Maniac Magee was a legend. An orphan who was homeless by choice, with a strong desire for a home and a family. Truant by choice with a thirst for knowledge. His name was Jeffrey Lionel Magee, but when his parents died, his life changed and so did his name. And he became the legend that kids still talk about. He did some amazing things, outran the fastest kids, hit balls (and frogs) off the best little league pitcher, untied impossible knots, kissed buffaloes. But the real legend of Maniac Magee is how he united a segregated town.
So goes the story of Maniac Magee.
Maniac Magee-you get to take the throne as the greatest character in Y.A. Lit. Jo March is there now. Tell her I still love her, and she may be the greatest Y.A. heroine, but she’s been occupying that throne since I first read Little Women twenty years ago (Holy SHIT, I am old!). But it’s a new era and you, Jeffrey Lionel Magee, deserve to sit on that throne.
Seriously, I can’t say enough good things about this book. I’ll let Jerry Spinelli’s words speak for themselves. A few excellent examples:
“The history of a kid is one part fact, two parts legend and three parts snowball. And if you want to know what it was like back when Maniac Magee roamed these parts, well, just run your hand under your movie seat and be very, very careful not to let the facts get mixed up with the truth.”
“They figured the dumb scraggly runt would get out of the East End in about as good a shape as a bare big toe in a convention of snapping turtles.”
“Sometimes he would suddenly sprint, furious ten or twenty second bursts, as though trying to leave himself behind.”
And my very favorite:
“Dreams pursued memories, courted and danced and coupled with them and they became one, and the gaunt, beseeching phantoms that called to him had the rag-wrapped feet of Washington’s regulars and the faces of his mother and father and Aunt Dot and Uncle Dan and the Beales and Earl Grayson. In that bedeviled army there would be no more recruits. No one else would orphan him.
The second evening came and went. Maniac never stirred. Knowing it would not be fast or easy, and wanting, deserving nothing less, grimly, patiently he waited for death.”
Do you see why I love this book? Jerry Spinelli can fucking write, you know? He’s like the Michael Chabon of Y.A. (Though Chabon’s own attempt at Y.A., Summerland, was meh…..) Who Put That Hair in my Toothbrush notwithstanding, Spinelli might be the best. I set out to get Space Station Seventh Grade or its sequel, Jason and Marceline. But the library didn’t have them, and I came home with this Newberry winner. I’m glad I did, because I had only read this one once before and I had forgotten its pure awesomeness. I’m going to buy a copy so Grady has it when he’s ready for it. Because it’s never to early to build your child’s library!
OK, the book is great. But it’s not perfect (though it is very close). You do have to suspend belief a little bit. You have to believe that Maniac somehow remained completely naïve about race. You have to believe that there is a town full of adults who are well aware that Maniac is homeless and an orphan and that no one calls child services. You have to believe that those same adults also know he’s truant, and do nothing about it.
Not much else to say…the book is funny and sweet and tragic and all those things that make a great book great. So go….buy it, borrow it, steal it whatever. Just read Maniac Magee, please.