Sunday, February 15, 2009

REVIEW: Maniac Magee

Spinelli, J. (1990). Maniac Magee. New York: Little, Brown and Company.


As an orphan, Jeffrey Magee is sent to live with his aunt and uncle who live separately within their house and refuse to share anything. At the age of eleven, Jeffrey, unable to deal with his aunt and uncle’s refusal to interact or communicate, runs away. A year later, he appears in a strictly racially segregated town, doing amazing feats and running like a mad man, earning him the nickname, Maniac. Quick to make both friends and enemies, Maniac searches for a home.

This Newbery Winning story, without a clear setting in time, deals extensively with issues of race and segregation. Maniac, who is initially completely naïve of issues of race, seems almost too naïve. What is more, the fact that no character ever reports Magee’s homelessness to the authorities may make this classic story difficult to accept for some adults.  To combat this, it may be best to teach this book as a tall tale, since Maniac is a mythic figure.

Also present in the book are issues of literacy. Despite his refusal to go to school, Maniac loves to read. He also takes on the role of teacher, helping an older man he befriends learn to read. In the past, the presence of this book in schools and libraries has been challenged in some communities for the fact that it could encourage children to run away or quite school.

The beginning of the story, intrigued me most. Spinelli’s narrator takes on the voice similar to that of a folklorist, examining the legend, the myth, the boy that is Maniac Magee.

Activities to do with the book:

This is a good book to discuss topics of race, segregation, school truancy, homelessness and loss. This is also a good way to introduce the idea of ‘whiteness.’
To help students visualize the text, they could create maps of Two Mills, reinforcing the division between the sides of the town. Students could then create a second map, trying to unify the town.

Other techniques used with the text include making Venn diagrams, comparing and contrasting characters that have parallel positions.

Also, students could examine the characterization of Maniac as a transgressor.

Favorite Quotes

“The history of a kid is one part fact, two parts legend, and three parts snowball. And if you want to know what it was like back when Maniac Magee roamed these parts, well, just run your hand under your movie seat and be very, very careful not to let the facts get mixed up with the truth” (p. 2).

“If you listen to everybody who claims to have seen Jeffrey-Maniac Magee that first day, there must have been ten thousand people and a parade of fire trucks waiting for him at the town limits. Don’t believe it. A couple of people truly remember, and here’s what they saw: a scraggly little kid jogging toward them, the soles of both sneakers hanging by their hinges and flopping open like dog tongues each time the came up from the pavement” (p. 9).

“For the life of him, he couldn’t figure why these East Enders called themselves black. He kept looking and looking, and the colors he found were gingersnap and light fudge and dark fudge and acorn and butter rum and cinnamon and burnt orange. But never licorice, which, to him, was real black” (p. 51).


  1. This was one of my favorites back in the day. That last quote made an impression and still comes to mind now and then.

  2. Yeah, see, I'd always assumed I'd read it. Then I read it. No ringing bells. No flashbacks to being 11. I somehow missed it. I failed as a child.

  3. Don't worry S.J., it's not that the book is head on, edge of your seat action, nor perhaps some masterfully crafted Shakespearean piece. I think part of the enjoyment is the simplicity about the world Maniac is living in, and part of it is that view of childhood. Personally i was disappointed about butterscotch krimpets, but then again they were the Tasty cake brand that i tried. Overall, i fine book.



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