Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 832

Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee is a fast-paced novel in three parts, each part subdivided into short chapters. The three parts describe three pivotal periods in the life and growth of the main character Jeffrey Lionel “Maniac” Magee, a young orphan with amazing physical abilities who, through a series of adventures, pursues his dream of finding acceptance in a loving home.

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The book is written from the omniscient point of view, as if by a narrator looking back on a legendary hero. By using this approach, Jerry Spinelli helps the reader view Maniac not only from the perspective of kids who chant about how fast he could run, how high he could jump, or how he could untie any knot there ever was, but also from the perspective of adults who marvel at how he managed to bring folks from the black East End and the white West End together. The omniscient point of view also enables the reader to see inside Jeffrey Magee, to know his confusion and his solitude, to be a part of his internal struggle and change.

Although Maniac possesses nearly magical athletic prowess, his dealings with racial problems, peer pressures, homelessness, and family situations are all too realistic—and often overpowering. Spinelli has created a novel that is an interesting blend of folktale and contemporary realistic fiction. The superboy dazzles people on the football field but struggles to deal with racial strife. Blending the two genres enables Spinelli to deal with difficult issues in an engaging manner—to create a tall tale out of real-life drama.

The contemporary setting of Two Mills, Pennsylvania, could be any American city that is literally and figuratively segregated into black and white districts. Specific details of time and place are intentionally omitted, in order to suggest that this could happen anywhere or anytime, or perhaps that it already has happened.

The story describes the exploits of Jeffrey Magee, whose parents were killed in a bizarre accident when he was three years old. Sent to live with an aunt and uncle who hated each other, Jeffrey endured eight years of that torture before he could not take any more. He ran away from home and just kept running.

The legend says that Jeffrey ran two hundred miles to Two Mills, where he encountered the friendly Amanda Beale and her suitcase of books. Intrigued by both Amanda and her treasured books, Jeffrey decided to stay awhile with her family. The legend has it that Jeffrey, nicknamed “Maniac” by his peers, amazed the entire town with feats of unbelievable acumen. He caught footballs with one hand, saved a kid from mean old Finsterwald, knocked a frogball for a home run, beat a kid named “Mars Bar” Thompson while running backward in a foot race, and untied the giant Cobbles Knot. Jeffrey became famous. His residence with the kind, African American Beale family was resented by local white racists, however, and soon brought trouble for the Beales. Jeffrey could not bear to see his new family hurt; he felt compelled to run away again.

This time he took up residence living among the buffaloes at the local zoo, running during the day and coming home in time for animal food at night. One day, he was discovered by Earl Grayson, the old parkhand who worked at the zoo. Grayson accepted Jeffrey immediately and provided him with physical and emotional nourishment. Jeffrey and Grayson shared stories, humor, sadness, food, work, and much more, developing a strong mutual respect and affection. Jeffrey taught Grayson to read, and Grayson helped Jeffrey feel a sense of belonging. With Grayson, Jeffrey found contentment. Unfortunately, the contentment was short-lived as Grayson died, once again leaving Jeffrey alone and on his own. At the funeral, Jeffrey began running again, this time in the dead of winter as a dissolute, solitary wanderer, waiting for death.

Just when Jeffrey’s life seemed bleakest, two other runaways crossed his path. Because of Hector and Piper, the two young boys whom he coaxed home, Jeffrey wound up living in the twins’ house with their brother, Giant John McNab, ace pitcher and leader of the white Cobra gang. Jeffrey tried to bring some order to the lives of the disheveled McNabs; he helped around the house, played with Hector and Piper, and cajoled the twins into attending school. The Cobras, however, were white racists preparing for war against African Americans. Unable to fathom or accept such hatred, Jeffrey felt out of place in the McNab home. Again, he fled to a life among animals at the zoo.

One day during his usual run, Jeffrey encountered a fellow runner, African American rival Mars Bar Thompson. Through their shared interest in running, the two athletes developed a mutual respect and acceptance of each other. Mars Bar determined to help his new friend. He recruited Amanda Beale, and together they sought Jeffrey out at his zoo abode. Amanda called him to come “home,” and Jeffrey finally knew where he belonged.

Setting

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This story is set in the Pennsylvania towns of Hollidaysbury, Two Mills, and Bridgeport. Maniac was born in Bridgeport, moved to Hollidaysbury to live with his aunt and uncle after his parents' deaths, and then established himself through his unusual feats in the West and East Ends of Two Mills.

The entire setting is almost dreamlike. The actual dates of the story are never given, and the towns themselves always appear a bit unrealistic. Two Mills is large enough to have a zoo, but it seems to have few of the characteristics of a city. There are no attendance officers or social workers to investigate this homeless boy who never attends school. Maniac is renowned for hitting a "frog" homer and untying the most intricate knots, hardly feats associated with today. His attempts at racial harmony also appear unrealistic in the violence prone neighborhoods of the 1990s. Spinelli's ethereal setting, then, lends itself more to fantasy than to realistic fiction.

