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.

Other People’s Children – Lisa Delpit

other people's children Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom begs to be read slowly and discussed in depth. It really made me reflect on my teaching as an intern, my teacher preparatory program (in which a vast majority of students and professors are White), and my decision to intern in the largest and most diverse district in my state.

Here are some bits I flagged along the way:

African-American teachers are more likely to see their Black students’ fluency with the English language than non-African-American teachers. The latter are more likely to find that their Black students have not yet mastered command of English, when, in fact, they have, although they show it differently.

The next step for these Black students is to teach them “skills” to communicate in the most socially acceptable way: the discourse of the majority and of White people, essentially. It must be taught not as an oppression tool but as a tool to liberate them, as a way to “cheat the system” in order to be successful in our White-dominated society.

Some ways to help students learn the skills of communicating in the code of the White majority include creating bidialectal dictionaries, role-plays, and creating a news show.

It is imperative that in our schools (and elsewhere) we hear the voices of minorities. Furthermore, it is the job of the majority to seek out those voices if they are not coming forth or being heard.

This quote (pg 26): “For many who consider themselves members of liberal or radical camps, acknowledging personal power and admitting participation in the culture of power is distinctly uncomfortable. On the other hand, those who are less powerful in any situation are more likely to recognize the power variable more acutely.”

White teachers (and adults in general) tend to give commands in the form of questions: “Can you hand that paper in now?” Black teachers and adults tend to be more clear and may say: “Turn in that paper now.” Black students, then, may not respond in the “correct” way to their White teachers due to cultural misunderstanding.

The Road to Paris by Nikki Grimes

Road to ParisReading level: 3.7
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Paris has just moved in with the Lincoln family, and isn’t thrilled to be in yet another foster home. She has a tough time trusting people, and she misses her brother, who’s been sent to a boys’ home. Over time, the Lincolns grow on Paris. But no matter how hard she tries to fit in, she can’t ignore the feeling that she never will, especially in a town that’s mostly white while she is half black. It isn’t long before Paris has a big decision to make about where she truly belongs. Nikki Grimes has created a portrait of a young girl who, in the midst of being shuffled back and forth between homes and realizing things about other people and the world around her, gradually embarks on the road to discovering herself.

The Road to Paris, with all its lyrical prose, was a breath of fresh air after reading Shine, Coconut Moon. Although simple (hence the reading level of 3.7), it is a beautiful and deep story, broken into many small chapters. I recommend it more for middle school because the language is simple and the main character is young (8 years old, I think), but high schoolers might also like it as a free-reading, SSR book.

This book also reminded me of a bit of Shine, Coconut Moon where Sam realizes she’s the only brown face in a sea of white ones. Here, Paris sees that she’s the only Black student in her class. She also gets cursed at for being Black by her best friend’s father. While Paris perhaps lacks the maturity to truly comprehend why that happened, she was still hurt by it, yet she moves on. The theme, then, is resiliency and strength for oneself.

Paris and her brother are foster kids, and I felt warmth run through my body as Paris learned to love and trust the Lincolns after so many years of being mistreated and abused. I would recommend The Road to Paris to not only kids who are in foster care but those who don’t feel that they belong.

Some lady on goodreads went off on a tangent about this book not having a real climax because we know the climax at the very beginning. She also rants that the language is simple and that the author tells, rather than shows. I think there are explanations for all this. For one, sure, we know what the climax is when we read the first few pages, but what is important is the journey up to that point. We’re not just riding a roller coaster of ups and downs as exciting things happen; we’re following this little girl through a year of her life – a life that isn’t about making the perfect surprise at the end. The surprise isn’t the important part. That’s why it’s called The Road to Paris. Also, the language is simple because Paris is 8 and has simple, 8-year-old thoughts, although she has adult feelings. The language is a beautiful mixture of flowing prose to narrate simple events and thoughts.

That ending… I reached the end, turned the page expecting for find more, and was disappointed that it was over. While the ending was ambiguous, it was for good reason. After all, it’s about Paris’ journey to making the decision of how to respond to that phone call that we learn about in the prologue. Everything after will be impacted by the year we see into her life.

