Top 100 Children’s Novels (#17)
#17 Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli (1990)
(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#2)(#2)(#2)(#2)(#2) (#3)(#3)(#4)(#5)(#5)(#5)(#5)(#6)(#6)(#7) (#8)(#8)(#9)(#10)(#10)(#10)(#10) – 158 points
This wins my award for best opening: “They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump. They say his stomach was a cereal box and his heart was a sofa spring.” It just doesn’t get any better than that. – Jody Sitts, Children’s Librarian, Field Library, Peekskill, NY
Here’s the thing: every so often I get this book out, thinking I’ll take it to a new student’s house the next day, and a few hours later I look up, dazed, realizing I’ve read the whole thing again. Maniac Magee is one of the best characters in the annals of children’s fiction, as innocent as Voltaire’s Candide, an Everykid who questions the status quo without even meaning to, a tall tale hero at the same time. Able to unravel the unravellable ball of string, yet allergic to pizza? Able to read a book and run like the wind while catching a pass, yet unable to find a true home? Maniac isn’t just a legend in this book; he’s a legend for young readers. – Kate Coombs (Book Aunt)
Part folk tale, part coming of age, part triumph of the human spirit–and completely awesome writing. – Heather Meagher
I’ve been following the comment conversations on these posts and I’ve been surprised to find that few discussions of the remaining books on this poll have concentrated on Spinelli’s arguably best-known book. He already made the list at #61 for Stargirl, but Maniac Magee is what won him the shiny gold sticker. For a long time this book was a definite inclusion in the Top 10. Then all the votes were cast and well . . . you’ll see.
The plot from Publishers’ Weekly reads, "Orphaned as an infant, Jerry Magee is reared by his feuding aunt and uncle until he runs away at age eight. He finds his way to Two Mills, Pa., where the legend of ‘Maniac’ Magee begins after he scores major upsets against Brian Denehy, the star high school football player, and Little League tough guy, John McNab. In racially divided Two Mills, the Beales, a black family, take Maniac in, but despite his local fame, community pressure forces him out and he returns to living at the zoo. Park groundskeeper Grayson next cares for the boy, but the old man dies and Maniac moves into the squalid home of the McNabs, who are convinced a race war is imminent. After a showdown with his nemesis, Mars Bar, Maniac bridges the gap between the two sides of town and finally finds a home."
As it happens, it wasn’t Maniac’s first appearance in a book. Those of you who have read Dump Days will find a single solitary sentence referring to Maniac in that title. As for where Spinelli got the idea for the book, nothing too thrilling. In an interview on Scholastic he just says, "Actually, there was no particular inspiration – it was time to start a new book, and I thought I’d like to write a book about a kid who was a hero to other kids. That was the starting point. Then I shopped around in my notes and in my head for any ideas that seemed to fit into that original idea." In a 2002 interview with TeacherVision he said that one of those ideas concentrated on someone he knew as a kid. "… a girl who carried her home library to school in a suitcase."
He did get the name "Maniac" from a newspaper column since he thought it would fit the character. The town of Two Mills is said to be loosely based on Norristown, PA (according to Kathleen Long Bostom’s Winning Authors: Profiles of the Newbery Medalists). And no. There will be no Maniac Magee sequel. Sorry, folks.
I like to look through all my reference books when finding information out about books, even when I have no serious hope of finding anything in them. I didn’t actually think that Maniac Magee would appear in Anita Silvey’s Everything I Need to Know I Learned From a Children’s Book. Most of the folks in that book are of an older generation, after all. But Silvey did take the time to speak to Tyler Hilton, one of the actors on One Tree Hill. And little Mr. Hilton’s favorite book was Maniac Magee. Said he, "This was the first book, from what I can remember, that I actually talked about to other kids my age. It’s just one of those that get you talking. The best kind."
It’s paired most frequently with fellow Newbery winner Holes. Not surprising when you consider how both books have dealt with racism in a fable-like setting. And in 1991 it won its own Newbery Award, beating out only a single Honor book. That title? The True Adventures of Charlotte Doyle by Avi, which already came in at #60 on our poll.
Five Owls said of it, "As a white writer, the view of racism Spinelli presents, although politically correct, is still white. Readers may agree or disagree with his ideas and character portrayals. But at least Spinelli’s made an attempt to bring racism out of the closet and to write about it in a way he sees relevant to school children’s own experiences."
VOYA was just as conflicted. "I enjoyed it as I was reading, but then as I reflected on the content, I became annoyed at the ways this fable manipulated the reader. Upon further reflection, I thought that possibly using this format was one of the most effective ways of making the ever-present (and too little-dealt-with) issue of racism accessible to the junior high level reader. This book will certainly elicit discussion among both students and teachers alike."
And Publishers’ Weekly thought, "Full of snappy street-talk cadences, this off-the-wall yarn will give readers of all colors plenty of food for thought."
Many of us forget that the book was turned into a Nickelodeon movie in 2003. Twas! The sound’s only coming in one ear on this one. Here’s the first part of the film.
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Filed under: Top 100 Children's Novels (2010)
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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