Literary Qualities

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Maniac Magee is a fast-paced, often humorous, almost tall tale with serious, up-to-date themes woven into the plot. Spinelli's story is strong in plot, characterization, and theme.

The story recounts the exploits of a legendary folk hero. He can entertain little children, charm adults, amaze people with his knowledge, read everything that he can find, untie impossible knots, run faster and farther than anyone else, teach old men to read, hit long balls, and get along with almost anyone. All these exploits are entrancing.

The characters in the book are mostly positive figures who like Maniac and make the readers like them. The Beales take in this strange white boy and treat him with love, respect, and concern. Grayson is a zoo caretaker who also cares for Maniac with food, clothing, shelter, funny stories, and an opportunity to belong. He teaches his young friend to hit a stop ball, gives him money for books, and is motivated to learn to read by this boy who proclaims "I'm learning everything!" When they start to live together in the equipment room and Grayson has begun to read, he falls asleep with a warm embrace that makes him feel like he is not a failure for the first time in thirty-seven years. They rejoice together at Thanksgiving and christen their room 101 Band Shell Boulevard before a beautiful Christmas is followed by the sudden finality of Grayson's death.

The last section of the book is reserved for the seedier characters—the McNabs, the Cobras, and the arrogant Mars Bar. The McNabs are so prejudiced toward blacks that they build a pillbox to protect themselves against possible attack, while they themselves live in squalor and disarray. The Cobras are a gang with the same beliefs who make their headquarters at the house. Even Mars Bar with his "badness," swagger, and scowl is "one uneasy dude" when he accompanies Maniac to the white section of town.

Through these people and Maniac's interaction with them, readers explore serious issues. This one, unusual kid overcomes homelessness, conquers one case of illiteracy, and eventually gets people of different races to begin to see each other as individual people. His superhero qualities and legendary accomplishments contrast starkly to the racism that pervades most of the story, but, in the end, the characters and story are a celebration of what life can be.

Social Sensitivity

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Maniac Magee is a rich source of material to use with today's adolescents for several sensitive issues. The themes of homelessness, illiteracy, racism, the effects of ignorance, the difference one person can make, and common humanity among people are all a part of the story and the characters. Each is treated with sensitivity through the humor and action of the story. While the prejudice, racial slogans, and description of blacks as "today's Indians" may upset some, they do bring these issues to the forefront so that they can be faced by teachers, students, and parents.

There are few other issues dealt with through the story that could cause controversy. Religion plays a very small part in Maniac's life. He attends church with the Beales, where he enjoys hymns, the "Amens" from the congregation, and the "Hallelujahs" from the choir. Later, he teaches Grayson what the term Amen means, but he explains that it can be an expression of agreement, not just the closing of a prayer. When Grayson dies, he arranges a Christian funeral, but no minister or mourners show up, and the service is never described in detail. Most of the characters in the book are male; this fact may cause some concern in teens of gender bias, but Amanda Beale is a strong female character.

Racism is prominent in Two Mills. However, Maniac will not accept this prejudice, and he brings the blacks and whites together to see their similarities. For example, he explains to Grayson how the Beale family lives, and he coerces Mars Bar into visiting a white family. In both instances, the two races learn to understand one another better.

For Further Reference

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Abbott, Deborah. Review. Booklist (June 1, 1990): 1902. This review of the book gives a good description of the settings and themes Spinelli has woven into his story. Abbott finds the book good for capable readers and teachers who incorporate adolescent novels into their instruction.

Keller, John. "Jerry Spinelli." Horn Book (July/August 1991): 433-436. Keller is one of the publishers of Spinelli's books, and he describes the personality of the author, as well as several of his books and characters.

Murphy, Susan. Review. Journal of Reading 35,4 (December 1991/January 1992): 342-345. This article, in the form of an interview, contains questions and answers between the author and Spinelli. He discusses how he writes and several of his books.

Shoemaker, Joel. Review. School Library Journal (June 1990): 138. Shoemaker describes this book as a myth about racism, with Spinelli using an unrealistic story to explore the subject.

Spinelli, Jerry. "Newbery Medal Acceptance." Horn Book (July/August, 1991): 426-432. This speech was made at the annual meeting of the American Library Association in 1991 when Spinelli accepted the Newbery Medal for Maniac Magee. He describes what it was like to win the Newbery Medal and how he gets the material for his books from real children.

"Spinelli, Jerry." In Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series. Vol. 30. Edited by J. G. Lesniak. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991: 424. A biographical sketch of Spinelli, including quotations he has made about his career and his writing.

Twichell, Ethel R. Review. Horn Book (May/June 1990): 340. Twichell discusses various types of literary characteristics that make the book partly legend and partly morality play.

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