Side note: the professor of my young adult literature class used to remind us frequently that the characters aren’t real; they don’t have feelings; nothing happens to them when the words stop. Those comments always really ticked me off. I’m quite content to imagine that Paris (and all the other wonderful fictional characters I read about) exist, if just in the pages of their books.

It Ain’t All For Nothin’ by Walter Dean Myers

ain't all for nothin'Reading level: 5.4
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Seventeen-year-old Samar — a.k.a. Sam — has never known much about her Indian heritage. Her mom has deliberately kept Sam away from her old-fashioned family. It’s never bothered Sam, who is busy with school, friends, and a really cute but demanding boyfriend.But things change after 9/11. A guy in a turban shows up at Sam’s house, and he turns out to be her uncle. He wants to reconcile the family and teach Sam about her Sikh heritage. Sam isn’t sure what to do, until a girl at school calls her a coconut — brown on the outside, white on the inside. That decides it: Why shouldn’t Sam get to know her family? What is her mom so afraid of? Then some boys attack her uncle, shouting, “Go back home, Osama ” and Sam realizes she could be in danger — and also discovers how dangerous ignorance can be. Sam will need all her smarts and savvy to try to bridge two worlds and make them both her own.

My copy of It Ain’t All For Nothin’ has had a rough life. It lived in the library of a local high school and was “discarded,” the library bar code cut out of the front cover. The public library either tried to sell it at a book sale or deemed it unfit to sell, and so it wound up in a free book pile along with computer manuals for Windows 95 and outdated self-help books.

There’s probably a reason it’s been discarded again and again. The cover screams “dorky, boring, please don’t read me.” In fact, I couldn’t even find a picture on the internet of the cover that I own, printed in the late 1970s. Here are some ideas to help get this book (and other books with boring covers) in the hands of readers:

  • Give a book talk summarizing why students might like it.
  • Display it on the bookshelf under a sign or banner that says “Ugly book cover of the month” and has a blurb about why it’s not a boring book.
  • Create monthly book challenges for SSR/at-home reading assignments. Challenges may include:
    • Read a book with a dorky cover
    • Read a book featuring a main character of the opposite gender
    • Read a book in a genre different from what you’re used to

At the time I read this book, I was also reading Other People’s Children by Lisa Delpit. She writes that African Americans tend to not tell object-centered stories like White people do. That is, their stories seem to go on and on without a central focus – at least that’s what I understood. It’s just a different way to telling stories and communicating. It Ain’t All For Nothin’ definitely had that feel, not just from sentence structure (some sentences were very long, connected by several conjunctions) but also because it was about Tippy’s 12-year old life, day by day, moment to moment. It’s hard to explain.

I say it’s not ELL-friendly because it’s written in the African American vernacular, aka Black English. Because we’re trying to teach ELLs “formal English,” this book might just be confusing. For African American youth, though, it might be liberating to read a book written in the language in which they speak.

I think this book is better suited for middle schoolers because the main character is 12, the reading level is 5th grade, and the language is fairly simple. However, since the book was originally in a high school library, it could be appropriate for that age group as well, especially for struggling readers. It would also make an excellent mentor text to show Tippy’s internal monologue that really defines this scared 12-year-old boy. It could be used in a lesson about narration, internal monologue, and giving characters distinct voices by using a variety of sentence structures.

There are lots of reasons why this book may not be appropriate for school:

  • references to “herb” i.e. marijuana
  • praying and references to Jesus
  • kids and adults drinking alcohol
  • kids doing illegal things (stealing, buying alcohol)
  • mild swearing

Allow me to refute these “problems.”

The praying comes from Grandma Carrie, a fiercely religious woman. Praying and talking to Jesus is something that defines her, and Tippy struggles to pray in a way that is meaningful to him. Religion isn’t prominent or stressed.

If all books with any swearing were banned from schools, there would be no more school libraries. Really, the swearing isn’t that bad.

Tippy never smokes marijuana and never says anything positive about it. It’s just what Lonnie and his friends do.

Tippy struggles to do what’s right regarding stealing and partaking in illegal activities with his father. By the end, he’s on the straight and narrow. He may not have his life figured out, but he knows he’s no thief. Each time he helps his father steal, something terrible happens and it terrifies him. The lesson: don’t steal.

