I don’t know what rubric reviewers follow when determining the labels and genres attached to books. I don’t know exactly what the criteria is for a book being considered a children’s book. Perhaps, its the wording. Perhaps, its the themes explored within the narrative. I honestly have very little understanding of the guidelines for writers of children’s, teen or young adult fiction. But perhaps my understanding is skewed because of books that shatter all conceptions of genre and labels like Maniac Magee.
This book was a family favorite during my childhood. It is one of those things that my family shared all together. I read it on my own in elementary or middle school after hearing so much about it from my older cousins who read it in class. It touched me then as a child and it holds up. When I say “It holds up.”, I mean it holds up. I reread Maniac Magee this past weekend to change up my reading list. There are so many great books labeled for children that are far deeper than their labels might suggest. From time to time, as to insert some refreshed nostalgia into my reading, I like to go back and revisit some of those old childhood favorites. I do this a great deal with Gary Paulsen books as well. Maniac Magee is impressive in how its word struck me like the voice of an old friend. And this old friend came back for a visit completely unchanged. We reminisced on old times and I left Maniac Magee once again lamenting his departure just as I had the first time I put my friend down.
Award winning author Jerry Spinelli delivers a semi-legendary narrative set in a fictionalized version of his hometown in Pennsylvania. Before I ever knew that Two Mills was a fictitious reimagining of the author’s childhood home, Norristown, PA, I got the sense that the Spinelli had an intricate knowledge of the setting. He describes the town and its people so clearly that flashes of old grainy home movies flash in my mind as it pieces the words into a coherent film. I could see the people’s faces, the way in which they interact with one another and the complicated social dynamic of their lives. The book explores race relations through a compassionate nuance that dares you find blame. It attacks the mindless acceptance of societal norms as it is with a restrained hopefulness that change is possible. It challenges the notion of home and of belonging using the story of a boy who refused a false home choosing instead to wander. To know where you are is not to know you are not lost.
Maniac Magee is a white boy born Jeffrey Magee in a town 200 miles away from Two Mills. He is made an orphan by the sudden death of his parents in a trolley crash over the river in Brigdeport, PA. Thereafter he goes to live with his Aunt Dot and Uncle Dan. There he receives attention from both but never feels that he has a family because of the cold empty charade of a marriage in which they persist. While the two are married and live together, they do everything separately. Spinelli describes the house as having two of everything. And he writes that their nephew Jeffrey was the only thing they were forced to share and even in that they chose to spend time with him separately. One day at a school recital where both were forced to be in the same space, Jeffrey reached his wits end with their living arrangements and ran away. He spends the subsequent year homeless. He travels 200 miles in that year and finally settles down in Two Mills where his exploits form into the legend of Maniac Magee. His feats of amazement are one part physical talent and one part childish ignorance. He is physically gifted. He displays extreme agility and coordination. He does the impossible feat of running along the rails of the railroad for miles. He easily hits the best pitches of the town’s resident baseball legend. He outruns the fastest boy on the high school football team while catching a pass meant for the boy. His other feats exhibit his cunning, focus and bravery. But to the city of Two Mills his most impressive feat is probably his ignorance. As a 12 year old white runaway he ignores the racial segregation of the town and finds himself at home on the black side of town with his black family that feels more real to him than any home he has ever known. Maniac Magee somewhat reminds you of manga characters like Goku, Naruto, and Natsu. In that same vein of character is Forest Gump. He is simple yet too capable to be dismissed allowing his simplicity to flourish. Like all of those characters however, he faces tremendous challenges and likewise reaches a point of lamentation. His lamentations are so deep and mindful while still holding onto to the childish nature of his age. He thinks on complex ideas with the sincerity and simplicity of a child. Yet, the subject matter is completely adult. The dichotomy of Maniac Magee’s thoughts on such real issues and those of his peers within the story add impressive sensibilty to the narrative. It’s his sympathy and compassion that really set his thoughts apart.
The narrative explores race, child homelessness, compassion, small town life and societal norms in a sophisticated yet palatable manner for any age. Palatable is the operative word here but I must mention that for an adult the way in which these themes are handled will not feel like weak, watered down forms of the real life situation. You will be able to feel the nasty reality within Spinelli’s words. What makes this book so exemplary to me is how I was able to get all of these points from the book in middle school just as clear as I was able to this past weekend. It’s not a credit to my intelligence. I assure you. It is a credit to Jerry Spinelli’s prose. His writing on such serious topics is clear and straightforward enough for a child to understand but not so preachy as to make the book something else. I say his writing is clear but not preachy. Neither the author nor Maniac pass judgement on the story’s characters. He overcomes shrewd stereotypes with nuance and understanding. He gives you the situation clearly and you see the ugliness and the beauty for yourself. Certainly my views on these topics are now more mature and nuanced but that doesn’t change how easily ascertainable these things are in his writing.
So, whether it’s in this genre or that. Whether it’s for children or adults. None of that matters. Maniac Magee is a story that requires both parts of a soul to appreciate. Read it as an adult with the heart of a child and enjoy. Give the book to a child and let them develop the critical thinking of adult. And if neither of the readers possess both requirements simultaneously, then I urge you to find that other half and read it together.