I’ve been on a bit of a Newbery kick lately, which is not a bad place to be. My most recent read is one that was recommended to me many years ago, back when I was student teaching in an eighth grade classroom in Minnesota. My (amazing) mentor teacher Stacy Casper suggested Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli as a great read for an eighth grader, and I feel a little sheepish that I haven’t read it until now. But I’ll also say this: it was worth the wait.
Maniac Magee is awesome. He’s really, really awesome. He can hit the pitches of the most talented pitchers. He can out-duke anyone on the football field. He can run—not walk, but run—balanced on a railroad tie. He’ll tie a bow around the neck of a baby buffalo, sit on the stoop of a house from where no children return, and complete various other feats with a casual confidence that leaves other kids—and many adults—gawking in wide-eyed admiration. Maniac Magee also doesn’t have a home.
Jerry Spinelli manages to create a character who lives a life as big as the mythological stars of jump rope chants yet who struggles to meet his most basic needs of food and shelter. The effect is almost as shattering as Maniac’s attempt to break the boundaries between the black and white sides of town—a divide that’s longstanding and upheld by force of will on both sides, a divide Maniac crosses regularly and with the same combination of hope and desperation that lands him in the buffalo pen at the zoo, just searching for a warm place to sleep.
Maniac doesn’t go to school. (But he does believe it’s important—urgent even—that other kids go to school.) He reads like, well, a maniac, with the same gusto he approaches everything else, but he just can’t bring himself to go to school when there’s no home to go to afterwards. I remember back when I was student teaching, Stacy Casper telling me that some of our students didn’t have homes. This isn’t a truth that disappeared when I crossed the country to teach in another eighth grade classroom far away from that Midwestern city. And I hate it now as much as I did then. It’s an injustice that can make reading books feel like a worthless indulgence. How can I read when the world is a mess? How can I escape into a story when thousands of kids lack safe homes to go to after school?
In Maniac Magee, a character named Amanda Beale carries her library of books to and from school every day in a suitcase, so they won’t get ruined by her younger siblings while she’s gone. When Amanda first meets Maniac, she opens her suitcase of books to show him her treasure. And, against Amanda’s sense of all that is reasonable and logical in the world, she lends Maniac Magee a book. It got me wondering. Maybe it’s because she’s a reader that Amanda can go beyond all that is logical and reasonable in the world and lend this boy—this stranger, a white boy in the black side of town, this rumbled kid with his falling apart shoes—one of her most precious possessions: one of her books. Perhaps reading, like giving away a book you might not get back, like believing that the world might get better someday, is an act of hope.