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Family Tree

Family Tree
based on Crispin: Cross of Lead
Written by Avi
Grades: 3–6

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About the Book
Avi's Crispin: The Cross of Lead, this year's Newbery Winner, is the compelling story of a young boy's journey of self-discovery. Set in the Middle Ages, the story follows Crispin as he is forced to leave his home after his mother dies and he is accused of murder. Declared a "wolf's head" he becomes prey to any one who wants to hunt him. As he attempts to flee, with no possessions except an inscribed cross of lead that could unlock the mysteries of his identity, he is befriended by a traveling entertainer named Bear, who teaches him about life, friendship, and family.

This book does an excellent job establishing an historical context as it draws the reader into a very engaging narrative. Avi's characters are very real people and the story and situations in which they find themselves offer powerful potential for discussions of tone, setting, and atmosphere. The curricular possibilities that exist with this amazing book are truly astounding!

Set the Stage
Before you read, discuss with your students the importance of a name. Ask them what they can tell us about a person and his family. Discuss where many names originated (professions, etc) and what happened to many European names as people immigrated to the United States. Discuss with the students whether or not this devalues a person. Ask them how they would feel if their name were suddenly changed.

Get students ready to read by asking them if they have ever been falsely accused of something and how it made them feel. Discuss what kinds of reactions people have when they are falsely accused of something.

Throughout Crispin's story, you will see examples of the different influences that shape the main character. Ask your students who the people are that have been most influential in their lives. Ask them to describe what made these people so important to them?

To help prepare your students to read Crispin, explain to them that the story deals with a young boy in search of what he is and what he is supposed to be. Ask your students if they have ever wanted to be anything different than what they are? Why? Discuss with them what they think would have to happen in order for them to become what they want to be compared to what they are. Discuss with them the obstacles that can prevent them from becoming what they might want to be.

Discussion Questions
• Bear tells Crispin that if you can read, you are treated as a priest and "common law does not allow priests to be hanged." Ask students why this might have been true in the Middle Ages.
• Discuss modern attitudes toward education with your class. Ask them if we feel the same way today and discuss with them how different countries hold education in a different regard than we do here in the U.S. Discuss with your students why this might be so.
• Crispin feels abandoned and alone throughout much of the book. Ask your students to consider a time when they felt alone or abandoned. What enabled them to overcome these feelings. How? Ask them how their experience compares to Crispin's.

Chapters 24 & 25 are pivotal points in the story. Bear gives much advice that young Crispin has to struggle to comprehend. Bear tells Crispin, "it is better to live by questions," but then also says, "it is a mistake to know everything." He also cautions him, "those who bring remorse are shunned, but wit and laughter, why no one ever has enough. Lose your sorrows and you'll find your freedom." Another piece of advice he gives is, "he who knows a bit of everything, know nothing. But he who knows a little bit well, knows much of all."

• Discuss these statements with your students. Ask them to articulate what they think Bear means by these statements. Do they agree or not?
• Discuss the relationship between Bear and Crispin. Create a timeline to show the events that happen during the story and how Bear and Crispin interact with each other at each stage of the story.
• Ask your students to define family and then have them discuss what Bear and Crispin's relationship tells us about the nature of family.

Discuss how the Middle Ages were a very superstitious time.
• Have students provide evidence that illustrates this from the book.
• Ask your students to brainstorm a list of superstitions that we still hear today and have them try to determine the origin of these superstitions.

Crispin risks and relinquishes everything to save Bear. Ask students to explain why he might do this.
• Ask students if they would be willing to sacrifice everything for someone.
• Have them answer what this gesture tells us about Crispin and how this demonstrates the changes in Crispin over the course of the book.

Student Activity
Crispin's family is largely a mystery to him through much of the book. Yet, realizing he is in fact a son of a Lord could potentially have a huge impact on his life. In this activity, students will trace their own family history and create a family tree.

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Related Activities

Use these activities to further explore the concepts in the book.

  • After reading pages 16-19, map the village and manor that Crispin knows as his home and his whole world. Write a paragraph discussing the differences in your knowledge of the world and Crispin's.
  • Explore the hierarchical structure of the Middle Ages: Lord, Priest, Steward, Serf, Vassal, Peasant etc. Is our society set up in a similar fashion? Is social class as unalterable today as it was then? Write a paragraph explaining your position.
  • Using the illuminated manuscript style of the time, create an artistic rendering of your name. Then write a paragraph discussing the importance of the written word and the reverence with which books, etc. were treated and describe the experience of painstakingly completing the task of illumination.
  • The Black Death, the plague, had such a tremendous effect in the Middle Ages that it eventually helped to bring about the collapse of feudalism. Research the Black Death; explore the cause, spread, and treatment of the disease and discuss its long-term impact. You might want to explore some artwork of the 15th century (especially Orcagna's Triumph of Death).

Lesson Developed by Dr. Susan Shafer
Dr. Susan Shafer is a former elementary school teacher with more than twenty years of classroom experience and a doctorate in education from Teachers College, Columbia University. While teaching she received special recognition for her innovative, theme-based teaching methods. The author of two books for children and numerous articles for adults, Susan is presently a freelance writer, editor, and educational consultant.