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Maniac Magee    by Jerry Spinelli order for
Maniac Magee
by Jerry Spinelli
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2000 (1990)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

His story starts 'Maniac Magee was not born in a dump.' In fact, he was Jeffrey Lionel Magee until he was orphaned at the age of three and shipped off to Aunt Dot and Uncle Dan, who didn't talk to each other and lived in a house of two toasters. At the age of eleven, Jeffrey couldn't abide it any longer. He started to run, stopped in Two Mills and the rest is history. As the author says 'the history of a kid is one part fact, two parts legend, and three parts snowball' and so it is with Maniac.

This is a good kid who happens to live on the streets and avoid school, though he actively seeks an education and books. He is color blind yet sees clearly. 'He kept looking and looking, and the colors he found were gingersnap and light fudge and dark fudge and acorn and butter rum and cinnamon and burnt orange.' His tale in Two Mills begins (and ends) with a meeting with Amanda Beale, who carries her library around in a suitcase to protect it from sibling crayons and a dog that chews. Maniac borrows a book.

Maniac's fame spreads through the kid community as this phantom Samaritan in flap-soled sneakers performs athletic feats, rescues a child from bullies, faces off gang leaders on both sides of the tracks and untangles Cobble's Knot. He moves in with the Beales and is happy until he encounters racism in this black East End community. When it results in the destruction of one of Amanda's beloved books, Maniac moves to the buffalo pen at the Zoo.

There he meets an old man, ex- baseball player Grayson, who works for the park and shares stories of the Minor League. In return, Maniac teaches him to read. Grayson discovers that consonants are fun, but doesn't get along with vowels - 'you could go through twenty words without bumping into some of the shyer consonants, but it seemed as if you couldn't tiptoe past a syllable without waking up a vowel.' The old man and the boy are happy together while it lasts.

Later, Maniac meets two runaways, Russell and Piper. He convinces them to return to their West End cockroach and gang-ridden fortress home and makes deals to keep the boys at school. Still unhappy when people don't talk to each other, Maniac invites the East End gang leader Mars Bar, 'blackest of the black', to the boys' birthday party. Though it turns out badly they become friends in an ending like Kipling's ballad 'East is East, and West is West and never the twain shall meet'. And Maniac is finally called home.

I could not put this book down once started. Jeffrey Lionel Maniac Magee is the perfect kid hero, with all the right stuff. He follows his own drummer, helps the weak and can teach adults a thing or two. In describing the legend, Spinelli shows how clearly he remembers the rumors and exaggerations of childhood and adolescence. I was not at all surprised to see that this book was the Newbery Medal winner in 1991.

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