Avi, Crispin: the Cross of Lead (Scholastic 2002)
Moving house is supposed to be one of the most stressful things you can do. It certainly claims a lot of attention, and I thought perhaps a mediaeval adventure for young readers would be an appropriately diverting read. Crispin: The Cross of Lead turned out to be just the ticket – it’s straightforward but intelligent, with enough authenticating detail, political savvy and period vocabulary (I’m familiar with terce, sext and none, can guess what a glaive is, and had to look up mazer) to be interesting.
The 13 year old hero – ‘Asta’s son’ – doesn’t even know his own name at the start of the book. He and his mother have been outcasts in their small village, and now that his mother has died he is almost completely alone in the world. Things get rapidly worse. For reasons he doesn’t understand his life is threatened, and he flees the village that is all he has ever known. He is taken under the wing of a traveling juggler who turns out, of course, to be more than he seems, and we get an age-appropriate taste of the kind of 14th century European politics that informed Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose. There’s a twist involving the young hero’s identity that you might be able to guess even from that wispy outline, and would be unsurprising to most of the 10 to 12 year old target readership (a phrase that always reminds me of a Tohby Riddle cartoon where a cheerful adult is taking aim at the head of a small child with a book that’s about to become a projectile). The final scenes are awfully implausible, in way that suggests a tight deadline was being met, but that wasn’t enough to take away from my enjoyment of the book as a whole.
If you don’t know Avi’s work (evidently that’s not a pen name, but the name he was given by his sister when he was small it’s the only one he uses now in his early seventies), I’d recommend starting with The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, in which another 13 year old has equally implausible but wonderfully swashbuckling adventures on the high seas in the early 19th century.