Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, the Newbery Award Winner for 1991, is celebrating its 25th anniversary since publication. It’s hard for me to imagine this book being an “old” one, but since I knew I read it as a child, I should not be so surprised.
Maniac Magee is the story of a legend, a homeless boy called “Maniac” who stumbles in to a racially divided town and manages to break barriers and build new bonds of friendship among the town residents. This legendary story takes place in a timeless yet obviously historical era, a decade maybe in the 1960s or 1970s. It seems contradictory to say it’s timeless and yet in the past; yet, that is how it feels as I read it. It is a foreign setting for me, and yet it felt like it happened anytime. Part of this must be the strong voice: it feels like the retelling of a legend, and legends are timeless.
I did not grow up in a racially divided time or a racially divided neighborhood. Yet, there is something unique about Maniac’s story that puts racial issues in to perspective. The fact is, race is not mentioned when the boy first runs in to town. We do not know that his befriending Amanda is out of the ordinary until race is mentioned later. Maniac’s ability to not notice (and our initial surprise as finding that this is an issue at all) gives the book another unique perspective. In short, Maniac Magee is unique all around.
I also especially like the book because so much of the story faces the facts about Maniac’s life situation. His parents had died tragically before his adventures begin, and his flight from his argumentative aunt and uncle, although somewhat unrealistic to the modern reader, seems completely natural. I love his development from beginning to end, and his sweet friendship with the zoo’s janitor, Grayson, tugs at my heart each time I read it. Could I read symbolism into his name and Maniac’s time with him? I suppose, but as I read the book, I much prefer to enjoy a sweet story instead.
Although it has been a long time since publication, I can still wholeheartedly recommend Maniac Magee to the middle grade reader. It gives one a lot to think about, and its timeless themes of friendship and overcoming prejudice are ones that will remain pertinent for many years to come.
Do you remember reading this in the 1990s? What makes it memorable to you?