HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: Crispin: The Cross of Lead
Author: Avi (pen name of Edward Irving Wortis)
Publisher: Hyperion Books for Children, republished in 2004
Language level: 3 (a lot of oaths)
Reading level: No younger than ages 13 for independent reading
Rating: 3 stars (FAIR)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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Avi (pen name of Edward Irving Wortis). Crispin: The Cross of Lead (published 2002 by Hyperion Books for Children, an imprint of Disney Children’s Book Group LLC, 114 Fifth Ave., New York City, NY 10011; school edition republished in 2003 by Scholastic Inc., 557 Broadway, New York City, NY 10012) This book won the 2003 Newbery Medal. It is well written with a great deal of excitement and suspense. There are some good things in it, as at the end where Crispin keeps a vow that he has made even though there was a great temptation not to do so. Crispin questions the fact that God allowed his mother to die and the other events which happened to him but eventually decides that God is good. And there is the affection that grows between Crispin and his new-found friend “Bear.” However, there are some things about the book that trouble me. One person objected to the strong Catholic story line. This is supposed to be historical fiction, set in England in 1377, before the Reformation when the Catholic Church held nearly absolute sway over Western civilization. Obviously, the lives of people at that time were very much directed by Catholic theology. We should not ask for historical fiction and then complain when it accurately represents the beliefs and practices, however false, of those who lived in history. At the same time, there is a matter of emphasis. Some of G. A. Henty’s boys lived before the Reformation too and were obviously Catholic; one of them even visited the Pope in Rome.
However, many of the specific elements of Catholic faith are never emphasized by Henty. However, “Crispin,” with its numerous references to making the sign of the cross, praying to the saints, calling upon the Virgin Mary, and so forth does seem to go a bit overboard. I am sure that there were many people of that time who did those things frequently, but for those of us who do not believe in them, the constant mention of them can be somewhat annoying. However, for me, even worse was the fact that Crispin turned out to be the illegitimate (the book actually uses the word “bastard” at times) son of his peasant mother’s liege, Lord Furnival. Again, I am sure that there were a lot of illegitimate children, even of nobles, during those days, just as there had been before and have been since. And I realize that illegitimate children have no control over the circumstances of their birth. However, the Newbery Award is given “for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for CHILDREN,” so it is bothersome to me that a book whose plot centers around the fact that a young boy is an illegitimate child is thought to be a distinguished contribution to literature for children. Of course, that should not be surprising since the American Library Association, which awards the Newbery Medal, is officially on record as supporting children’s full rights to pornography (they may not say it in exactly those terms, but that is what some of their resolutions mean).
I think that the author could have accomplished the same intent by having Crispin’s mother be a first wife who was cast aside rather than merely a pleasure fling. Also, the language is a little rough with a lot of oaths (by God’s wounds, by the Devil’s own spit, by the bloody hands of Christ, etc.). Yes, people have always talked like that, but is it necessary in a book for children? Henty didn’t think so! I did this as a family read aloud and so was able to edit out a lot of the objectionable items. Finally, the ending is a little bit gruesome with the death of Crispin’s enemy, John Aycliffe who is Lord Furnival’s stewart. Unlike Henty’s boys, who fight only when in the service of a good cause, this might seem more like personal vengeance, although it could be justified on the grounds of self-defense. I have mixed feelings about this book. It could be useful and enjoyable for some, but I cannot give it a really high recommendation because of the problems mentioned, and the reader will have to proceed with it at his own risk. Avi also won a Newbery Honor for The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle in 1991 and another for Nothing But the Truth in 1992. There are two sequels to The Cross of Lead, Crispin: At the Edge of the World (2006) and Crispin: The End of Time (2010). We have not rushed out to purchase them.