Crispin: The Cross of Lead – Avi
“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.
Review: Can you believe I’ve gone my entire life without reading a book by Avi? He’s written, like, a hundred children’s books. I’ve seen them around, but this is the first one I’ve read. You gotta start somewhere, I guess.
Crispin is a little like Game of Thrones for kids. It’s book #1 in a series. It’s got the medieval setting, some royal scandals, some death, some fight scenes, some characters who can’t be trusted, some orphaned kids who need more parental supervision. Basically, it has all the elements of an excellent middlegrade adventure story.
Crispin’s name wasn’t always Crispin. He starts the book as “Asta’s Son.” He doesn’t know his real name, and he can’t read or write. Crispin and his mother are so poor that they’ve never left their village. One day, his mother is murdered, and Crispin is accused of a crime he didn’t commit. A bounty is placed on his head. The most powerful family in the village wants him dead. He flees to the woods and meets up with a traveling juggler, but can the juggler be trusted? And why do so many important people suddenly want Crispin dead?
I think I would have liked this book way back when I was part of its target audience. The beginning is a bit info-dumpy, but the action starts pretty quickly and doesn’t let up. Crispin is constantly surrounded by danger. Anyone who recognizes him can murder him on-sight and claim the reward. He has to be resourceful to get himself out of trouble. He has quite a few close brushes with death.
I’m definitely not an expert on 14th century England, but the setting seems well-researched to me. The info-dump at the beginning helps make peasant life accessible to young modern readers. (As long as the young readers have the attention spans required to plow through the dry information being forced upon them. It’s only a few pages, but I know that feels like an eternity to a kid.)
I like that this book doesn’t ignore religion. Christianity was a massive deal in 14th century England. The church basically controlled everything. Crispin is a Christian. When he runs away from his village, the only thing he takes from home is a lead cross engraved with writing (that he can’t read). Religion is an important part of Crispin’s life. As he begins uncovering the secrets that his mother hid from him, he starts to wonder if God has bigger plans for him than just being a peasant.
“I kept asking myself if I felt different, if I was different. The answer was always yes. I was no longer nothing.” - Crispin
This book might be fun for (very patient) children, but as an adult, I found it extremely predictable. Within the first few chapters, I knew what was written on Crispin’s cross, and I knew why the ruling family wanted him dead. It’s all painfully obvious.
I also think Crispin is a flat character. This novel is mostly all action and history lessons. The reader doesn’t learn much about him as a person.
However, I’m not the target audience, so my opinions probably don’t matter.
TL;DR: An adventurous way to learn history, but I didn’t love it enough to continue with the series.