Crispin: The Cross of Lead, by Avi, was published in 2002 by Hyperion.
“Asta’s Son” is all he’s ever been called. The lack of a name is appropriate, because he and his mother are but poor peasants in 14th century medieval England. But this thirteen-year-old boy who thought he had little to lose soon finds himself with even less – no home, no family, or possessions. Accused of a crime he did not commit, he may be killed on sight, by anyone. If he wishes to remain alive, he must flee his tiny village. All the boy takes with him is a newly revealed name – Crispin – and his mother’s cross of lead.
I wasn’t all that impressed by Crispin: The Cross of Lead. It has a rich historical background, which lends itself well to the Newbery, but Crispin himself is an annoying protagonist and the plot is incredibly obvious. Bear was also a confusing character, in that the first moment we meet him he seems kind, then devolves into some sort of cruel master the next moment, then turns into a gruff man with a soft heart.
Avi clearly did his research with the setting, depicting the Middle Ages with particular emphasis on the influence of the Church as well as the feudal system and the call for reform. Perhaps that’s why I’m so disappointed at the plot, which seems clumsy and even a little obtuse. It’s a fine fit for the setting, I suppose, but the mechanics themselves are obvious, to the point where fifty pages in I already knew what was going to happen.
I also didn’t much like Crispin, especially towards the end of the book where he consistently refuses to listen to the adults around him and goes sneaking off three times in succession. The third time actually had me speaking out loud to my book, which is almost never a good sign (“Stop it, Crispin!”). I really don’t like rash protagonists. I suppose he’s a teenage boy, so of course he would do rash things, but that doesn’t make me like him any better.
Crispin: The Cross of Lead has that historical background that seems to attract Newbery Medals, but I wasn’t impressed with the plot or the main character. I actually didn’t mind Crispin at first, but once things started getting moving and he started doing really stupid things, I started getting annoyed. I also very quickly figured out the entire plot, due to the limited possibilities and obvious clues. Unlike another one of Avi’s books, I’m not fond of this one.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s
“Asta’s son,” came Aycliffe’s voice, “in the name of Lord Furnival, you’re herewith charged with theft. Give way.”
I was too stunned to move.
“The boy’s a wolf’s head!” the steward shouted. “Slay him if you can.”
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, by Avi, was published in 1990 by Orchard/Scholastic.
In 1832, thirteen-year-old Charlotte Doyle is returning from her school in England to her family in America. Charlotte’s voyage takes place on the Seahawk, a seedy ship headed by a murderously cruel captain and sailed by a mutinous crew. When Charlotte gets caught up in the bitter feud between captain and crew, she winds up on trial for murder…and is found guilty!
I read The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle once more than ten years ago and it stuck pretty well with me all these years. Though some of the details were muddled in my mind, I remembered very vividly one of the last lines in the book and the overall gist of the story.
It’s not that this book is particularly complex or amazing, which is usually the sort of book I remember well these days. It’s incredibly straightforward and simplistic, and Avi doesn’t leave a lot of time to develop much of the other characters beyond Charlotte. We don’t know much about anything about Charlotte’s family except that they’re pretty stereotypically Victorian upper-middle-class, which means they’re prim and proper and gasp in horror at their daughter’s adventures, and we don’t know or learn much about any of the crew members that Charlotte meets, except for Zechariah.
Yet somehow, it doesn’t seem to matter. There are no frills, no bells and whistles attached to this book. It is, as Charlotte herself will tell you, a detailed description of what happened to her—and it works, or at least it did for me. Though things happen quickly, they happen realistically. They make sense. Charlotte’s trust in Jaggery at the beginning of the book makes sense, as does her increasing unease, her heel-face-turn (and, subsequently, the crew’s), and her ultimate loyalty to the ship. I don’t even mind how it ends, because everything that came before it made sense.
I also think that Zechariah’s character is a pretty interesting one, in that he’s not the (stereo)typical portrayal of a black man in Victorian England or America. He’s the most eloquent, which I think is a good contrast for a lot of black characters we see in historical fiction that speak in dialect. It shows a different side and I like that.
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is a simple story, but it’s one that’s stuck with me as I grew up, and one that I expect will continue to stick with me in the years to come.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Historical Fiction, Middle Grade
“Begging your pardon, miss,” the man murmured, his look more hangdog than ever. “Barlow’s the name and though it’s not my business or place to tell you, miss, some of the other’s here, Jack Tars like myself, have deputized me to say that you shouldn’t be on this ship. Not alone as you are. Not this ship. Not this voyage, miss.”
“What do you mean?” I said, frightened anew. “Why would they say that?”
“You’re being here will lead to no good, miss. No good at all. You’d be better off far from the Seahawk.”