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