The substance of the Legend of Maniac Magee isn't that he won a race in the wrong direction, kissed a bull (or whatever it was), and went willingly into Finsterwald's backyard. The real legend has a lot more to do with plain old Jeffrey Lionel Magee, and a lot less to do with the Maniac who batted Giant John McNab's fastballs outta the park.
Still, a kid like Magee is bound to become legendary. After all, he was a white boy who lived in the East End....and with an old minor league baseball pitcher who couldn't read....and with a buffalo and her baby....and even with a gang of alcoholic white supremacists building a machine gun-armed pillbox in their living room.
This isn't your typical Newbery Medal winner. Like its titular protagonist, Maniac Magee isn't typical at all. It's a children's novel that tackles mature themes without imposing crassness or adult attitudes on young readers, and without coddling them. Perhaps more suprising is the fact that Jerry Spinelli doesn't bother tying up every loose end with a pretty happy-ending bow.
Jeffrey Lionel "Maniac" Magee lost his parents to a trainwreck on a bridge when he was three. The uncle and aunt he was sent to live with hated each other and never spoke (though they lived in the same house). Because he couldn't take such a horrible home life anymore, Magee ran away. There was a "Lost Year" which history can't account for. Then he showed up in Two Mills.
Two Mills is a typical Pennsylvania mining and manufacturing town. It's also split down the middle—blacks on the East End and whites on the West End. While this is becoming less of a reality than it was a quarter of a century ago (when Maniac Magee was published), the inner city reality hasn't changed much, and while race and prejudice are the main issues on the surface in this novel, they stand in for any form of bigotry and unfounded mistrust.
When Maniac shows up, he performs several feats of skill and speed (catching a football and running it up the field one-handed, for instance), but he also borrows a book from Amanda Beale, a black girl he meets on the street. One thing leads to another (in this book, that means one bizarre thing leads to another), and Maniac becomes part of the Beale family.
But not all is peaches and cream in East Endville, and eventually Maniac deems it wise to leave. And to live with buffalos at the zoo, then with an old codger with a heart of gold, then with the neo-Nazi Cobras, then back with the buffaloes, then back in the East End where he belongs. There are adventures, hilarious moments, cry-out-loud moments, and mayhem.
Spinelli is an excellent writer with a finely-tuned sense of humor, but these alone don't make a worthy book. A book is worthy based on the validity of its message and the way that message is expressed, and by this litmus Maniac Magee is great. Maniac is a boy looking for a home (there are more than one parallel between his story and the great epics), one who uses his wits and his selflessness to bring joy to others and to find his own place in the world.
Among this novel's finer points are the facts that Spinelli doesn't spell everything out or avoid harsh realities, including scenes of neglect, abuse, and death. Best of all, he shows progress toward acceptance and brotherly love as one filled with pain and small steps—there is no universal redemption, and no giant town-wide celebration at the end.
Some readers won't like the ending. Russell and Piper still live with a horrible dad and older brother, there are still dividing lines everywhere, and Grayson is still stone dead. But that's the way life is, and to tell kids otherwise is to lie. It's also a lie to place blame on only one side of any conflict, and Spinelli doesn't. There are blacks who hate whites, and whites who hate blacks, blacks who hate blacks who like whites, etc.
There's a list on Goodreads that allows users to vote for the "most deserving Newbery winner," and it's hard to see why Maniac Magee isn't at the top, or at least in the top five. Spinelli's pseudo-epic is hilarious, sad, exciting, and poignant all at once, a great novel for children and adults, and one of the few Newbery medalists that is truly a modern classic.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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