Study Guide

Crash Analysis

By Jerry Spinelli

  • Tone

    Mean, Clueless, Funny, Earnest

    Not So Nice

    We're going to be honest—throughout a lot of this book, Crash isn't exactly the kind of dude we'd like to be friends with.

    It seems like if Crash isn't laughing at someone, he's knocking them over. (And occasionally, he gets wild and does both.) He's also really, really rude. When Crash's new neighbor, Penn, points out his house, Crash says, "That's no house. That's a garage" (2.21). If you think that's funny, think again. It's supposed to sound mean.

    Not So Smart…but Plenty Amusing

    A lot of times though, the author wants to make fun of Crash a little—just to let us readers know this character is doing everything wrong. Take, for instance, when Mr. Tough Guy grabs the button off Penn's shirt. "I plucked it off his shirt. But there was no hole this time to dump it in. I thought of pinning it on myself, but what did I want with a button that said PEACE? So I gave it back to him" (2.18).

    Crash is trying to be intimidating, not funny, but he just makes himself look ridiculous. As readers, we're always laughing at him, not with him.

    He Really Means It

    Finally, here's a little tip from us to you: wherever there are oatburgers, you will find earnest people eating them.

    To wit: as Mr. Webb chows down on his meatless burger, he tells Crash, "We're not poor at all. In fact, I would say in a lot of ways we're rich" (6.44). This is like Tiny Tim-level earnestness, folks.

    Plus, there are a lot of morals to the story, including lessons about materialism, the environment, and diversity. Jerry Spinelli isn't just hawking vegetarian recipes; he's really trying to tell us something about the world.

  • Genre

    Family Drama; Comedy; Young Adult Literature

    All in the Family

    Strictly speaking, Crash isn't a family drama because the central conflict is between two boys (Crash and Penn) from different families. But the storyline that gives the book its weight involves Scooter, Crash's grandfather, who has a stroke—an event that leads the Coogan family to make some major changes in their lives.

    Plus, there are a few subplots that revolve around family dynamics:

    • The drama between Crash's sister and his mom as they battle over their priorities and Abby's evolution as a young environmentalist
    • The tension between the males and females of the family when they talk about Penn's pursuit of cheerleading
    • The friction between Crash and his dad, who doesn't seem to have a lot of time to spend with his son because of his work obligations

    So, yeah. Family drama, even if it's not in the traditional sense.

    Laugh It Up

    Similarly, the book isn't straight comedy (because bad things happen), but the overall tone is pretty light. There are definitely lots of jokes.

    When a book begins with someone using the words "Poop State," you can bet there will be a few laughs along the way.

    YA? Why Not?

    Finally, we're slapping Crash with the young adult label because the narrator is in seventh grade. When your main dude is a preteen, that's a good sign the book is geared toward people around the same age.

    And, as with most YA novels, we see our main character begin to make the transition from child to adult. No, Crash isn't a full-fledged man at the end of the novel—he still has a ways to go. But he has grown up quite a bit and gained some perspective that he didn't have as the young bully who put mustard in Penn's sneakers. So the YA label fits.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    This one couldn't be easier, folks. The title refers to the nickname of the main character, John "Crash" Coogan, so named because he's super into football.

    Also, on a personal level, he's a bit of a disaster—rude, hyper, and prone to violent hissy fits. "Disaster" isn't much of a nickname, though. It just doesn't have the same ring to it, you know?

    Now, if you're really in the mood to get existential, we could dig a little deeper and say that poor Crash's life came crashing down after his grandfather's stroke.

    (Get it? Crash? Yeah, you get it.)

    See, aging and illness make us think about death, and thinking about death makes us want to be better people. At least, that's the hope. As the book progresses, we see Crash reconsider how he makes his way through the world. Instead of seeking out conflicts all the time, he learns how to play nice.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    The final chapter fast-forwards a few months to midsummer so we can see how everything worked out.

    Abby got her wildlife habitat or, at least, some long grass in the backyard. Scooter is still scootin'. And Crash—well, Crash seems to be a much better person, spending his sneaker money on gifts for his mom and clipping coupons to help her out with the shopping.

    In a few short sentences, we learn that Jane Forbes has invited Crash to her Fourth of July party and—last, but not least—Crash and Penn Webb have become besties.

    This fast wrap to the novel confirms a lot of what we could already see coming: Crash is changing, and it's for the better. We don't need to see all these scenarios play out in detail, but it's nice to have Crash's transition verified so there's no question in our minds.

