Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi
Hyperion Books, 2003
Middle Grade (ages 9-12)
Crispin--without a father, and only known as "Asta's son" in the beginning--thought that the death of his mother was the worst that could happen. Well, since that is the inciting incident, we know there is much more evil to come, and the author doesn't waste any time getting there.
No sooner has Crispin seen his mother buried than he finds his own life suddenly threatened. He's been declared a "wolf's head", and as such, he can be killed by anyone who sees him, without question.
Um... he's only 14. Yikes.
He goes to Father Quinel for help, who gives Crispin his mother's cross of lead. It has an important message written on it, but Crispin, of course, doesn't know how to read. Father Quinel promises to read it to him, later, and reveal the identity of Crispin's father, whom Crispin thought had died from the Plague.
Crispin hides during the day, then returns to Father Quinel that night and finds him murdered. Before he can question, there is a mob after him. Crispin has no choice but to run for his life, not having ever left his home town before this night.
Alone, tired, and starving, Crispin stumbles upon an abandoned town. This is where he meets Bear, an entertainer and former man of the church. He offers Crispin food, money, and protection, and teaches him to play the recorder and how to defend himself with a dagger. They travel from town to town, entertaining, and Crispin picks up clues along the way that he hopes will lead him to the answers of why he has been wrongly accused.
What he finds is something far greater. And by the end of his journey, he has clearly transitioned from boy to young man.
I highly recommend Crispin: The Cross of Lead for readers of all ages.