a priest that can sort of help, but not really. Dude is pretty useless. And for some reason a bunch of guys seem to want him dead, too. So, naturally, the only thing he can do is run. The boy takes off for anywhere carrying nothing but a couple of scraps of food and a lead cross from the priest, supposedly made my his mother. So here we are, in for a traveling story.

A story I found, sadly, really not-interesting.

It turns out that the Middle Agesdespite my recent turn-around on the subject, is not interesting in-and-of-itself to me. Mostly it’s dirty. And when an author describes something dirty, I can’t really be comfortable until the author describes the washing of that dirty thing. Unfortunately, in the Middle Ages, pretty much nothing got washed, ever. So I spent most of the book feeling like I myself was covered in dirt. It made me want to shower a lot.

You spend a lot of time with Crispin in this story, and unfortunately, he’s not a person who is terribly fun to spend time with. He is dirty, yes, but also boring. He is confused and skill-less and lost. Basically the only positive thing that can be said about him is that he is pushing along, heading somewhere instead of just laying down to die. When the only real positive attribute of your main character is that they have some semblance of a desire to not die, well, you’re in trouble.

And I just do not have the patience for a long chase story. I don’t enjoy chase scenes in movies and I can really only tolerate them in books if they are either short or full of unexpected twists and turns. This chase was not. The boy (who we eventually discover is named Crispin–duh, given the title), meets a sort of jester along the way to add some excitement, and who helps Crispin discover who he really is. He’s an interesting enough character. I enjoyed a lot of the scenes he was in. He’s just on this side of shady, the kind of character that’s been hardened enough, but you know is still soft inside. But Avi takes him right up to the line in a way that makes you think that sometimes he might be a little too mean. Just enough to string you along.

And on the subject of who Crispin really is: It has already been documented on this blog how bad I am at predicting endings. This inability to read into even the most obvious foreshadowing also affected me while reading Walk Two Moons for the first time. But this book was so straight-forward I was not the least-bit surprised when Crispin discovered his true identity. Probably because he himself was wondering the entire book “Why on earth are these guys chasing me? Why do they care so much? I’m just a poor boy.” So, you yourself are also constantly asking yourself that question, and there’s really only one possible answer. Kind of takes the wind out of your sails.

So, sorry Avi, this one was a miss for me. The rundown:

Would kids like it? Kids who like an adventure/trip story will enjoy this. I might recommend it to a kid who had read a ton of fantasy and who needed to break out and read something of another genre. This has the journey aspect of fantasy.

Are there “funny bits”? Nope.

Do I understand why it won? I found 2003 Honor books House of the Scorpion and Hoot to be more compelling. (I hadn’t read the other Honor books from that year, which is the only reason I’m not comparing them to Crispin.) I do feel that the Newbery tends to have a soft spot for the Middle Ages (see also The Midwife’s Apprentice which I will review later this summer). I am a bit surprised by this one!



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