Winner of the 2003 Newbery, this historical novel is set in England, 1377. Crispin, an orphan peasant, is told by his village priest that there is a secret regarding his birth. But after stumbling upon the cruel village steward making a secret plan in the woods, Crispin is declared a “wolf’s head” – a non-person whom anyone may kill for a reward – and he is forced to flee. He comes upon Bear, a jester who secretly works to bring a worker’s revolution to England, and together they travel to the “big city” of Wexly, where to Crispin’s horror the steward has followed them, and both their lives are in danger.
This is an interesting choice for the Newbery – Avi strives hard to recreate the historical milieu in which Crispin lives, so first and foremost, the prose is absolutely drenched in medieval Christian thought. Although Bear is an apostate, Crispin and many other characters are literally “God-fearing,” expecting swift and horrible punishments for their every transgression and believing utterly that a broken vow to Jesus (no matter how profane or involuntary) will result in immediate damnation. Then, just so everyone has something to be offended about, Avi has Crispin, if not explicitly reject this mindset, at least question it; he stops praying and pledges to make his own decisions, and later uses the binding power of an unwilling vow as a tool for his own ends. Finally, there’s the vocabulary: in addition to words like “trepidation” and “disconsolate,” Avi doesn’t shy away from the archaic terms: mazer, patten, kirtle, withal. It’s a terrific historical adventure story, I would think suitable for older teens and up; its value is not so much in the plot (which is fairly straightforward, hardly original, and rather far-fetched at the end) as it is in recreating the highly religious, hierarchical, nasty, sometimes brutish and short lives of the medieval European.