Thursday, November 3, 2011


by Jerry Spinelli
Laurel Leaf, 2004, 176 pages

Crash is not just about a bullying football-loving kid named "Crash" Coogan who spends his whole life literally and figuratively crashing into other people; the story is narrated by him. The fact that Crash tells his own story will make the lessons he learns easier to swallow for readers who are perhaps just a little bit like him. (The novel is often read by Grade Five or Six students, but the first-person narrator makes it fascinating also for adolescents and adults alike.)

How much like him are most of us? Crash is a bully; are most of us bullies? Perhaps, or perhaps not, but his reasons may not be that strange for many of us. Crash's meanest tricks are done to his neighbour Penn Webb, whose Quaker background is highlighted by the fact that his first name is also the last name of the American Quaker William Penn, for whom the state of Pennsylvania is named. Crash despises  Penn because as a Quaker, Penn is therefore a pacifist and a vegetarian; he wears outdated clothes and has one toy; his parents look painfully old; he lives in a house remodelled from a garage; and finally, he has joined his school's cheerleading squad.   For many of us, Penn's oddness might not be a motivation for bullying - at least not physical bullying - but it certainly might raise our eyebrows and get our tongues wagging behind his back or to his face, despite what Paul says in Ephesians about using our tongues to build others up rather than tear them down.

Crash not only views Penn as hopelessly weird, but he sees himself as superior because of both his more fashionable possessions and his much cooler position - new sneakers and membership on his high school's football team. This, in his mind, justifies his bullying of Penn through cruel pranks that  either seek to humiliate Penn or destroy his meager possessions. How often do we not use our own sense of moral, mental, physical, or material prosperity to justify our shabby treatment of others?

Ironically, it is the "loser" Penn who has everything Crash wants - the attention of his parents, the interest of the cute girl in their class in school, and the simple contentment that eludes the perpetually angry Crash. When Crash goes through his own personal crash, he finally begins to see that he needs to stop trying to take Penn down a peg and start trying to live up to Penn's example.

CAUTION AND CONCLUSION: Jerry Spinelli's novels always feature non-conformists - some obviously cool and some less so - and so can be great ways to get a discussion going on when we need to stand out from the crowd, when we need to be countercultural. While another of Spinelli's novels, Stargirl, sees our unity in the (false) idea that we are all products of the ancient and (supposedly) majestic forces of evolution, Crash does not carry any of the same anti-Christian baggage. As Christians, we may be disappointed that Crash's change of heart is not an explicitly religious conversion, even if it is motivated by the example of a Quaker. However, Crash's new attitude does involve a casting down of some of the idols in his life - idols that tempt most of us, right from Grade Five on. How much greater an example do we have for dethroning the idols in our hearts - our example died for us and dwells within us.

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