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About The Book

From New York Times bestselling, award-winning author Ann Packer, a “tour de force family drama” (Elle) that explores the secrets and desires, the remnant wounds and saving graces of one California family, over the course of five decades.

Bill Blair finds the land by accident, three wooded acres in a rustic community south of San Francisco. The year is 1954, long before anyone will call this area Silicon Valley. Struck by a vision of his future family, Bill buys the property and proposes to Penny Greenway, a woman whose yearning attitude toward life appeals to him. In less than a decade they have four children. Yet Penny is a mercurial housewife, overwhelmed and undersatisfied, chafing at the conventions confining her.

Years later, the three oldest Blair children, adults now and still living near the family home, are disrupted by the return of the youngest, whose sudden presence sets off a struggle over the family’s future. One by one, they tell their stories, which reveal Packer’s “great compassion for her characters, with their ancient injuries, their blundering desires. The way she tangles their perspectives perfectly, painfully captures the tumult of selves within a family” (MORE Magazine).

Reviewers have praised Ann Packer’s “brilliant ear for character” (The New York Times Book Review) and her “naturalist’s vigilance for detail, so that her characters seem observed rather than invented” (The New Yorker). Her talents are on dazzling display in The Children’s Crusade, “an absorbing novel that celebrates family even as it catalogs its damages” (People, Book of the Week). This is a “superb storyteller” (San Francisco Chronicle), Ann Packer’s most deeply affecting book yet, “tragic and utterly engrossing” (O, The Oprah Magazine).

Reading Group Guide


This reading group guide for The Children’s Crusade includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. We hope that these questions will enrich your reading group’s conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.



From the New York Times bestselling, award-winning author of The Dive From Clausen’s Pier, a masterful new novel that explores the secrets and desires, the remnant wounds and saving graces of one California family over the course of five decades



1.   Explain the significance of the title of the book. What is the “children’s crusade”? Did your interpretation of the title change as you read?

2.   One of Rebecca’s friends tells her, “Your dad is like a mom” (p. 35). Discuss Bill and Penny’s parenting styles. What did you think of Penny as a mother?

3.   Discuss the structure of The Children’s Crusade. What is the effect of allowing each of the Blair children to narrate parts of the story? Packer intersperses the chapters from the children’s points of view with chapters where events are recounted in the third person. Why do you think she chose to do so?

4.   At the outset of The Children’s Crusade all four of the Blair children were “united in [their] desire” to keep their childhood home, but they have their “separate rationalizations” (p. 160). Why are the children reluctant to sell the house? Do these rationalizations give you any insight into their personalities?

5.   When Ryan and Sierra become romantically involved, the narrator tells the reader, “Robert had had a girlfriend for almost three months, but until today [Rebecca] hadn’t truly believed anyone in her family would ever love someone outside it” (p. 254). What does Ryan’s relationship with Sierra make Rebecca understand? Discuss the romantic relationships of the Blair children. How does their parents’ marriage influence those relationships?

6.   During a Thanksgiving visit to Penny’s parents, the children put together a jigsaw puzzle that reveals an old photo of the family on the porch of Bill’s childhood home. The image “upset[s] her more than she’d expected” because Penny views it as “a warning about the danger of desire” (p. 228). How do Penny’s yearnings change as she settles into married life with Bill? Which of her longings do you think are the most dangerous? Do you agree with the sacrifices that Penny makes in order to realize her desires? 

7.   Rebecca’s analyst tells her, “We never get over it. . . . Having started out as children” (p. 171). What does she mean? Apply this statement to each of the Blair children. How have their childhood experiences shaped who they are as adults?

8.   Were you surprised by Penny’s behavior at the Lawson recital? What prompts her to leave? Once the family is back home, “Bill saw that the children were defining the moment as a rescue operation rather than the act of capture it actually was” (p. 140). Do you think, like Bill, that Penny is being cornered or, like the children, that she’s being saved?

9.   At Ryan’s birthday, James reacts very strongly to Penny’s assertion that Bill isn’t supportive of her work. Do you think that James is justified? Why do you think that James destroys Penny’s watercolor? 

10. Penny believes she and James “ruin things” (p. 415). Do you agree with her? In what ways are they forces of destruction? How pronounced are the differences between Penny and James, particularly in the way that they view family obligations?

11. Describe the Barn. What prompts James to join it? How does being part of the Barn change James? Why do you think he is reluctant to tell his siblings about it?

12. What is the significance of the three capital Rs that Bill scratches into the concrete foundation of his shed? How does the presence of the carving bring Bill and Penny closer together? How does it comfort Robert?

13. Discuss Penny’s artwork. From the descriptions of her work and the reactions of others to it, do you think she’s a talented artist? The narrator says, “It was no wonder Penny was so protective of her art; she’d needed to protect it for most of her life” (p. 305). What has Penny needed to protect her artwork from? Why is creating art so important to Penny?



1.   The Blair children all have strong and varied memories of growing up in their childhood home. Did reading their recollections remind you of your childhood home? Share your stories with your book club.

2.   Discuss family structure with your book club—your families of origin and/or your current families. How do you think birth order and sibling relationships shape your behavior? 

3.   When Ann Packer’s debut novel, The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, was published she won critical acclaim for her “brilliant ear for character” (The New York Times Book Review) and her “straightforward prose that carries a good deal of emotional weight” (The Boston Globe). Read The Dive from Clausen’s Pier with your book club and compare the two novels. Has Packer’s writing style changed since the release of her debut novel? If so, how?

