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Jeffrey Lionel “Maniac” Magee might have lived a normal life if a freak accident hadn’t made him an orphan. After living with his unhappy and uptight aunt and uncle for eight years, he decides to run–and not just run away, but run. This is where the myth of Maniac Magee begins, as he changes the lives of a racially divided small town with his amazing and legendary feats.
Table of Contents
A Sneak Peek of Eggs
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by Katherine Applegate
There are books we admire and books we enjoy, and then there are books we cherish.
Books like Maniac Magee.
My old, beloved copy is tattered, the covers soft as flannel. I've read it for the pure pleasure of the storytelling. I've read it to divine how Jerry Spinelli spins his magical web of words. I've read it because Maniac Magee is, at its heart, a hopeful book, and hopeful books are always to be treasured.
Recently I revisited Maniac Magee again. This round I had a box of butterscotch Krimpets at the ready (really, they're not bad), along with glowing reviews and children's testimonials crowding my laptop screen. And what I realized was just how many different ways Maniac Magee continues to be cherished by so many.
There are those readers—the younger ones especially—who adore the novel's larger-than-life protagonist, Jeffrey Lionel Magee, a boy who bunts fastfrogs and sleeps with buffalo. They love the book for its propulsive energy. They love the book for its wild and tender characters. But most of all, they love the book because it's hilarious
For other readers, Maniac Magee is, most importantly, a thoughtful examination of race relations. Two Mills is a town bisected by ignorance and intolerance, and Maniac Magee weaves the first delicate threads to mend that rift. Never simplistic, never didactic, this is a novel that helps readers navigate the darker side of human nature while reminding them that change is always possible.
Still other readers, this one included, adore Maniac Magee for its begs-to-be-read-aloud prose. Jerry Spinelli is a wordsmith, and an adventurous and playful one at that. The first stirrings of dawn are the "appleskin hours." Maniac's tired sneakers flop open "like dog tongues." In a brief description of a quiet evening, Spinelli tells us that "crickettalk and fireflies held the night."
"Crickettalk and fireflies held the night." Try saying it out loud. What a lovely, lilting cadence! Just six words, and there you are, with the hay and the stars and the too-affectionate baby buffalo, and the night music begins to hum.
Maniac Magee is in many ways, I think, a paean to childhood. Finsterwald is gone now, and Jerry Spinelli is a grandfather many times over. Yet somehow he manages (effortlessly, it seems) to channel young lives, to limn the "prayer-dark seed of their kidhoods." How does he remember so much and get it so right? The heartbreak, the terror, the fizzy joy, and the just-plain-fun of it all?
Maniac Magee is also a testament to the power of story. There's a moment in the novel where Grayson, an old man who's befriended a desperately lonely Maniac, insists, "I ain't got no stories." Maniac begs to differ, and soon the old man's tales begin to flow. Happy, sad, just plain baseball: It doesn't matter which stories get told. They all matter.
We all, of course, have stories to tell, legends to create, myths to make. Maybe that's the best thing about Maniac Magee. It's a hopeful novel. A compassionate novel. It's a novel that reminds us that we're stuck together on this big, crazy Cobble's Knot of a planet, so we might as well break out the Krimpets and share some stories.
It's a novel that, clearer than Mrs. Pickwell's whistle, calls us, finally, home.
"You don't have to wait for a prayer," Grayson tells Maniac, to say "A-men." "You say it," he explains, "when somebody says something or does something you really like."
Twenty-five years after Maniac Magee first stole our hearts, readers are still saying "A-men."
Before the Story
They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump. They say his stomach was a cereal box and his heart a sofa spring.
They say he kept an eight-inch cockroach on a leash and that rats stood guard over him while he slept.
They say if you knew he was coming and you sprinkled salt on the ground and he ran over it, within two or three blocks he would be as slow as everybody else.
What's true, what's myth? It's hard to know.
Finsterwald's gone now, yet even today you'll never find a kid sitting on the steps where he once lived. The Little League field is still there, and the band shell. Cobble's Corner still stands at the corner of Hector and Birch, and if you ask the man behind the counter, he'll take the clump of string out of a drawer and let you see it.
Grade school girls in Two Mills still jump rope and chant:
He's so cool
Don't go to school
Runs all night
Runs all right
Kissed a bull!
And sometimes the girl holding one end of the rope is from the West side of Hector, and the girl on the other end is from the East side; and if you're looking for Maniac Magee's legacy, or monument, that's as good as any—even if it wasn't really a bull.
But that's okay, because the history of a kid is one part fact, two parts legend, and three parts snowball. And if you want to know what it was like back when Maniac Magee roamed these parts, well, just run your hand under your movie seat and be very, very careful not to let the facts get mixed up with the truth.
Maniac Magee was not born in a dump. He was born in a house, a pretty ordinary house, right across the river from here, in Bridgeport. And he had regular parents, a mother and a father.
But not for long.
