“A couple of people truly remember, and here’s what they saw: a scraggly little kid jogging towards them, soles of both sneakers hanging by their hinges and flopping open like dog tongues each time they came up from the pavement.”
Meet Maniac Magee, boy who changes race relations in a small town in Pennsylvania, one person at a time. Written by Jerry Spinelli, the book has one numerous awards including the Horn Book Award in 1990. It is popular in elementary school curricula as it deals with issues of homelessness and racism.
After Maniac’s parents die in an accident, he spends several painful years with his relatives before setting off on his own. When he jogs into Two Mills, PA, the twelve year-old finds a town divided sharply down Hector Street—the East End belonging to African American residents, while the West End is populated by whites. After some feats of athletic prowess (untying the infamous Cobble’s Knot, hitting a homerun off Junior McNab’s fastball, and beating Mars Bar in a race by running backwards) he becomes something of a hero, and is half-adopted by families on both ends of town. But Maniac runs up against racism on both sides of Hector Street, but what can one orphaned, homeless kid do about it?
Maniac makes this week’s countdown for a series of reasons. The first is that at the beginning of the book, he is completely unaware of the difference of people’s skin tones. He gets taken in by the Beales of the East End and he doesn’t even notice that he’s the only white kid on the block. He interfaces with everyone on the same level regardless of ethnicity; he stays with the Beales, the McNab’s from the West End, and when those don’t pan out, the buffalo in the zoo. Black, white, buffalo, it doesn’t matter to him.
Secondly, when he becomes aware of the racism on either side of Hector Street, he doesn’t just accept it. He actively sets out to change things—staying with the Beales, trying to talk down the supremacist McNabs, tricking East Ender Mars Bar into coming to a birthday party in the West End. He sees the inherent wrong of racism, and tries to do something to end it, in his own small way, in this one particular town.
And finally, Maniac is a pretty kick-butt character. He’s an impressive athlete in the sort of Sandlot-type classification of kids: the fastball that can’t be hit, the throw that can’t be caught, the race that can’t be won. He runs on the two inch-wide rails of the railroad tracks. He lives to push the mental boundaries of the people of Two Mills, before he even starts on the racism stuff. Furthermore, when living with his relatives gets miserable, he sets out on his own, just like that. He survives, essentially homeless for a good portion of the book. He mooches food or goes hungry, he sleeps wherever someone will let him, or with the buffalo. And he’s twelve. No noble idea of living rough, no complaining, just taking care of himself.
It isn’t often that you find a book for lower and middle-grade readers that deals with big issues like racism in such an open way, and Spinelli’s writing is so engaging that though it presents a tough situation, the book is endlessly entertaining whatever your age. It was made into a movie starring the adorable Michael Arangano, which I haven’t seen but is in its entirety on YouTube, so you best believe I’m going to! Spinelli has written about 28394293870593 more, which you should check out—I personally just picked up a copy of Milkweed, and we reviewed another of his books, Stargirl, back in August. But Maniac Magee is the best!