'Crispin' Author Avi on Historical Fiction, Truth, and January 6 | The Newbery at 100

The prolific author of Newbery Medalist Crispin and Honor titles Nothing But the Truth and The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle points out that protest and patriotism are woven into American history. 

Avi and his two Newbery-winning titles


Avi has written three books that have been recognized by the Newbery committee: The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle was awarded a Newbery Honor in 1991, Nothing but the Truth (both Orchard) was the recipient of an Honor in 1992, and Crispin: The Cross of Lead (Hyperion) won the Medal in 2003. While the prolific author is best known for his middle grade historical fiction, he has written for a wide range of audiences in different genres, formats, and styles. His 81st book, Loyalty (Clarion), will be published February 2022.


What does the Newbery legacy—one Medal and two Honor books—mean to you? How did these accomplishments register with you in the moment, and how do they sit with you now as you reflect on them? 

All came as a great surprise. Such awards are not so much deserved as they are gifts. But the award does a number of things: It brings attention, that is, readers, to the particular book. All artists, writers included, need affirmation to continue working. The awards also have a halo effect—so to speak—on my other work, past and present. I think of my award winners as good books, but not necessarily my best work. (That, I hope, has yet to be written.) In one not-so-great way, such books become the narrow focus of a large body of work. But beyond all else, I’m honored that my work has entered into a pantheon of fine books. Truly, one can only say thank you.  

All that said, one of my first thoughts, when I learned of the Newbery award (for Crispin), was, “Oh Lord, the next one better be good.”  


The number of Honor books varies from year to year, and the process is shrouded in secrecy. Some people prefer to spread the wealth; others believe that dilutes the prestige of the award. The Newbery committee recognized a single Honor book in 1991, two in 1992, and five in 2003, so you've experienced both ends of the spectrum. Does this debate hold your interest at all? 

I don’t believe there is one book that is “best,” or “the most distinguished,” one that will appeal to all readers. Nor should it be. One of the wonderful things about reading is that each reader decides what is “best.” That’s great. I would hate for a reader to feel bad because he/she doesn’t like the “best” book. In fact, I wish the award were given to, say, five excellent books. Better for writers. Better for readers.  


The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and Crispin: The Cross of Lead are both historical fiction; you also won the Scott O'Dell Award for The Fighting Ground. People often speculate that the genre is more popular with award committees than it is with young readers. What is the appeal for young readers, and what draws you, as a writer, to the genre?

I believe you can’t have a future unless you have a past. To know history is to know things have changed and can change again. Knowledge of history empowers. History is a story. I suspect it’s not such a popular academic subject because of the way it is taught. Fearful of the “dark matter” in our past, our society, like other societies, is often afraid of history. One of the first acts of anti-democratic governments is to rewrite history. I think good historical fiction is a great way to teach history.  


I'd like to call out Poppy, which won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award,  and the other six books in the series. I think they are among your most popular books—and you've clearly enjoyed writing about these characters. What kept bringing you back to them? 

Regarding the “Poppy” series, it’s an example of how sometimes a writer gets lucky and invents characters that he/she can and does love. These creatures were always fun to write about and relatively easy to find new adventures in which to frolic. I was greatly helped by the illustrator, Brian Floca, who was able to illustrate them brilliantly, a further inducement to keep them real in my head and write more.  


Although it was written more than 30 years ago, Nothing but the Truth still feels timely and relevant with its exploration of protest, patriotism, and misinformation. These same themes also feature prominently in your forthcoming book, Loyalty, set during the American Revolution. Can you discuss the new book—and perhaps preview any other books that you are working on?  

When I wrote Nothing but the Truth, my interest was not politics, but the complexity of “truth.” That is, while there may be an objective truth, it’s extraordinarily difficult to determine. Our jury system is a monument to that reality. That said, protest, patriotism, and misinformation have been part of the American experience right from the beginning. Settlers came to Jamestown looking for gold; when they didn’t find it, all those elements came into play. Indeed, Europeans were wildly misinformed about the peoples of the Americas. That misinformation still has an impact. Protest, patriotism, and misinformation are with us today. Think on January 6th, 2021. Samuel Johnston said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” The USA has always had its share of scoundrels. Still does. But, hey, scoundrels are fun to write about.  

All countries have historical myths that help create an origin story. The USA is no exception. The real story is always more complex, and, I think, much more interesting. To fully understand the American Revolution, one must also know about the fifth of the population that was not free—the enslaved peoples. Also, indentured servants. What role did they play? One must also know that the war for independence was also a savage civil war. Benjamin Franklin’s son was a Loyalist. There were a fair number of colonists who fought for England. One must understand that the high ideals for which the war was fought—“That all men are created equal,” was articulated by a man who enslaved people. It’s endlessly complex, and, therefore, I think, fascinating and interesting. Fascinating and interesting seems to me like a good recipe for a novel.  

Forthcoming books? There is City of Magic, an adventure set in Renaissance Venice, an extension of the ”Midnight Magic” books. I am also working on a sequel to The Secret School. Other projects are in the works. Stay tuned. I love to write.

Jonathan Hunt is a coordinator of library media services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee. Follow him on Twitter @jhunt24.

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