Maniac Magee – Jerry Spinelli

Maniac MageeReading level: 5.4
Lexile: 820
Genre: Realistic Fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Jeffrey Lionel “Maniac” Magee might have lived a normal life if a freak accident hadn’t made him an orphan. After living with his unhappy and uptight aunt and uncle for eight years, he decides to run–and not just run away, but run. This is where the myth of Maniac Magee begins, as he changes the lives of a racially divided small town with his amazing and legendary feats.

I might be a little bit in love with this book.

In particular, I loved the whole “race” bit – as in skin color, not the actual racing. Maniac Magee’s city is divided into the west and east side, with Blacks and Whites on opposite sides. As a young child, he truly is “color blind,” a word many of us educator folk cringe at. Color blindness means one does not see skin color and race (okay, yes, I know race doesn’t exist and is a social construct…), which is a large part of many people’s lives. Not seeing color means not seeing a huge part of people’s identity. But Maniac does not see color in a very innocent way, which is why he has no qualms about living on the “wrong” side of town.

Although the book is now categorized as a “classic,” it’s also relevant in that it can evoke conversations about segregation, racism, and lack of understanding between people of varying backgrounds:

  • Why do Whites and Blacks live in separate parts of town?
  • Are cities still segregated like that? (Spoiler: yes)
  • Why do the twins’ dad create the “bomb shelter”? (I can’t remember names when I listen to audiobooks!)
  • Why did some Blacks not want Maniac to live in their part of town?

Despite this book having insights into race, Spinelli surprisingly made at least 3 derogatory references to Natives. Very disappointing. However, if this book were to be taught as a class text, that’s something that could be dissected – why was that language offensive? How can the author, a White man, portray one racial group in a positive light but say such negative things about another?

I loved loved loved that Mars Bar, the bully, becomes friends with Maniac Magee. We’re able to see that Mars isn’t a bad kid and is just putting up a front – which also can create conversations about acting cool, manliness, integrity, and bullying.

Maniac Magee as a character isn’t very dynamic. In fact, he’s a rather flat character. But I almost think that, in this book, having a flat main character fits because we need to focus instead on the kid’s situation rather than how he changes throughout the story (or doesn’t change).

The reading level is pretty low, but I wouldn’t suggest it to ELLs because it’s got lots of Black English that could be confusing if they were to read it. I think that if it were read aloud to them and they were able to follow along, it would be easier. The Black English could also be used as a lesson on Ebonics and “standard” English. How does Maniac Magee talk compared to Mars/Amanda? Why do they talk differently? Is there a “right” way to talk? (Spoiler: no)

Over all, this book would be fantastic as an all-class test at the lower middle school level and lower.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. HC
    Oct 23, 2013 @ 23:40:09

    Great review! I remember loving this book in grade school. Also remember writing Tastykake requesting boxes and boxes of free butterscotch krimpet samples. They declined.


    • anxiouseducator
      Oct 24, 2013 @ 01:18:42

      Thank you! I have fond memories of having my 4th grade teacher read it to my class too.

      I didn’t know that Tastykake was a real thing. Apparently it is! I guess we don’t have those in my neck of the woods. I’m super curious about butterscotch krimpets now…


      • HC
        Oct 24, 2013 @ 13:38:17

        Oh, they’re so good. Kind of like all the happiness in the world in one glorious bite. I think Tastykake is a Northeast thing, or maybe just in the tri-state area.

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