Maniac Magee

by Jerry Spinelli (1990)

Our first title by the brilliant wordsmith, Jerry Spinelli.

Maniac Magee is a Tweener title. Meaning it will appeal to plenty of older children in upper and even middle school grades. And yet the prose and setting are simple and rich enough that you can read it with most younger children, too. Take a good look and see if it’s right for your audience.

Jerry Spinelli won the Newbery Medal (the highest award in children’s literature) for Maniac Magee – and it’s easy to see why.

He’s created a curious character like no other. His real name is Jeffrey Lionel Magee and he’s interesting and unique because he a) is good at nearly everything he tries, b) exemplifies nearly every gracious virtue you can imagine, and c) clearly marches to his own internal compass.

How to make that interesting for 180 pages? By not letting the story hold still. Although the reader roots for the parentless Magee, he literally moves from one side of the tracks to the other – and then beyond. Along the way he touches, affects, and improves hearts young and old. Children, parents, and teachers will all be moved by the effect this exceptional young man has on people – children and adults – when he enters their lives.

It all sounds too good to be true but what makes Spinelli’s ride with Magee so brisk and lively and enriching is Spinelli’s way with language. Delve into our supplementary materials and see the way Spinelli loads an active paragraph with pithy, Dickensian description – and then ladles supreme similes in every chapter.

This is Maniac Magee running away…

“He darted left, skirted the dump, wove through the miniature mountain range of stone piles and into the trees…skiing on his heels down the steep bank and into the creek, frogs plopping, no time to look for stepping rocks…yells behind him, war whoops, stones pelting the water, stinging his back…ah, the other side, through the trees and picker bushes, past the armory jeeps and out to the park boulevard, past the Italian restaurants on the corner, the bakery, screeching tires, row houses, streets, alleys, cars, porches, windows, faces staring, faces, faces…the town whizzing past Maniac, a blur of faces, each face staring from its own window, each face in its own personal frame, its own house, its own address, someplace to be when there was no other place to be, how lucky to be a face staring out from a window.”

Who needs the movie after that?! And think of the copycat writing exercises that simple, descriptive, action paragraph can inspire in your students…

Of course you probably noticed that Spinelli slyly concludes by making the reader empathize with the homeless Maniac Magee. And empathize you will. Spinelli dazzles with his prose. But then he makes you care and feel.

That’s what literature is for – to hit all those buttons. And that makes Maniac Magee a rich choice for One School, One Book – especially if you host that ‘tweener population.


Note: Maniac Magee is now available with a set of resources augmented specifically for Middle Schools, including expanded Suggested Activities, Discussion Questions, and Role Playing ideas – all targeted at middle school students and their interests.