Friday, June 10, 2011

The JUV FIC Corner presents "Maniac Magee"

The Boy, The Myth, The Legend...I'm pretty sure that throughout my childhood, Jerry Spinelli's Manic Magee is one of the only books I read more than once. Surprisingly, though, I just realized during this 2011 re-read that I remembered absolutely NOTHING about it! Except for the fact that Maniac likes to run, of course. But you can pick that up from the cover.

To refresh your memory, Jeffrey Lionel "Maniac" Magee is a legend. His parents died in a trolley car accident, and he's pretty much been on the run ever since. And kids know Maniac. He's the guy who sleeps with the buffalo, who can slam home runs off the best pitcher in town, who can outrun anyone, who can untie any impossible knot. But Maniac is also this: he's the kid who's not afraid to cross the town lines between East and West—black and white. The book's strongest message, and I had completely forgotten about it. Go figure.

In a small Pennsylvania town that is racially segregated, Manic is the only person who crosses the racial line. His belief in equality is his strongest characteristic—he ran away from his aunt and uncle's because they always fought and shared nothing; he doesn't go to school because (in my opinion) he doesn't want to pick a side, East or West. Maniac likes being the floater, able to enjoy everyone and everything, and he just doesn't understand the "black" and "white" of race:

“For the life of him, he couldn’t figure why these East Enders called themselves black. 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. But never licorice, which, to him, was real black” (p. 51).

On the whole, the story of Maniac Magee is presented as a folk tale; his outstanding feats will amaze his audience but his story has a lot more seriousness underneath. The fact that I didn't at all remember the racial tensions of this book kind of alarms me, but at the same time, doesn't surprise me. By that I mean, it must not have been a new concept to my 10-year-old brain at the time; if it was, I probably would've remembered that part of the book. I can't conclude whether this is a good or bad thing, but it made me think about how I would've constructed my own world views as a kid based on the stories with which I surrounded myself.


One thing I've noticed now, after reading just TWO books as part of this JUV FIC spotlight, is that children's books are a lot more complex than I would've presumed. Look at the two main characters:
  1. The Great Brain is a trouble-making swindler.
  2. Maniac Magee is a homeless truant. 
I guess I'm surprised these are defining characteristics, because children's entertainment feels so censored now. This just feeds my theory that kids are so much smarter and understanding of the world than adults give them credit for. I find myself now, at 25, starting to think like an adult, and I have to force myself to remember how I felt as a kid, knowing much more than I let on or that adults gave me credit for.

What do you think about the way JUV FIC broaches more serious topics? Have the messages stuck with you through adulthood?


Rebecca Reid said...

I really liked this book as a kid. I love the idea of revisiting favorite kids books as an adult!

I think the fact that JUV FIC broaches serious topics is for the same reason for the whole "YA is dark" discussion in response to the WSJ article. Kids like to read about something different from themselves. I was a pretty ordinary kid but I did like this book -- there is something magical about a kid who doesn't have a home and still makes a difference in the community.

UrbanBachelorette said...

I hadn't thought about this book in years.  But when I saw the cover and the title, memories came flooding back.  I could be mistaken, but wasn't he the kid who had red sneakers and undid a huge knotted ball of twine?  I recall wanting red shoes so much after reading the book.  Now that you've outlined the concepts in the book, I do recall those parts, but they didn't really strike me that much as a child.

And I loved the Great Brain series as well, even though he was a swindler. :) 

What's next on your JUV FIC corner? 

Kari said...

Hmm I am going to have to look for this WSJ article you are speaking of. And yes, it's great re-reading these books from a whole new perspective!

Kari said...

I'm not sure about the sneakers color (I always thought blue, but that may be because of the cover image on the copy I read as a kid) but yes to the big ball of twine! When I was reading this last week, little bits and pieces of the story came back, but I had completely forgotten the overall theme.

As for future selections, I want to revisit Anastasia Krupnik, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Pushcart War...I'm open to any suggestions as well! (As long as I remember reading it as a kid and can therefore do a comparison!)

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