One day his parents left him with a sitter and took the P & W high-speed trolley into the city. On the way back home, they were on board when the P & W had its famous crash, when the motorman was drunk and took the high trestle over the Schuylkill River at sixty miles an hour, and the whole kaboodle took a swan dive into the water.
And just like that, Maniac was an orphan. He was three years old.
Of course, to be accurate, he wasn't really Maniac then. He was Jeffrey. Jeffrey Lionel Magee.
Little Jeffrey was shipped off to his nearest relatives, Aunt Dot and Uncle Dan. They lived in Hollidaysburg, in the western part of Pennsylvania.
Aunt Dot and Uncle Dan hated each other, but because they were strict Catholics, they wouldn't get a divorce. Around the time Jeffrey arrived, they stopped talking to each other. Then they stopped sharing.
Pretty soon there were two of everything in the house. Two bathrooms. Two TVs. Two refrigerators. Two toasters. If it were possible, they would have had two Jeffreys. As it was, they split him up as best they could. For instance, he would eat dinner with Aunt Dot on Monday, with Uncle Dan on Tuesday, and so on.
Eight years of that.
Then came the night of the spring musicale at Jeffrey's school. He was in the chorus. There was only one show, and one auditorium, so Aunt Dot and Uncle Dan were forced to share at least that much. Aunt Dot sat on the side, Uncle Dan on the other.
Jeffrey probably started screaming from the start of the song, which was "Talk to the Animals," but nobody knew it because he was drowned out by all the other voices. Then the music ended, and Jeffrey went right on screaming, his face bright red by now, his neck bulging. The music director faced the singers, frozen with his arms still raised. In the audience faces began to change. There was a quick smatter of giggling by some people who figured the screaming kid was some part of the show, some funny animal maybe. Then the giggling stopped, and eyes started to shift and heads started to turn, because now everybody could see that this wasn't part of the show at all, that little Jeffrey Magee wasn't supposed to be up there on the risers, pointing to his aunt and uncle, bellowing out from the midst of the chorus: "Talk! Talk, will ya! Talk! Talk! Talk!"
No one knew it then, but it was the birth scream of a legend.
And that's when the running started. Three springy steps down from the risers—girls in pastel dresses screaming, the music director lunging—a leap from the stage, out the side door and into the starry, sweet, onion-grass-smelling night.
Never again to return to the house of two toasters. Never again to return to school.
Everybody knows that Maniac Magee (then Jeffrey) started out in Hollidaysburg and wound up in Two Mills. The question is: What took him so long? And what did he do along the way?
Sure, two hundred miles is a long way, especially on foot, but the year that it took him to cover it was about fifty-one weeks more than he needed—figuring the way he could run, even then.
The legend doesn't have the answer. That's why this period is known as The Lost Year.
And another question: Why did he stay here? Why Two Mills?
Of course, there's the obvious answer that sitting right across the Schuylkill is Bridgeport, where he was born. Yet there are other theories. Some say he just got tired of running. Some say it was the butterscotch Krimpets. And some say he only intended to pause here but that he stayed because he was so happy to make a friend.
If you listen to everybody who claims to have seen Jeffrey-Maniac Magee that first day, there must have been ten thousand people and a parade of fire trucks waiting for him at the town limits. Don't believe it. A couple of people truly remember, and here's what they saw: a scraggly little kid jogging toward them, the soles of both sneakers hanging by their hinges and flopping open like dog tongues each time they came up from the pavement.
But it was something they heard that made him stick in their minds all these years. As he passed them, he said, "Hi." Just that—"Hi"—and he was gone. They stopped, they blinked, they turned, they stared after him, they wondered: Do I know that kid? Because people just didn't say that to strangers, out of the blue.
As for the first person to actually stop and talk with Maniac, that would be Amanda Beale. And it happened because of a mistake.
It was around eight in the morning, and Amanda was heading for grade school, like hundreds of other kids all over town. What made Amanda different was that she was carrying a suitcase, and that's what caught Maniac's eye. He figured she was like him, running away, so he stopped and said, "Hi."
Amanda was suspicious. Who was this white stranger kid? And what was he doing in the East End, where almost all the kids were black? And why was he saying that?
But Amanda Beale was also friendly. So she stopped and said "Hi" back.
"Are you running away?" Jeffrey asked her.
"Huh?" said Amanda.
Jeffrey pointed at the suitcase.
Amanda frowned, then thought, then laughed. She laughed so hard she began to lose her balance, so she set the suitcase down and sat on it so she could laugh more safely. When at last she could speak, she said, "I'm not running away. I'm going to school."
She saw the puzzlement on his face. She got off the suitcase and opened it up right there on the sidewalk.
Jeffrey gasped. "Books!"
Books, all right. Both sides of the suitcase crammed with them. Dozens more than anyone would ever need for homework.