About The Author

Photograph by Elena Seibert

Ann Packer is the acclaimed author of two collections of short fiction, Swim Back to Me and Mendocino and Other Stories, and two bestselling novels, Songs Without Words and The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, which received the Kate Chopin Literary Award, among many other prizes and honors. Her short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker and in the O. Henry Prize Stories anthologies, and her novels have been published around the world. She lives in San Carlos, California.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (April 7, 2015)
  • Length: 448 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476710471

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Raves and Reviews

“In The Children’s Crusade, Ann Packer flawlessly executes the most daring, difficult and exhilarating feat in the novelist's repertoire: to re-create the history of an era and a place through the history of one family, finding intimacy in the sweep of time and import in the nuance of everyday life, pulling it off with mastery, authority and all the passionate artistry that lovers of her work have come to expect.”

– Michael Chabon, author of Telegraph Avenue

“Do our childhood experiences determine our destinies? In shimmering prose and with exceptional wisdom, Ann Packer examines the life of a California family, laying bare the relationships between brother and sister, parent and child, while at the same time revealing the ways in which the past casts both shadow and light on the present. The Children’s Crusade is a provocative, dazzling novel from a world-class fiction writer.”

– Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train

"The Children's Crusade is an extraordinary tale of a physician, his wife and their four children. Set in Northern California, it is a coming-of-age tale of family as well as an American pastoral; the language is beautiful, painterly, even as it shows us how much of our adult identity has been fully formed in childhood. Ann Packer’s eye for detail, her genius at evoking an era with such faithfulness, and her mastery of story make us identify with and deeply care for her characters. This is a beautiful novel that will stay with me.”

– Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone

Told in the most elegant prose... extraordinarily compassionate... A masterful portrait of indelible family bonds.

– Joanne Wilkinson, Booklist (starred review)

“Well-crafted… Packer is anaccomplished storyteller whose characters are as real as you might find aroundyour dinner table. Readers will be taken with this vibrant novel.”

– Publishers Weekly

“Packer is an expert at complicated relationships… Beautifully precise… When you read Packer, you'll know you're in the hands of a writer who knows what she's doing. A marvelously absorbing novel.”

– Kirkus (starred review)

“A tour de force family drama… An engrossing saga… Packer brilliantly constructs the siblings’ narratives with both an appealing lightness and an arresting gravitas… Packer’s golden touch makes us care deeply for this memorable tribe.”

– Lisa Shea, Elle

“An artful portrait of a California family.”

– Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair

"A flawless, compassionate portrayal... literary fiction at its finest."

– Donna Bettencourt, Library Journal (starred review)

"Tender, absorbing... Packer has great compassion for her characters, with their ancient injuries, their blundering desires. The way she tangles their perspectives perfectly, painfully captures the tumult of selves within a family. “

– Catherine Newman, MORE

"An absorbing novel which celebrates family even as it catalogs its damages."

– People Magazine (Book of the Week)

“Packer is an expert American realist at every level, from the interior monologue to the bird’s-eye view.”

– Boris Kachka,

"First-rate storytelling... Few writers are as emotionally astute at conveying subtle family ties as Packer."

– Jane Ciabattari,

"A more ambitious work that succeeds beautifully. The beauty comes from the rich characterizations that make each of the Blairs spring to life. We do not like them all equally, but ultimately we come to know them equally... Packer’s dissection of domestic life reminds me of her elders in the field Anne Tyler and Louise Erdrich. But I’ve rarely read a novel so astute about the jumble of love and respect, rivalry and envy, empathy and scorn that makes up family dynamics. Packer is also a superb storyteller. “The Children’s Crusade” is as much plot-driven as character-driven. From its opening pages, the book seduces us into a world far from the present era, glides through ensuing decades, and finally drops us off in the 21st century."

– Dan Cryer, San Francisco Chronicle

"Psychologically acute... provocative... Packer shows how unhappiness and happiness, selfishness and kindness, ricochet in complicated ways through relationships. This is a novel with something to teach about forgiving the people we love."

– Marion Winik, Newsday

"As the details accumulate, as each character’s story builds, Packer’s writing gains depth and power. By the end, all the separate threads weave a complex, textured tapestry. What a gift to the reader, who will certainly recognize and identify with the novel’s universal themes of those knotted ties that bind, the varied meanings of home, and, in particular, the many ways the child is father to the man."

– Mameve Medwed, The Boston Globe

"Graceful, poignant... With her warm, nuanced portrayal of a family and its foibles, Packer delivers."

– Hannah Sampson, Miami Herald

"Packer's portrayal of one family's breakdown is tragic and utterly engrossing."

– "O," The Oprah Magazine

"Packer has made complicated families her specialty... engaging writing, sense of place... The Children's Crusade [is] a journey worth taking."

– Yvonne Zipp, The Christian Science Monitor

"Absorbing... the novel spreads its branches widely... fully formed heartbreaking portrayals."

– Martha T. Moore, USA TODAY (4 stars out of four)

"A sublime and intelligent exploration of one family and its mythology of sorts... Ms. Packer is a wonderful portraitist, allowing childhood moments to unfold in all their riveting innocence (including a breathtakingly perfect, terribly sad music recital scene) and following the family as choices beget choices and lives intertwine or unwind... This entertaining,poetic novel layers a multitude of human contradictions, and what is most moving is that even with so much hostility and melancholy, the family story here is one of love.
It is about how we return again and again to understand, to make things right, even as we seek to move on from ancient pain."

– Lisa Jennifer Selzman, Pittsburgh Post Gazette

"Bursting with poignancy... refreshing."

– The New Yorker

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