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Miss Maudie is, in a way, a counter-part to Atticus Finch. She is driven by moral principle and she adheres to principles that might be characterized as socially progressive.
These are not the values of Maycomb as a whole. On the contrary, these are values that set her apart from her community.
In this way, Miss Maudie is a confirmation of Atticus Finch and the validity of his views in Scout and Jem's view, because she is one of the few people in town who upholds the same moral principles as their father.
The kids respect Miss Maudie because she respects them. Scout notes that she only laughs at them when they are intentionally trying to be funny. She thinks about what they are feeling and cares about what they have to say. She is also kind to them, and of course she gives them information about the world.
I love the tone of your question, actually, ... in how is Miss Maudie "special." What a positive spin on characterization! Scout and Jem truly consider Miss Maudie special because she is one of the few adults in the novel who consider them to be equals. The Finch children are not treated with condescension as they are by Aunt Alexandra, instead they are treated as "people" with intelligence and important thoughts. It is also important to note that is Miss Maudie who presents the title of the book to the children as to why it is a "sin" to kill a mockingbird. Even Miss Maudie's reaction to the destruction of her own home (by fire) make her special in the children's eyes. Putting a high value on bravery (in addition to that of their father, Atticus), the children look in awe at Miss Maudie who doesn't complain about her house burning down but instead rejoices at having more room for her flowers in her future, smaller home.
Above all, Miss Maudie is the Finch children's "friend." She gives good, adult advice, and she treats them as adults; Scout and Jem can talk to her as they would Atticus, but they feel as comfortable around her as they would with Dill. She rewards them with baked treats and gives them votes of confidence when they need it. They enjoy her sense of humor and admire her loyalty.
As an older woman who is greatly respected by Atticus, Miss Maudie is the voice of wisdom. She fears no one and always speaks the truth, so the children respect her words. When she underscores what their father has taught them or what their father has said, they accept the lesson. Often, too, she synopsizes what has happened after a particular incident and cements its moral lesson. For instance, after Atticus shoots the rabid dog, Jem and Scout wonder why their father has not told them he was called "One-Shot" when he was a boy, and he wonders why Atticus does not hunt. Miss Maudie says,
"Maybe i can tell you....If your father's anything, he's civilized in his heart....I guess he decided he wouldn't shoot till he had to, and he had to today."
Throughout the novel, Miss Maudie serves as a teacher. She is the one who tells them about Atticus being the same on the street as in his house, and she is the one who explains to them that Maycomb keeps re-electing Atticus into office because he will do what they do not have the "guts" to do. She is able to point out many of Atticus's strengths to his children who tend to think of him as just their "kinda old dad." She loves the childen as her own, which means she is not afraid to scold them (which she does several times with Scout) or treat them as adults when they deserve it (as she does several times with Jem). Like he does with Calpurnia, Atticus relies on Miss Maudie to help him raise his children, though it is not an explicit reliance. Miss Maudie is part of the Finch's extended family.
I think that it is also important that Miss Maudie shows the children how to be brave and resilient. She does this in particular when her house burns down. As the first post says, she is a woman who treats them as if they were her equals. Because of this, they are inclined to respect and like her. This makes them much more likely to pay attention to the way she behaves and learn from her example.
What Miss Maudie means with her answer is that those who are overly religious spend all their time thinking about how they can get to heaven that they are missing all of the things that life has to offer at the moment. She is suggesting that they should focus on finding happiness on earth and not merely waiting to find happiness in heaven.
Miss Maudie is special to the children because she treats them maturely, like Atticus does. She is the person the children go to when they need clarification and an honest answer to the questions on their minds.
Miss Maudie is an indepedent thinker; the children admire that in her, and they see that she is not swayed by the "harrassment" by those who find her flowers sinful. Miss Maudie, to the children, is truth.
Miss Maudie is in a way like Atticus. She does not care for racial prejudices and likes to treat people equally. When her house burnt down she viewed this as a good thing and that it was okay. She has good morals and stands up for people like Boo and it is very important character in the book.
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