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Maniac Magee is a Newbery medal-winning young adult fiction novel written by American author Jerry Spinelli and published in 1990. Exploring themes of racism and homelessness, it follows the story of an orphaned boy looking for a home in the fictional Pennsylvania town of Two Mills. He becomes a local legend for feats of athleticism and fearlessness, and his ignorance of sharp racial boundaries in the town. The book is popular in elementary school curricula, and has been used in scholarly studies on the relationship of children to racial identity and reading. A film adaptation of Maniac Magee was released in 2003.



Jeffrey Lionel Magee's parents were in a trolley accident in Bridgeport, PAmarker, orphaning him at age three. After living with his Aunt Dot and Uncle Dan in another town and enduring their mutual hatred and silence for eight years, he runs away during a school musical performance. One year (The Lost Year) and 200 miles later, Jeffrey finds himself across the river from Bridgeport in Two Mills, PA, where Hector Street sharply divides black East End from white West End

He meets Amanda Beale, an East Ender who carries her library of random books in a suitcase, and he borrows a book before continuing his dash through town. Along the way, he intercepts a football pass made to local football star James "Hands" Down, infuriates gigantic little-leaguer John McNab by hitting home runs off his fastball, and saves an unlucky child from the dreaded Finsterwald’s back yard, earning the nickname "Maniac" and starting a local legend.

When bully East Ender "Mars Bar" Thompson corners Maniac and rips a page from Amanda's book, Maniac is rescued by Amanda herself, who takes him home to her chaotic but loving household. Maniac finds a temporary home there, helping Mr. and Mrs. Beale with the chores and pacifying their youngest children, Hester and Lester. Soon though, a few East End residents make it clear that he isn't welcome anymore. After making a final effort to gain acceptance by untying the famous Cobble’s Knot (a huge, grimy ball of string with a year's supply of pizza waiting for its vanquisher) only to be rewarded with racist graffiti, Maniac runs away again. He takes shelter in the buffalo pen at the zoo and occasionally eats with the Pickwells—West Enders who provide spaghetti dinners for anyone who shows up at their dinner table.

At the zoo, Maniac meets Earl Grayson, a washed up minor-league baseball pitcher who works as a groundskeeper, who never learned to read, and who insists he has no stories. For a few months Jeffrey has a home again with Grayson, helping at work, celebrating holidays, and teaching Grayson to read. When Grayson dies in his sleep, Maniac wanders off aimlessly.

On the verge of frozen starvation he encounters Piper and Russell, child-ruffians who are running away to Mexicomarker, and who turn out to be John McNab's brothers. Maniac leads them back home, bribing them with free pizza, and stays at their cockroach-infested, decrepit house. Here, Maniac finds the worst that the West End has to offer as he learns that the McNabs are building a bunker for the anticipated rebellion of the East Enders. He endures the coarseness and squalor of the McNab home in hopes of keeping Piper and Russell in school and under control, but eventually gives up.

After beating Mars Bar in a foot race (running backward) and goading him into crashing a birthday party at the McNabs', Maniac is homeless again. He moves back into the buffalo pen, and runs for miles every morning before Two Mills wakes up. Before long, Mars Bar starts running with him as if by coincidence, and the two never say a word to each other. One day they come across a hysterical Piper McNab, who frantically leads them to Russell, stuck on the trolley truss where Jeffrey's parents died. Maniac walks away silently, nearly unconscious and stunned by fear, while Mars Bar rescues Russell, becoming a hero in the child’s eyes. Maniac retreats to the buffalo pen, where Mars Bar leads Amanda Beale to persuade Maniac once and for all to come live with her family.

Major characters

Jeffrey Lionel "Maniac" Magee is the book’s protagonist and titular character. Jeffrey is orphaned and finds himself in Two Mills, where he becomes a local legend while trying to find a home. He has astonishing athletic abilities, runs everywhere he goes, can untie any knot, is allergic to pizza, and crosses the barrier between East End and West End as if blind to racial distinction.

Amanda Beale is the first person Maniac meets in Two Mills. Amanda carries her library in a suitcase so her books aren't ruined by her younger siblings, Hester and Lester. She defends Maniac (whom she always calls Jeffrey) from Mars Bar the bully, and eventually provides him with a home.

Mars Bar Thompson, the "baddest" kid in the East End and antagonist to Maniac, is nicknamed for the chocolate bars he eats constantly. He resents Maniac's presence in the East End, which is exacerbated when Maniac beats him in a race. Mars Bar eventually rescues Russel McNab from the trolley truss, and offers Maniac a place to stay.