He really drinks a lot of alcohol, and his father basically lets him except for once. Almost each time Tippy drinks, he gets sick. Once, he passed out in the street. He mentions that he never wanted to be like one of those drunkards passed out in the streets like he was…at age 12. Drinking just sounds like a terrible experience for him every time, so it is definitely not glorified.

Here are some quotes to prove that the book isn’t in favor of kids doing illicit activities:

Mr. Roland: “‘People don’t do things to hurt themselves unless they got problems. And that drinking ain’t doing nothing but hurting you'” (108).

Tippy: “It was good doing things that everybody else was doing if it was a right thing to do. That was because you had fun doing it and because you was a part of the world you always heard about or maybe saw on television” (112).

Tippy: “I never liked people who stole things, not even because of God and the Bible saying it was wrong – I just didn’t think it was the right way to live. I didn’t like people who lived like that, and now I didn’t like me very much either” (182).

Straight Talk About the N-word

Here are some resources from Teaching Tolerance about teaching about the use of the n-word in your classroom. They recommend that at least one African American adult is there to teach or facilitate discussion. The following resources are for grades 9-12, but I suppose they could be adapted if not used as a starting point to discuss the word with younger students. And let’s be real, none of us wishes to teach about the word because we don’t want to say it ourselves (says the young, white female).

The first resource is sort of a FAQ about the word:

The n-word is unique in the English language. On one hand, it is the ultimate insult- a word that has tormented generations of African Americans. Yet over time, it has become a popular term of endearment by the descendents of the very people who once had to endure it. Among many young people today—black and white—the n-word can mean friend.

Neal A. Lester, dean of humanities and former chair of the English department at Arizona State University, recognized that the complexity of the n-word’s evolution demanded greater critical attention. In 2008, he taught the first ever college-level class designed to explore the word “nigger” (which will be referred to as the n-word). Lester said the subject fascinated him precisely because he didn’t understand its layered complexities.

“When I first started talking about the idea of the course,” Lester recalled, “I had people saying, ‘This is really exciting, but what would you do in the course? How can you have a course about a word?’ It was clear to me that the course, both in its conception and in how it unfolded, was much bigger than a word. It starts with a word, but it becomes about other ideas and realities that go beyond words.”

Lester took a few minutes to talk to Teaching Tolerance managing editor Sean Price about what he’s learned and how that can help other educators.

How did the n-word become such a scathing insult?
We know, at least in the history I’ve looked at, that the word started off as just a descriptor, “negro,” with no value attached to it. … We know that as early as the 17th century, “negro” evolved to “nigger” as intentionally derogatory, and it has never been able to shed that baggage since then—even when black people talk about appropriating and reappropriating it. The poison is still there. The word is inextricably linked with violence and brutality on black psyches and derogatory aspersions cast on black bodies. No degree of appropriating can rid it of that bloodsoaked history.

Why is the n-word so popular with many young black kids today?
If you could keep the word within the context of the intimate environment [among friends], then I can see that you could potentially own the word and control it. But you can’t because the word takes on a life of its own if it’s not in that environment. People like to talk about it in terms of public and private uses. Jesse Jackson was one of those who called for a moratorium on using the word, but then was caught using the word with a live mic during a “private” whispered conversation.

There’s no way to know all of its nuances because it’s such a complicated word, a word with a particular racialized American history. But one way of getting at it is to have some critical and historical discussions about it and not pretend that it doesn’t exist. We also cannot pretend that there is not a double standard—that blacks can say it without much social consequence but whites cannot. There’s a double standard about a lot of stuff. There are certain things that I would never say. In my relationship with my wife, who is not African American, I would never imagine her using that word, no matter how angry she was with me. …

That’s what I’m asking people to do—to self-reflect critically on how we all use language and the extent to which language is a reflection of our innermost thoughts. Most people don’t bother to go to that level of self-reflection and self-critique. Ultimately, that’s what the class is about. It’s about selfeducation and self-critique, not trying to control others by telling them what to say or how to think, but rather trying to figure out how we think and how the words we use mirror our thinking. The class sessions often become confessionals because white students often admit details about their intimate social circles I would never be privy to otherwise.