  • Setting

    Pennsylvania (a.k.a. the Poop State)

    When Penn Webb introduces himself to Crash, he says he's from North Dakota, the Flickertail State. He wonders what Pennsylvania is called, and Crash tells him it's "the Poop State" (1.18).

    Fun fact: Pennsylvania, where our story unfolds, is actually known as the Keystone State. (Surprise, surprise, Crash was just being a jerk.) We thought it was pretty funny, though, so we're making it official: the setting for Crash is the Poop State. But if your teacher asks, you should probably say Pennsylvania.

    Anytown, PA?

    Well, not just any town.

    Zooming in on the neighborhood where Crash and Penn live, we know that the Webb family's small house and lack of material things make them stand out. Crash's harsh judgments about their lack of a TV and their old car didn't just come to him out of nowhere; those are values he learned from the people around him.

    So, we can guess this is a fairly affluent town. And since we don't get a city feel from the descriptions of the area (Crash's backyard is pretty huge), we can also guess that it's in a suburban area. But where exactly?

    Put on your deerstalker, and work with us here.

    Thanks to the Webbs' plan to visit nearby Amish country, we can deduce that the town in question is likely in or near Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Take that, Sherlock!

    What About the When?

    Our powers of deduction can also help us place the time when Crash is set, despite its total lack of dates. Crash tells us that he received several VHS cassettes for Christmas. Since VCRs became obsolete soon after the book was published in 1996, we can safely assume that the story was set around then, or maybe even a little bit before.

    The fact that no actual dates are given and that there are no historical events to anchor the story in a particular time frame—except, of course, those VHS tapes and the Dan Marino football—lets us imagine it could take place pretty much any the1990s, today, maybe even 10 years from now.

    This sense of timelessness keeps us focused on the real issues in the story, things like childhood relationships, human nature, family dynamics, and Flickertails.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (2) Sea Level

    If you're in the market for an easy-breezy read, Crash has got you covered. The plot jumps forward in time twice, but for the most part, it moves in a nice, straight line. And while we wouldn't go so far as to say that Crash is a dumb jock, he's definitely not throwing around too many $5 words.

    So go ahead, take off your thinking cap. There's no need to strain your brain this time around.

  • Writing Style

    Simple, Energetic, Dynamic

    Word nerd Marcel Proust is famous for having written sentences that are hundreds of words long. Not to worry, Shmooper: this ain't that.

    In fact, Crash is basically the opposite, with short sentences and simple language through and through. The first paragraph gives us a pretty good idea of how things are gonna go: "My name is John. John Coogan. But everybody calls me Crash, even my parents" (1.1). Hey, nice to meet you, Crash! Thank you for getting to the point.

    As his nickname suggests, Crash Coogan has a lot of excess energy. To convey his hyperactive style, the author uses a lot of vibrant verbs. In the first paragraph of Chapter 2 alone, Crash digs, shovels, drives, dumps, and buries. Which, now that we think about it, sort of sounds like he's getting rid of a body. Don't worry—he's just playing with a dump truck.

    Finally, the short chapters, which tend to end with mini-cliffhangers, move the plot forward at a clip. But the author occasionally switches up the pace to great effect.

    A handful of super short chapters help drive home the impact of major events. For instance, when Scooter has his stroke, Crash tells us, "Scooter is in the hospital" (31.1). That's all we get for Chapter 31. Similarly, Chapter 43 is a single line: "Scooter came home today!" (43.1)

    With just a few words, Spinelli conveys big feelings.

  • The Mall

    The mall is a new structure that's going up in town. But in this story, it's more than just a place to shop. It's a symbol of how Abby's values clash with her mother's.

    Mrs. Coogan, who works in real estate, is handling some of the stores. Abby, on the other hand, is protesting the construction of the mall itself. When Abby is interviewed on the news, she says, "We don't need more stores. We should take better care of what we have" (26.9). At just 11 years old, she's already a hardcore environmentalist. Admit it, you're impressed.

    Later, mother and daughter get into an argument:

    "Don't you want to save the earth?"

    "I want to make a good home for my children, that's what I want."

    "Well, I want to make a good world for my children." (26.19-26.21)

    Abby makes a good point, and Mrs. Coogan must agree. By the end of the novel, she decides to cut back on her work hours. She seems to have decided she needs to take better care of what she has: her family.

  • The Mouse House

    By age 11, Abby Coogan has lost interest in her old dollhouse. During her quest to turn her family's backyard into a wildlife habitat, she decides to turn the dollhouse into a mouse house.

    We have to admit that sounds like an upgrade from Crash's gym bag, where at least one local rodent has taken up residence.

    What's interesting about Abby's mouse house is the way it takes two things we associate with traditional gender roles for girls—dollhouses and domesticity (i.e., homemaking)—and turns them on their head. Abby has zero interest in dolls so far as we know, but helping mice find shelter? That's 100 percent relevant to her interests.

    You go, girl.

  • The Red Heels

    A couple of days before Christmas, Crash realizes that he hasn't bought a present for his grandpa Scooter. Suddenly, he's overcome with the superstitious belief that if he doesn't get Scooter a gift stat, the old man will perish. (Kids will be kids, right?)

    In a blind panic, he runs into the first store he sees and grabs the perfect present: red glitter heels. Just what Scooter wanted, we're so sure.

    To Crash, the gift itself doesn't matter; it's getting the gift that's important. Because if he gets Scooter a gift, it means he thinks he's going to live. And if he doesn't? Well, that would mean he'd already given up hope.

    So, yeah. The shoes = faith, hope, and the belief that Scooter will recover. Still, you have to admit it's a little bit hilarious that he goes for high-heeled shoes. Correction: glittery high-heeled shoes. It's a bold choice from a guy who's been making fun of "Little Miss Webb" for being a male cheerleader.

    And, of course, the heels come from (where else?) the thrift store that Crash has vowed he will never set foot in. Thus, the shoes could also be seen as a symbol of Crash's changing priorities.

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person (Central Narrator)

    The first sentence of the book clears up any mystery surrounding who our narrator is. "My name is John," it says. "John Coogan" (1.1). Of course, you know by now that he goes by "Crash."

    The narration is almost like a diary in that we hear about not just what happens to Crash, but also what he thinks and feels along the way. For example, when he starts to tell his family about his first football game of the year, he begins with bravado: "I was awesome today" (19.49). But then, when his dad admits that he forgot all about the game, Crash dials it back a bit.

    When asked how he did, he replies, "Scored six TDs" (19.51). That's factual, but it's only three words, and they're strictly data. And Crash, more focused now on his parents' absence than his performance, follows up with internal thoughts that let us know how he's feeling:

    I looked at the ceiling. I had never noticed how pure white was the fluorescent light. (19.52)

    I took a deep breath. I wanted to leave. (19.55)

    Crash doesn't directly tell us what emotions he's experiencing—that would go against his brash, jock persona. But still, as readers, we can get a lot of information if we put everything together, including how excited Crash is at the time of the game and how disappointed he is when he realizes the game wasn't even on his parents' radar.

    Another thing to know about Crash as a narrator is that while he's conversational and honest, he's not exactly deep. He reports on his thoughts and feelings, but he doesn't really reflect on them. And that's intentional.

    He's just a kid, after all, and the whole point is that kids often do stuff—you know, stuff like bullying—without thinking about it too hard.

  • Plot Analysis

    Exposition (Initial Situation)

    Meet the Neighbors

    Six-year-olds Crash Coogan and Penn Webb are neighbors. Crash is a big, mean bully, and Penn is a good-natured nerd. They don't get along, but it's not for a lack of trying (on Penn's part, anyway).

    Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

    Wicked Games

    Crash and Penn are in seventh grade now, and they're still basically the same. Crash pals up with another mean dude, and together they collaborate on charming antics like putting mustard in Penn's shoes. But after Penn makes a remarkable gesture toward Crash's beloved grandfather, Scooter (who had a stroke), Crash begins to have a change of heart.

    Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

    The Big Race

    Crash has been feeling a little funny lately. He must've come down with some sort of illness that's making him act nice. Much to his surprise, he finds himself sticking up for Penn at school. Finally, he makes a huge, kind gesture of his own: he lets Penn win a big footrace at school. That means that Penn—not Crash—will go on to represent his grade in the famous Penn Relays.

    Falling Action

    Loser City

    Welcome to Loser City, population: Crash. He's not used to losing, but he comes to realize that he did the right thing when Penn leads his team to a second-place victory in the relays. Back at home, Crash's mom has decided to cut back on her work hours so she can spend more time with the fam. The Coogan lifestyle is about to get a lot less luxurious.

    Resolution (Denouement)

    One Year Later…

    It's been a year since the race, and Crash is still a little bit impressed with himself for letting Penn win. He and his former enemy are BFFs now, by the way. Scooter hasn't gotten much better from his stroke, but he seems to have settled into his new life. Also, the Coogan family is spending more time together. It's not a perfect ending, but it's a happy one.

  • Allusions

    Pop Culture References

    • Batman (5.28)
    • Spider-Man (5.28)
    • Monday Night Football (28.16)
    • Perry Como (33.5)
    • Bing Crosby (33.5)
    • Swamp Thing (33.6)