Sunday, November 16, 2008

64. Maniac Magee

by Jerry Spinelli
read by S. Epatha Merkerson


Jeffrey “Maniac” Magee is an 11-year-old homeless orphan whose athletic feats are the stuff of legend. He winds up in a town geographically divided by race, and moves between the black and white sides, looking for an address and a home, encountering bullies, the prejudiced and good people of both colors. The characters, setting, and descriptions are especially strong (particularly the frequent references to Philadelphia-area delicacy butterscotch Krimpets), and in my opinion that makes up for any incredulity in the plot.

"Childhood recollected takes on a quality that is practically indistinguishable from what we think of as myth," author Jerry Spinelli said in an interview with Jennifer M. Brown for Publishers Weekly, July 17, 2000. In his acceptance speech for the 1990 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction, Spinelli said, “I thought about the world that children inhabit. I don't know about you, but it's a world that, in many ways, I find indistinguishable from myth and legend.”

The book has been described by many critics as part realistic fiction, part tall tale. Spinelli intentionally wrote the book this way because he believes children have trouble distinguishing between fable and realistic fiction. For me the most unrealistic part of the story was the way Maniac was able to coerce the young McNab brothers to go to school, when Maniac did not go himself.

Nevertheless, I think this book was deserving of the 1991 Newbery Medal and is one that children, especially boys, would enjoy (particularly the fantastic portions). Written at a fourth- to fifth-grade reading level, it could spark all sorts of discussions about homelessness and social class distinctions for that age group. In Maniac Magee, we see that bullies and discrimination are not limited by color, and racial prejudice is not exclusive to one community. More importantly, though, we see the possibility of a world where children can exist who, like Maniac, do not understand what racial barriers are.

I listened to the audiobook read by actress S. Epatha Merkerson (of Law and Order fame). She did a marvelous job creating different voices for each character, especially the children. Indeed, her characterizations (and Spinelli’s writing) were such that I often couldn’t remember if the Beales, the Pickwells, Grayson, and the McNabs were black or white – and isn’t that the whole remarkable point of the book?

[A variation of this post appears on The Newbery Project.]

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