Newbery Post: Crispin the Cross of Lead and Walk Two Moons

Yes, it's another entry in my slow-and-irregular Newbery Medal series - I hope no one was holding their breath. 

Last year when I was subbing in various libraries around the city, I would scan the shelves for Newbery books and read them at breaks. I found these two at Mutchmor Elementary School.

Crispin, the Cross of Lead by Avi (Newbery Medal Winner 2003): Synopsis from Goodreads:
"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.

This was probably one of the best examples of a book targeted at the exact audience meant for the Newbery Medal books - middle-grade readers. There's not a whole lot of nuance, but for younger readers there is pathos, excitement, adventure, a suitably sympathetic and entertaining adult figure, and a big payoff of a plot reveal. There's enough history that you could write a paper on it and pull out a few impressive details about the period, as well as some good "compare your life to Crispin's" type of deal. 

So yeah, I wasn't blown away by this, but I think as a third-or-fourth-grader it would have held my interest. There were five Honor books that year (runners-up, essentially) and the only one I've read is Surviving the Applewhites. It's more contemporary and I probably liked it slightly more, but there's nothing wrong with getting kids to ingest a little historical knowledge with their fiction.

Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech (Newbery Medal Winner 1995): Synopsis from Goodreads: "How about a story? Spin us a yarn."
Instantly, Phoebe Winterbottom came to mind. "I could tell you an extensively strange story," I warned.
"Oh, good!" Gram said. "Delicious!"
And that is how I happened to tell them about Phoebe, her disappearing mother, and the lunatic.

As Sal entertains her grandparents with Phoebe's outrageous story, her own story begins to unfold — the story of a thirteen-year-old girl whose only wish is to be reunited with her missing mother.

In her own award-winning style, Sharon Creech intricately weaves together two tales, one funny, one bittersweet, to create a heartwarming, compelling, and utterly moving story of love, loss, and the complexity of human emotion.

I really liked this one, pretty much from the beginning. It was not at all what I was expecting. As with many of the Newbery books, I'd been aware of the title for years, and I always assumed it was about an indigenous girl quite far in the past. Instead it's contemporary, about a girl named Salamanca tree whose mother has some Indigenous blood, and truthfully the borrowing/mashing up/mutilating of Indigenous themes has not aged well and is quite painful at times. There is something right about the expression "Never judge a man until you've walked two moons in his moccasins", though (I think I read that the author found it in a fortune cookie). Sal's voice is strong and affecting and the dynamic between the two grandparents is really lovely. The author doesn't shy away from themes of loss and deep sadness, which I always think shows respect for young readers, who can often handle more than adults think they can. This was just a really great story - I cried at the end. Oh, but I have to mention that the teacher, Mr. Birkway, who is supposed to be a pivotal adult figure? He assigns journal writing to the class and then reads out embarrassing journal entries that are supposed to be private. It's all supposed to be in the name of revelation and empathy and shit, but if he did that to me, or my daughter? Heads would ROLL, people. Ahem. 

I also read a book called Firegirl by Tony Abbott from this library (the cover called out to me) and it was excellent. A girl disfigured by burn scars joins the middle-school class of Tom, the narrator, and predictably causes a stir. The author pitches the story just right, and I felt viscerally Tom's fear, discomfort, sympathy and torment as he tries to navigate reassessing his relationship with a selfish and opportunistic 'best friend' and being a friend to Jessica, facing customary fears about being accepted. It's not quite Wonder, but while I always appreciate a young readers' book that works on a lot of levels, there's something to be said for a book that addresses ten-to-twelve-year olds exactly where they are. 

Geez, book review posts are exhausting. On the other hand, I'm going to my awesome neighbour's birthday party tomorrow so expect a blurry picture of a margarita glass at best. Happy week-end. 


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