Last week we finished our World War 2 unit, and I was looking for something that took place in the second half of the 20th century. Something not too heavy, after reading about the Holocaust for several weeks. Maniac Magee popped out at me. I've had this book by Jerry Spinelli on my shelf for probably three years but somehow had never gotten around to it.
I'm so glad that we finally did. If I'd known about this book, I probably would have included it in the African-American literature circle that I taught this past year. Maniac Magee is the story of a boy without a home who becomes a legend in a small town that is vehemently racially divided. Maniac doesn't know that, as a white person, he should stay on the West End. In fact, Maniac doesn't understand the terms "white" and "black." He understands that some people offer love, books, and food—a home—and that's all that matters.
As Maniac roams the streets, he finds an eclectic mix of homes in the East End, West End, and at the city park. He encounters all kinds of prejudices and tries to untie the knot of ignorance that pervades the town's citizens. As he does, he becomes a hero and a legend. He can run faster and pitch harder than anyone else, and he has courage that's never been seen before in Two Mills.
My kids (9 and 12) loved this book. Spinelli has a poetic, jazzy kind of voice. His word combinations are surprising and refreshing—definitely a fun-to-read-aloud kind of book. In our home, this brought up a lot of discussion about segregation and racism. We had read William Armstrong's Sounder and Mildred Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry recently. Maniac Magee brought the problem of racial tension into the middle part of the century. (The time period isn't named, but I'd put this in the 1950s-70s.) I highly recommend it not only to help understand the ignorance that perpetuates stereotypes, but as a fun read. My nine-year-old wanted to read it again right away.