Jeffrey fell to his knees. He and Amanda and the suitcase were like a rock in a stream; the school-goers just flowed to the left and right around them. He turned his head this way and that to read the titles. He lifted the books on top to see the ones beneath. There were fiction books and nonfiction books, who-did-it books and let's-be-friends books and what-is-it books and how-to books and how-not-to books and just-regular-kid books. On the bottom was a single volume from an encyclopedia. It was the letter A.
"My library," Amanda Beale said proudly.
Somebody called, "Gonna be late for school, girl!"
Amanda looked up. The street was almost deserted. She slammed the suitcase shut and started hauling it along. Jeffrey took the suitcase from her. "I'll carry it for you."
Amanda's eyes shot wide. She hesitated; then she snatched it back. "Who are you?" she said.
"Where are you from? West End?"
She stared at him, at the flap-soled sneakers. Back in those days the town was pretty much divided. The East End was blacks, the West End was whites. "I know you're not from the East End."
"I'm from Bridgeport."
"Bridgeport? Over there? That Bridgeport?"
"Well, why aren't you there?"
"It's where I'm from, not where I am."
"Great. So where do you live?"
Jeffrey looked around. "I don't know… maybe… here?"
"Maybe?" Amanda shook her head and chuckled. "Maybe you better go ask your mother and father if you live here or not."
She speeded up. Jeffrey dropped back for a second, then caught up with her. "Why are you taking all these books to school?"
Amanda told him. She told him about her little brother and sister at home, who loved to crayon every piece of paper they could find, whether or not it already had type all over it. And about the dog, Bow Wow, who chewed everything he could get his teeth on. And that, she said, was why she carried her whole library to and from school every day.
First bell was ringing; the school was still a block away. Amanda ran. Jeffrey ran.
"Can I have a book?" he said.
"They're mine," she said.
"Just to read. To borrow."
"Please. What's your name?"
"Please, Amanda. Any one. Your shortest one."
"I'm late now and I'm not gonna stop and open up this thing again. Forget it."
He stopped. "Amanda!"
She kept running, then stopped, turned, glared. What kind of kid was this, anyway? All grungy. Ripped shirt. Why didn't he go back to Bridgeport or the West End, where he belonged? Bother some white girl up there? And why was she still standing here?
"So what if I loaned you one, huh? How am I gonna get it back?"
"I'll bring it back. Honest! If it's the last thing I do. What's your address?"
"Seven twenty-eight Sycamore. But you can't come there. You can't even be here."
Second bell rang. Amanda screamed, whirled, ran.
She stopped, turned. "Ohhhh," she squeaked. She tore a book from the suitcase, hurled it at him—"Here!"—and dashed into school.
The book came flapping like a wounded duck and fell at Jeffrey's feet. It was a story of the Children's Crusade. Jeffrey picked it up, and Amanda Beale was late to school for the only time in her life.
Jeffrey made three other appearances that first day.
The first came at one of the high school fields, during eleventh-grade gym class. Most of the students were playing soccer. But about a dozen were playing football, because they were on the varsity, and the gym teacher happened to be the football coach. The star quarterback, Brian Denehy, wound up and threw a sixty-yarder to his favorite receiver, James "Hands" Down, who was streaking a fly pattern down the sideline.
But the ball never quite reached Hands. Just as he was about to cradle it in his big brown loving mitts, it vanished. By the time he recovered from the shock, a little kid was weaving upfield through the varsity football players. Nobody laid a paw on him. When the kid got down to the soccer field, he turned and punted the ball. It sailed back over the up-looking gym-classers, spiraling more perfectly than anything Brian Denehy had ever thrown, and landed in the outstretched hands of still stunned Hands Down. Then the kid ran off.
There was one other thing, something that all of them saw but no one believed until they compared notes after school that day: up until the punt, the kid had done everything with one hand. He had to, because in his other hand was a book.
Later on that first day, there was a commotion in the West End. At 803 Oriole Street, to be exact. At the backyard of 803 Oriole, to be exacter.
This, of course, was the infamous address of Finsterwald. Kids stayed away from Finsterwald's the way old people stay away from Saturday afternoon matinees at a two-dollar movie. And what would happen to a kid who didn't stay away? That was a question best left unanswered. Suffice it to say that occasionally, even today, if some poor, raggedy, nicotine-stained wretch is seen shuffling through town, word will spread that this once was a bright, happy, normal child who had the misfortune of blundering onto Finsterwald's property.
That's why, if you valued your life, you never chased a ball into Finsterwald's backyard. Finsterwald's backyard was a graveyard of tennis balls and baseballs and footballs and Frisbees and model airplanes and one-way boomerangs.
That's why his front steps were the only un-sat-on front steps in town.
And why no paperkid would ever deliver there.
And why no kid on a snow day would ever shovel that sidewalk, not for a zillion dollars.
So, it was late afternoon, and screams were coming from Finsterwald's.
Who? What? Why?
- On Sale
- Apr 2, 1990
- Page Count
- 184 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers