Next time your son is banging around the living room, nagging his siblings, groaning and complaining that there is nothing to do, that he is so so bored because there is never ANYTHING to do, hand him a copy of Maniac Magee.
The surge of the adventurous and potentially destructive desire to run away seizes protagonist Maniac Magee from the start and sends him sprinting. He has lost his parents in a tragic trolly accident, been placed in a cold home with relatives that do not talk, and he sees no option but to run. Maniac runs into trouble with mean kids and out of it again; he runs through baseball diamonds and football fields; he runs with a book in his hand; he runs down the train track rail to the edge of town and off into the sunset.
But Maniac always comes back. He cannot leave the town, whether he is staying in the buffalo pen at the zoo or a makeshift bedroom in the baseball park. As the book progresses, the legend of this mysterious boy who appears and amazes all onlookers, then disappears again and again, becomes almost tedious. Maniac is running in circles. He finds himself in a loving household, then leaves because he feels he is a burden. He delights in a new friendship, then runs off again shortly after in despair. At one point he curls up on an abandoned battlefield and waits for death. The reader begins with wide-eyed excitement as Maniac runs and runs, feeling with the orphan protagonist all the while as he is haunted by an estrangement that forces him ever onward with no clear goal or purpose.
Maniac bounces from one lively character to another, including no-nonsense Amanda Beale with her suitcase of books; kind Earl Grayson with his troubled baseball past; Mars Bar, the self-proclaimed “baddest black kid on the block;” and the mischievous McNab boys who scheme to run away from their beer burping father and his household of neglect. When Maniac is most frustrated or confused, when he is filthy and starving, his friends appear as suddenly as turning a corner; he is thrust back into relationships that elevate him from his individual melancholy and that open him to a world where people come together to celebrate family and each other’s company.
Maniac, a white boy, also has an unabashed optimism and openness to others. He does not flinch at crossing into the black part of the segregated town, and even brings friends he has made across the invisible border of the east and west end. In small ways he softens hearts that have been hardened by prejudice. Maniac’s neglect of these social boundaries–physically expressed by his running back and forth across the street that divides the town–adds an extra dimension to the novel’s themes of estrangement.
Throughout Maniac’s adventures and hardships, Spinelli’s energetic style maintains a certain mirth that hints at a deeper hope, most felt through Maniac’s interactions with his friends and their generous acts of kindness. The reader who begins enthralled with Maniac’s daring and unflappable insistence on running away is thus brought to appreciate this familial bond that we all crave, finding in those relationships a greater expression of the adventure that was initially sought by running.
The book is an enjoyable read, even with all Maniac’s various troubles, and provides much fodder for good conversation. Parents might wish to discuss the history of segregation in America with younger readers, who could be confused about the divide between the white and black parts of town. Ultimately, the boyish drive to escape and explore is taken to the extreme in Maniac, and following his footsteps the reader watches as his simple urge to run becomes an aching desire for love. At the very least your son will certainly be hooked for all 180 pages.
- Why does Maniac continue to run? Does running make him happy?
- When Manic is most frustrated or confused, how is he helped by others? Why does Manic need his friends, and why do they need him as well?
- Why do you think Manic kept returning to the East End? Why was this courageous?
- Why did Maniac not want to go to school, then try to convince the McNabs to go? Do you think that once he found a home he would attend school then?