By Barbara Schultz,
Common Sense Media Reviewer
Common Sense Media Reviewers
Kid bridges racial divide in exciting, moving story.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
Maniac Magee is an excellent teaching tool, as a point of departure for children to discuss race and what feeds people's prejudices.
People of all colors have the same need for -- and same capacity to give -- love, acceptance, and a home.
Positive Role Models
Maniac isn't an activist or a crusader. He's just a kind, honorable kid who wants to feel a sense of belonging and thinks people should get along. The wonderful Beales show him that family has no color, and Grayson shows him that you don't need a lot to feel the warmth of home. Almost unintentionally, Maniac helps some of the White West Enders and Black East Enders open their hearts to each other.
Violence & Scariness
A mom slaps Maniac when he trash-talks, but then both of them are sorry for the incident and he hugs her. References to Maniac's parents dying in an accident when he was three. Mr. McNab irrationally prepares to defend his home from Black people, and the McNab children pretend-play that Black and White people are at war.
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Racial name-calling: Maniac is called "fishbelly" and "honky." Rude words like "belch" and "fart."
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Products & Purchases
Mars Bar Thompson is named after the candy he's always chewing. Late in the book, Amanda starts calling him "Snickers" instead. Other brands mentioned include Quaker Oats and Whoppers.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
A drunk trolley driver causes a fatal accident. At the McNab house, children as well as adults smoke cigarettes and drink beer. Cigarette smoking at a funeral.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Jerry Spinelli's Newbery Medal-winning novel Maniac Magee tells the story of an orphaned White boy who becomes a local legend in a racially divided town. The book is by turns exciting, heartwarming, and funny, with some tall tales added, enhancing the boy's reputation: Eight-year-old Jeffrey "Maniac" Magee can run and swing a baseball bat faster than kids twice his age. The story is also at least as relevant as it was when the book was published, in 1991. Black and White families are segregated in the story, and there's a lot of fear and resentment between them. One family is gearing up for an imagined race war, and the children pretend they are fighting off Black "invaders." Those kids also smoke and drink, and the novel generally explores the right (and wrong) ways to make children feel secure and happy at home.
Where to Read
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What's the Story?
The book title MANIAC MAGEE refers to a boy (really named Jeffrey), who is such a fast and impressive athlete that people start referring to him as a "maniac." When the story begins, Jeffrey, who's White, is living with his aunt and uncle because his parents died in an accident when the boy was only 3. Jeffrey's guardians don't get along with each other, though. In fact, they don't even speak to each other. One day, Jeffrey runs out of patience with them and literally takes off running. He winds up in Two Mills, a town that is divided between East Enders (Black residents) and West Enders (White ones). Both Black and White kids soon learn that Maniac can run and swing a bat faster than anyone. He makes friends on both sides of town, and is taken in by the Beale family, who are Black, where the household includes two loving parents, a girl named Amanda, who's Maniac's age, and her little brother and sister, Hester and Lester. Not all of the East Enders approve of Maniac living with the Beales, however, and Maniac feels terrible about bringing trouble to their door, so he runs away again, this time finding a home with an older man who warms to Maniac. Eventually, Maniac is on his own again, but a couple of needy children lead him back to Two Mills, and he tries to make sense, and peace, of the racial divide.
Is It Any Good?
Jerry Spinelli's wonderful novel addresses essential issues of race and child raising, but it's never preachy. Instead, the author tells an engrossing and amusing story that makes kids think about their world, and it serves as a great discussion starter. Likewise, Spinelli offers hope that individual hearts and minds can change, but he doesn't guarantee universal peace and harmony. The author's approach is engaging, not only because he doesn't make any unrealistic promises, but also because he creates such winning and rich characters, with relatable quirks and problems. Maniac Magee is a legend to kids in Two Mills because he seems first and foremost like a real kid with an extraordinary story.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about families in Maniac Magee. Which families are happy? What is the author saying about what makes a loving family?
In the book, the town is literally divided along racial lines. Do you think there are places like this today? How does Maniac change the town?
Author Jerry Spinelli uses exaggeration and tall tales to embellish the legend of Maniac Magee, but other parts of the book are very realistic. Have you read any other books that have that kind of mix? How does it affect the way you feel about the story?
- Author: Jerry Spinelli
- Genre: Family Life
- Topics: Sports and Martial Arts, Brothers and Sisters, Friendship
- Book type: Fiction
- Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
- Publication date: January 1, 1990
- Publisher's recommended age(s): 11 - 18
- Number of pages: 184
- Available on: Paperback, Nook, Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
- Award: Newbery Medal and Honors
- Last updated: June 29, 2022
Did we miss something on diversity?
Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.
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