Jerry Spinelli's 'Maniac Magee' Still Running Through Our Minds Nearly 25 Years Later
Jerry Spinelli spun the tall tale of one legendary boy and his confrontation with a racial divide in a fictional Pennsylvania town in Maniac Magee. Jeffrey Lionel "Maniac" Magee was orphaned when his parents died in a freak accident when he was 3. He eventually runs away from his hated aunt and uncle, who took him in, and ends up in a small town, divided between the white West End and black East End.
Maniac is oblivious to the divide, and he befriends and stays with a black family on the East End, until he is pushed out. Along the way, he meets a whole cast of characters and accomplishes some seriously incredible athletic feats, building up the legend and mythology around him.
Spinelli's story has won a Newbery Medal, a Horn Book Award, and dozens of other awards, and it's still frequently taught in classrooms, raising discussions about racism and poverty through Maniac's lens.
Why did we love Maniac Magee?
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that most of us did not read Maniac Magee of our own volition; it was part of our grade school curriculum. Still, it was hard not to become enthralled by Spinelli's tall tale.
Maniac Magee was totally crushworthy to a preteen girl — speaking for myself of course. For me, he was inching up behind Benny "The Jet" Rodriguez, and for a lot of the same reasons.
(Wait, are you telling me Elton John's song isn't about Benny Rodriguez?)
Maniac is a local legend, for good reason. He could beat anyone in a foot race, untie any knot (hey, these were important preteen boyfriend qualities), and basically get along with anyone, no matter their race or status in the world. I absolutely loved following along with his crazy life and getting to know the people along the way.
Most of all, I loved Amanda Beale, who loved her books so much she carried them around in a suitcase to keep them out of the hands of her younger siblings. Yes, my bookworm childhood self could really get behind Amanda.
Why do we still love it?
First off all, whenever anyone ever says "He's so cool," I immediately break out into the rhyme that seeped into my brain when I was about 10 and got stuck in there bumping around for nearly two decades.
And just for the record, second, I am still in love with Amanda. She is just the coolest. She loves to read, she stands up for what she believes in, and she's a genuinely good human being in a world where it can be hard to be one.
I have to admit that when I look back on the book, I remember the tall tale elements before I remembered all the stuff about racism and homelessness. But through my relative grown-up eyes, I can see that Spinelli created a truly moving story about poverty and racial divides, and he snuck it in behind this story of a legendary boy. The story ultimately talks about compassion, when it comes to issues of prejudice, illiteracy, and homelessness.
Yes, it has its problems. First, it's a "tall tale," which feels a bit like a cop-out on its important racial themes. Why couldn't it be based in reality? Second, the whole white-boy-as-savior-in-race-war thing is a bit hard to swallow in 2014. However, it's crucial to give credit where credit is due, and Spinelli brings these major issues of homelessness and racial divide to a young audience, when many middle grade authors shy away from such controversial issues. Sadly, we all learn this every year during Banned Books Week.
If You Loved Maniac Magee, Try Reading...
1. Glory Be by Augusta Scattergood
Based on real-life events, Scattergood tells the story of a segregated public pool in 1964 Mississippi through the eyes of 12-year-old Gloriana. But Glory, as she's called, is already wrapped up in the general issues of growing up and dealing with her older sister getting older and a divide with her best friend. When the pool closes to prevent black families from swimming there, however, Glory decides to take a stand.
2. The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Sonia Manzano
You probably know Manzano best as the beloved Maria on Sesame Street. She tells the story of Evelyn, based on her own experiences growing up in El Barrio in New York's Spanish Harlem in 1969.
3. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
Just like Maniac, I'd guess that Roll of Thunder was on most of our school reading lists. It's so iconic that I could write a whole post on it (and probably will), but this story tells of life in the South during the Depression, and one family's ordeal with racism. You'd have to be made of stone to not be affected by this novel.