Maniac Magee is a very funny, sometimes touching, story of Jeffrey Lionel "Maniac" Magee, a young man who is a legend in his youth. He performs phenomenal athletic feats, yet he shows wisdom and insight far greater than are normal for his age. The book is a combination of realistic fiction, humor, folklore, and even a little legend.
While the story is very entertaining, Spinelli intertwines several important issues within the plot. Maniac's parents have died, and he is homeless. He does not attend school, but he is a voracious reader. He is white, but he finds a home and love with a black family until racial attacks force him to move. A starving Maniac is then taken in by Grayson, a former minor league baseball player who is now a caretaker at the zoo. Grayson is illiterate, but Maniac teaches him to read. They buy a small chalkboard and chalk, and Grayson quickly masters the alphabet, consonants, vowels, and one-syllable words. When he reads, "I see the ball," his smile is "so wide he'd have to break it into sections to fit it through a doorway." Their harmonious living arrangements end quickly, however, when Grayson dies.
After the funeral, Maniac resumes his run around the Two Mills area and finally ends up in a cabin at Valley Forge where he encounters two runaways. He tricks them into returning home and going to school and then winds up living with them. This family is white, and their chaotic living conditions, values, and a drunken father are a direct contrast to the Beale family where he had lived earlier. Maniac stays only a short time before running throughout the area again, observing that the likenesses among all the families are greater than the differences. He decides that "black and white would only begin when alarm clocks rang . . . before sunrise, there were no divisions; no barriers. There were only the people, the families, the town."