They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump. They say his stomach was a cereal box and his heart a sofa spring.
They say he kept an eight-inch cockroach on a leash and that rats stood guard over him while he slept.
They say if you knew he was coming and you sprinkled salt on the ground and he ran over it, within two or three blocks he would be as slow as everybody else.
What’s true, what’s myth? It’s hard to know.
Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli was published in 1990, when I was 8 years old, 24 years ago. I have a foggy memory of reading a copy from my classroom library (not the actual school library, but the books the teachers kept for kids to read) and I know I never owned a copy growing up. This was the kind of book that I could’ve read pretty easily in a class period or two. Part of the danger of my lifelong habit of reading books quickly is that I’ll remember one overall impression of a book, or a mood, but might be fuzzy on the details. I remembered this book fondly as I grew up, so fondly that I later read Spinelli’s book Stargirl and bought a copy of Maniac Magee as an adult. But if you’d asked me yesterday what it was about, I probably would’ve said, “a kid who runs very fast and lives on his own.”
I’d forgotten most of the details, that while Maniac Magee does sometimes live on his own, the book is mostly about the people who help him and his search for a home and a family. It’s a story about a town divided by race, by the misconceptions people have about each other.
It reminds me of Stargirl in that way. Stargirl is a nonconformist who teaches her classmates how to be accepting and compassionate. Both Stargirl (Susan) and Maniac (Jeffrey) are outsiders who become legendary within a community of people, though Stargirl names herself and Maniac Magee is named by others. Stargirl is older, in high school, and I was older too, 19, when I read the book the year after it was published, in 2000, ten years after Maniac Magee was published.
I have to admit that I like this version of the cover best. Most of them show running feet at various close-up angles, but I think this is the only one that shows Maniac Magee in his entirety, running toward us. I’m pretty sure this is the cover that I would’ve held in my hands when I read it in elementary school.
While aspects of Maniac Magee seem a bit quaint after all of these years, it’s easy to remember that it was a highly unusual story for middle readers when it was published, speaking bluntly about racism, poverty and death. It won a Newbery Medal in 1991 and in 2012 it was voted amongst the Top 100 Chapter Books of all time by the School Library Journal (similar to Charlotte’s Web).
Some reviewers disliked Spinelli framing the story as a legend, as if that somehow invalidated the reality of the story and the issues that it discusses. I find myself a bit perplexed by it, too. I love it, on the one hand, because of the element of group or community consciousness used to tell the story. And it’s used throughout the book. Except at the end. It doesn’t end as a legend would, but instead ends on a very personal note. I watched a few minutes of the 2003 t.v. movie and I thought it was interesting that it starts off with visible narrator (probably an adult version of Amanda Beale, played by Jada Pinkett Smith) telling the legend of Maniac Magee.
Above, the selection from the opening is a bit longer than usual because I really wanted to include that last line. While poking around for details about Maniac Magee, I found a recording of Spinelli talking about his inspirations for the book and he reads a short section, almost the exact same passage that I selected. Enjoy.