Saturday, August 11, 2007

Maniac Magee

Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli won the Newbery award in 1991. This book is really timeless, though - it could have taken place anytime from WW II to the present. Spinelli's writing is just fantastic (in several senses of the word!); I'm so happy that this project introduced it to me.

In Maniac Magee, Spinelli writes in a "playground folklore" style that is very appealing. Even when reading about something I don't care much about (like baseball), the magical realism made the story interesting and entertaining. I think this would be true for most kids, too (and I'm thinking of the "child appeal" of the different Newbery books here).

The setting and sense of place is very important in Maniac Magee (and hasn't that been very true for many of these winners?) - urban southeastern Pennsylvania is not someplace that I know, but it (and its inhabitants) are portrayed in both a loving and rather brutal manner. It makes me want to go to Norristown (Spinelli's hometown, said to be the model for Two Mills in the story) and look for a corner store and buy Tastykake butterscotch krimpets.

There is a lot for both kids and adults to ponder in this book: the importance of family, homelessness, reading, and race, but what really kept me hooked were the characters and Spinelli's incredible gift for spinning a story and description. Take the McNab house, delightful in its disgusting-ness:
Maniac had seen some amazing things in his life-time, but nothing as amazing as that house. From the smell of it, he knew this wasn't the first time an animal had relieved itself on the rugless floor.

Cans and bottles lay all over, along with crusts, peelings, cores, scraps, rinds, wrappers - everything you would normally find in a garbage can. And everywhere there were raisins.

Nothing could be worse than the living and dining rooms, yet the kitchen was. A jar of peanut butter had crashed to the floor; someone had gotten a running start, jumped into it, and skied a brown, one-footed track to the stove. On the table were what appeared to be the remains of an autopsy performed upon a large bird, possibly a crow. The refrigerator contained two food groups: mustard and beer. The raisins here were even more abundant. He spotted several of them moving. They weren't raisins; they were roaches. (p. 131-132)*
This book was among my favorite Newbery winners so far, and one that I think would appeal to boys more than many that we've already read. Incidentally, it is also one that I didn't think I'd like in the least - so much for judging a book on its cover and dustjacket blurb.

*Suggested musical accompaniment: Warren Zevon's (2003) "Disorder in the House".


Julie said...

This book was my introduction to Jerry Spinelli in the late 90s when I was taking my education classes. I do know southeastern PA, and his descriptions (and your perceptions based upon them) are right on. I hope you'll get to visit one day! (And enjoy some fresh Tastykakes!)

Library Cat said...

I can almost taste the Tastykakes! With all of the wonderful reviews, I hardly know which book to read next.

Library Cat said...

Also, I wsn't sure where to post this, but thought you might like the site if you aren't already familiar with it.
The site is and you can catalog your books with reviews, etc. They also have an Early Reviwers program where you can apply to get free copies of books from the likes of Random House. I got one the first time I applies and actually liked the book.
If you haven't seen it, check it out...of course, I am quite the nerd, so I really like it.

Aunt Sara said...

I'm similarly impressed with my first look at Spinelli. I am screening a stack of memoirs for a unit I will be exploring with 8th graders, and read a good bit of Spinelli's "Knots in my Yo-yo String" last night. Charming! There is a map of his real childhood neighborhood, and some hints about names and places he used in his novels, including Maniac Magee. I'm looking forward to reading more by Spinelle.

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