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Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1,942 words.)