What types of things do they confess?
In their circles of white friends, some are so comfortable with the n-word because they’ve grown up on and been nourished by hip-hop. Much of the commercial hip-hop culture by black males uses the n-word as a staple. White youths, statistically the largest consumers of hip-hop, then feel that they can use the word among themselves with black and white peers. … But then I hear in that same discussion that many of the black youths are indeed offended by [whites using the n-word]. And if blacks and whites are together and a white person uses the word, many blacks are ready to fight. So this word comes laden with these complicated and contradictory emotional responses to it. It’s very confusing to folks on the “outside,” particularly when nobody has really talked about the history of the word in terms of American history, language, performance and identity.

Most public school teachers are white women. How might they hold class discussions about this word? Do you think it would help them to lay some groundwork?
You might want to get somebody from the outside who is African American to be a central part of any discussion— an administrator, a parent, a pastor or other professional with some credibility and authority. Every white teacher out there needs to know some black people. Black people can rarely say they know no white people; it’s a near social impossibility. The NAACP would be a good place to start, but I do not suggest running to the NAACP as a single “authority.” Surely there are black parents of school children or black neighbors a few streets over or black people at neighboring churches. The teacher might begin by admitting, “This is what I want to do, how would you approach this? Or, how do we approach it as a team? How can we build a team of collaboration so that we all accept the responsibility of educating ourselves and our youths about the power of words to heal or to harm?” This effort then becomes something shared as opposed to something that one person allegedly owns.

How might a K-12 teacher go about teaching the n-word?
At the elementary level, I can imagine bringing in children’s picture books to use in conjunction with a segment on the civil rights movement, because students talk about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Look at some of the placards [held by white people at 1960s civil rights] protests and see if some of them have been airbrushed or the messages sanitized. Talk about language, about words and emotion, about words and pain. Consider the role of words in the brutal attacks on black people during slavery, during Jim Crow, during the civil rights movement. Consider how words were part of the attacks on black people.

Depending on how old the students are, a teacher might talk about the violence that involved lynching and castration, and how the n-word was part of the everyday discourse around race relations at the time. Then bring in some hip-hop, depending again on the age. If these are middle school students or high school students, a teacher can talk specifically about hip-hop and how often the n-word is used and in a specific context. … There are many ways that a teacher can talk about the n-word without necessarily focusing on just one aspect—like whether or not Huck should have used the n-word when he references Jim [in Huckleberry Finn]. Any conversation about the n-word has to be about language and thinking more broadly.

What should teachers keep in mind as they teach about the n-word?
Remember the case of the white teacher who told the black student to sit down and said, “Sit down, nigga.” And then the teacher is chastised by the administration and of course there is social disruption. He said, “I didn’t say ‘Sit down, nigger,’ I said ‘Sit down, nigga,’ and that’s what I hear the students saying.” I’m thinking, first, you are an adult, white teacher. Secondly, do you imitate everything that you see and hear others doing or saying? At some level, there has to be some self-critique and critical awareness and sensitivity to difference. Just because someone else is doing it doesn’t mean that I do it even if and when I surely can.

In my courses, I’m more interested in raising questions than in finding answers to them. I think the questions lead to potential self-discovery. It’s not about whether or not a person uses the n-word. I try to move the class beyond easy binaries—“Well, blacks can use it, but whites can’t.” That line of thinking doesn’t take us very far at all. What we are trying to do, at least the way I have conceptualized and practiced this discovery, is so much more. The class strives to teach us all manner of ways to talk about, think about and to understand ourselves, and each other, and why and how we fit in the rest of the world.


The second resource is a lesson plan with discussion questions for grades 9-12. I won’t post the whole thing here. The link also leads to a few other resources on the subject. If the link is broken do a google search for search through the Teaching Tolerance website for “Portfolio Activity for “Straight Talk About the N-word.””


The third resource is a video called “A War For Your Soul” about the plight of African Americans. I haven’t seen it, but it’s only 20 minutes long. If the link is broken, do a google search for the title and you can find it on a variety of websites for free. Maybe if I get a chance to watch it, I’ll do a proper review.