Laurinda’s Rating: 2.5/5
For the tl;dr version, see Sally’s excellent post. She captures my feelings about the book more succinctly than I have.
The 1991 Newbery Medal Winner, Maniac Magee, is an off-beat story about how the titular character became a town legend. Maniac runs in to town one day. He impresses everyone with his skill at baseball, his ability to untie every knot, and his general fearlessness (’cause GASP manages to interact with both the black East End kids and the white West End kids). For a while, he lives with the deer and the buffalo in the zoo. However, he’s eventually “adopted” by the Beale family. Magee never goes to school, but loves to read, sneaking the A volume of an encyclopedia away from the possessive Amanda while she sleeps and hiding it again before she notices.
After a dust-up with some local kids, Magee takes off. Grayson, a park worker, finds Magee, feeds him, and tells him stories. Under Magee’s tutelage, Grayson learns to read. Magee, in turn, learns how to throw a stopball. Grayson’s death devastates Magee, who hikes out to Valley Forge and curls up, intending to die. Instead, he is found by two young boys running away from home; Magee returns them to their older brother, who he had defeated in baseball, and joins their household.
Since Magee has personally experienced the goodness of people from both the East and the West End, he brings a black friend to a party with a white gang. Things end about as well as expected – no bloodshed, but Magee again heads out on his own. Only with much coaxing does he return “home” to the Beale family.
This book is distinctly underwhelming. The author shifts styles a few times – from slightly stylized language when conveying the “legend” portions of the story, to a more casual vocabulary when Maniac was actually involved in the story and not just its object. The sections of the book are also fairly episodic, with weak transitions between the various situations in which the main character finds himself. Honestly, I just failed to connect with Maniac; he is in turns boldly independent and hopelessly naive. There’s a scene where Maniac talks about now knowing why a group of people calls themselves “black”. He’s not an itty bitty child when this happens, and, although his observation of the vast variation in skin color under the category “black” is interesting and apt, his inability to recognize the self-identification of the people who are helping him is a bit off-putting.
I’m conflicted about this book. I do think it has value – Maniac uses his “powers” for good and helps all the people with whom he stays. He also helps bridge the divide between neighbourhoods. However, I didn’t find the storytelling very compelling and the characterizations were weak. Might be a fun read for late elementary school kids, but it’s not a title I recommend highly.