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
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.
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.
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
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.
& 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."
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
Discuss how the Middle Ages were a very superstitious time.
Have students provide evidence that illustrates this from
Ask your students to brainstorm a list of superstitions that
we still hear today and have them try to determine the origin of
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
Have them answer what this gesture tells us about Crispin
and how this demonstrates the changes in Crispin over the course
of the book.
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.
and Copy the Classroom Activity Now (PDF)
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).
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.