by Jerry Spinelli
This 1991 Newbery winner tells of Jeffrey Magee, an orphan boy who runs from his unloving aunt and uncle’s house and keeps on running. Possessed of a preternatural athletic talent, he passes, throws and catches his way across the playgrounds and fields of working-class and racially divided town Two Mills, dubbed “Maniac” for his skill. Eschewing school but loving books, he sleeps in a band shell, someone’s shed, even a zoo, when he isn’t being adopted by any family that will take him in. Magee is unusual in not just his athleticism, fearlessness and nomadic life, but also in his ignorance of race relations and his near-inability to see why anyone should care about skin color. So he trots from the east end of the town to the west, making friends equally, but also making enemies because of his blithe acceptance of everyone, and their acceptance of him.
Despite such heady themes, this is a fun, rollicking story, equal parts modern legend (told as if looking back long after the facts have become lost, in the language of legend, starting with “They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump…”) and morality tale. Over a series of vignettes, Spinelli shows how Maniac becomes known, then respected, until finally… Well, the climax is a bit of an anti-climax, in that Magee inspires change rather than trailblazing it himself, but perhaps that’s a point in its favor. Maniac is a hero, certainly, but he’s a product of his fears and the losses in his life as well as his persistence and friendliness; his speed and physical skill may be fictional, but his character is real.