by Donna Bray
It was early October 2001 when the bound galleys of Crispin: The Cross of Lead landed on my desk. Avi had worked for months on the book, through many revisions, which were now piled behind me in a stack the height of a small child. I was reluctant to throw them out (although I have since), despite their unsightly appearance. I wanted a record of all the changes we made, on the off chance we might decide at the last minute to substitute a paragraph from one of the many earlier versions. I also held onto them as a kind of monument to the intense revision process, which resulted in a book as tight and compelling as we thought it could possibly be.
I dashed off notes to Avi and his agent to send with their advance reading copies, and mailed out more to librarians, educators, and publishing friends. The next day Avi received his copies and called to express his thanks. When I said something about being anxious to finally get the book out into the world and see the reviews, he gently warned me against getting my hopes up. His books always receive mixed reviews, he told me. People who love his animal stories may not love his historical fiction, and those who admire his historical fiction don’t cotton to his humorous or more experimental work.
I was a bit surprised. Was an author comforting me about reviews — in advance? Now this was unusual (and unnecessary, as it turned out). While I suspect that Avi is not completely immune to rave reviews, he did once share with me an anecdote about Sir Laurence Olivier’s response to Charlton Heston regarding a play they had done together. Heston said, “Well, I guess you’ve just got to forget the bad reviews.” To which Olivier is reported to have replied, “No, you’ve got to forget the good ones.”
The advantage of working with an author on his fiftieth book is that he brings this kind of knowledge and perspective to the process. Avi’s career spans more than three decades. His website bibliography reads like a menu for every age group and reading taste: early readers, picture books, young adult novels, and short stories; comedies, fantasies, and mysteries; ghost stories, animal tales, adventure novels; and, of course, historical fiction.
The stars in the lineup are the award-winners, and there are many. The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and Nothing but the Truth: A Documentary Novel were named Newbery Honor books in 1991 and 1992, respectively. The Fighting Ground, about a Revolutionary War skirmish, was a Scott O’Dell Award winner, and Encounter at Easton, also set in colonial America, garnered a Christopher Award. In Poppy (winner of the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award) and its companion books, Avi created a cast of beloved animal characters. Many other books are great favorites with readers. The Barn is a spare, classic story of family and community. “Who Was That Masked Man, Anyway?” written entirely in dialogue, reflects Avi’s boyhood love of radio shows.
A career in literature might have been expected of him. He grew up in Brooklyn, surrounded by the readers and storytellers in his book-lined home and exposed to the rich diversity of New York City. It seems that almost every member of his family engaged in writing or other creative pursuits. Two of his great-grandfathers, his parents, a maternal aunt, cousins, his twin sister — all writers of one kind or another.
Avi’s success is remarkable, however, when one considers that this was the same young man whose high school English teacher told him, “You can’t write!” The same boy who slogged through school, whose syndromes of dyslexia made it difficult for adults to see the talent behind the errors and misspellings. But Avi continued to write anyway.
These are all facts readily known about Avi. What may be less well known is that his experiences, personal and professional, have given him a great respect for and sensitivity to his audience and a steadfast determination to remain true to his creative vision. And as everyone at Hyperion has discovered, he approaches the publishing process with energy, grace, and a collaborative spirit.
An editor’s first book with an author is always a learning experience. The process for Crispin started early in 2001, when he called to tell me about a novel he’d written that he thought I might like. It may have been titled “No Name,” or “Wolf’s Head,” or even “Crispin” at that point (if only I’d kept the first draft!), and was set in fourteenth-century England. Avi had been reading Barbara W. Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century and listening to taped lectures by Teofilo Ruiz, a scholar of medieval history (and the person to whom Crispin is dedicated). He was intrigued by the fact that during this tumultuous time, the modern era was born. I was intrigued, too. It is difficult for us living in the twenty-first century to imagine what it was like then, to be so completely defined by your station in life, to be denied the many choices and freedoms we Americans take for granted. This awakening of individual consciousness seemed to be the perfect metaphor for any young person’s coming of age.
Reading the first draft of the manuscript that eventually would be called Crispin: The Cross of Lead, I was transported immediately to the narrator’s small English village. I felt the damp rains, smelled the rotting wood and leaves thick on the forest floor, and most of all experienced the monotonous, backbreaking, hopeless lives of the villagers, who worked from dawn till dusk, day after day, for no personal gain. Crispin’s change of fortune was dramatic, his triumph immensely satisfying. And the main characters were vivid and memorable. Once again, Avi had managed to inhabit a completely foreign time and place and make it at once authentic and accessible.
We wanted to get to work right away, and I was prepared to work quickly — but perhaps not quite as prepared as Avi was! He took my suggestions, added his own inspiration, and would usually return a full revision within a week. Sometimes I’d be working on a line-edit of a draft and receive a whole new one via e-mail, often with just a brief note — “Better, I think.” E-mail, fax, and overnight courier have certainly made the process of working with authors faster and easier. But with Avi, these technologies sped the revising and editing along so much that I had the sense of watching a book being written in real time.
There were many small changes to the manuscript that now seem inevitable — such as making Lord Furnival’s given name Crispin — and that added a layer of resonance and connection. And it’s hard to believe that in an earlier draft, the titular “cross of lead” was not even part of the story. While some things in the novel changed very little, the beginning was rewritten so many times that I would sometimes hesitate — did I dare ask him to revisit it yet again? But he was never in the least unwilling, and in fact seemed energized to start over and get it right. For Avi, the process of rewriting seemed to be more than just fixing what was written — it was discovery. It is this sense of curiosity and discovery, of the writing being as much of an adventure as the story, that comes through in his books and makes them immediate and engaging.
In Crispin, the eponymous narrator claims his name for himself, stripping it from its association with his lord, and begins a new life. How very fortunate for all of us that, once upon a time, Avi claimed a new name for himself as a writer and embarked on a life’s work of creating literature for children. It is a joy and an honor to celebrate with Avi this gift of the Newbery Medal for his fiftieth book. What more can I say, except — here’s to the next fifty!