John McNab is infuriated when he can’t strike out Maniac with his fastball. After acting as a bully, he welcomes Maniac into his home when Maniac brings back John's younger brothers Piper and Russell after their attempt to run away to Mexico. He remains convinced that the black East Enders are planning a rebellion.

Piper and Russell McNab are younger brothers of John McNab who play hookey, steal, and constantly try to run away from home. In their house, they use toy machine guns to shoot the "rebels" from the East End.

Earl Grayson is the groundskeeper at the zoo and resident of the YMCA, though he was once a minor league baseball pitcher who struck out Willie Mays. He becomes friends with Maniac, who listens to his stories and teaches him to read.

Mrs. Beale is the kind & caring mother of Amanda, Hester, & Lester. Very sweet and thoughtful to Maniac as well.


Jeffrey Lionel Magee struggles to find identity throughout the story, even as he grows into a legend as Maniac Magee. The standard identifiers of name, race and place of residence seem not to apply permanently to him.

Maniac insists to anyone who asks that his name is Jeffrey, since "...he was afraid of losing his name, and with it the only thing he had left from his mother and father." Mrs. Beale assures him that "You'll be nothing but Jeffrey in here. But … out there, I don’t know." . The theme of names and nicknames is extended with Mars Bar, whose moniker stems from the candy bars he constantly eats, and whose fame has spread across both Ends of town.

Race and racism play a prominent role in the story, with Maniac drawn as a neutral observer with the inability to see "black" and "white." He observes to himself that East Enders are "...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.", and that he himself has " least seven shades of color right on his own skin, not one of them being what he would call white (except for his eyeballs, which weren't any whiter than the eyeballs of the kids in the East End)" . During a summer block party, an old East Ender complains to Maniac, "You got your own kind. It’s how you wanted it. Let’s keep it that way. NOW MOVE ON. Your kind’s waitin' up there [West End]!"

Homes and homelessness are consistent themes in the novel. At the Beales' house, Maniac is comforted by having an address, and he later paints a "one oh one" on the bandshell for the same purpose. Jeffrey even finds a home in the buffalo pen, where he shows affection to the buffalo calf and its mother, who show concern in return.

Two Mills and Norristown

The imaginary town of Two Mills is based on Jerry Spinelli’s childhood town of Norristown, PAmarker. Spinelli has said that material from the story was inspired by his childhood experiences there, and a number of geographical correspondences confirm this. Norristown, like Two Mills, is across the Schuylkill River from Bridgeportmarker, and neighboring towns include Conshohocken, Jeffersonville and Worcester, all of which are mentioned in the novel. In fact, Conshohocken has a Hector street, which historically served as a boundary between African American and White residents. The Elmwood Park Zoomarker is in Norristown, and Valley Forgemarker, where Maniac wanders after the death of Grayson, is nearby as well.


Critical reviews

Maniac Magee was well-received upon publication, variously lauded in reviews as "always affecting," having "broad appeal," and being full of "pathos and compassion." Booklist reviewer Deborah Abbot says, "...this unusual novel magically weaves timely issues of homelessness, racial prejudice, and illiteracy into a complicated story rich in characters and energetic piece of writing that bursts with creativity, enthusiasm, and hope."

Reveiwers noted that the theme of racism was uncommon for "middle readers". Criticism concentrated on Spinelli's choice of framing the novel as a legend, which Shoemaker calls a "cop-out," which frees him from having to make it real or possible. It has also been called "long-winded," and seeming like a "chalkboard lesson."

Awards and honors

  • 1991: Carolyn Field Award, Newbery Medal (American Library Association)

Use in education and research

Maniac Magee is popular in elementary school curricula. Many study units and teaching guides are available, including a study guide by the author. The novel has been used as a tool in scholarly work on childhood education and development. Fondrie cites it as an example in a discussion of how to bring up and discuss issues of race and class among young students. McGinley and Kamberlis use it in a study of how children use reading and writing as “vehicles for personal, social, and political exploration.” Along the same lines, Lehr and Thompson examine classroom discussions as a reflection of the teacher’s role as cultural mediator and the response of children to moral dilemmas, and Enesco studies expressions of social identity in the responses of children to Maniac Magee.

In a less pedagogical vein, Roberts uses the character of Amanda Beale as an archetypical "female rescuer" in a study of Newbery books, and Sullivan suggests the book as being useful in discussions of reading attitudes and difficulties.


Maniac Magee was adapted as an audiobook by Listening Library in 2005 (ISBN 0307243188) and as a TV movie in 2003, which was nominated for the Humanitas prize in the children’s live action category.


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