63 pages 2 hours read

Jerry Spinelli

Maniac Magee

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 1990

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in 1990, Maniac Magee is a Newbery award–winning middle grade novel by renowned children’s author Jerry Spinelli. After his parents die, 11-year-old Jeffrey Lionel Magee runs away from his guardians and a year later ends up in the racially divided Pennsylvania town of Two Mills. Jeffrey, a white boy, finds a home with a Black family, but racial tension and threats send him back on the run. By accepting a host of challenges with courage and open-mindedness, Jeffrey inspires others toward inclusivity and acceptance. The novel mixes elements of adventure and drama in its discussion of the importance of Finding a Home and Overcoming Division and Prejudice. Although it is considered to be realistic fiction, the story sometimes employs magical “tall tale” qualities that add to its literary significance in the YA/middle grade genre. Spinelli is also the author of other young adult and middle grade books such as Eggs, Space Station Seventh Grade, and Stargirl.

This guide uses the Little, Brown Books for Young Readers 2015 anniversary edition of the novel.

Content Warning: the source text features depictions of racism and bigoted violence/language.

Plot Summary

The protagonist, 11-year-old Jeffrey Lionel Magee, finds himself unhoused after running away from the unfit guardians who took him in after his parents’ death. He settles in Two Mills, Pennsylvania, where he befriends its residents and attempts to make a home for himself. At first, Jeffrey is unaware that the town is racially divided; white people live east of Hector Street, while Black people live on the west side of town. In Part 1, Jeffrey learns about this from his first friend, Amanda Beale, a Black girl his age who lets him borrow one of her books. Because Jeffrey is white, she does not understand why he is here in the East End.

Jeffrey continues to run around town. He skillfully intercepts a football at the local high school, a feat that amazes the students. He also sneaks into a local baseball game and hits a seemingly impossible pitch, which angers the pitcher and prompts him to throw a frog instead. From then on, as he wanders on both sides of town and accomplishes additional feats of agility and bravery, he becomes known as a local legend called “Maniac.” For example, when he witnesses a group of bullies trying to throw a kid into the yard of the local “monster,” a man named Finsterwald, Maniac rescues the boy. Later, he unties a huge, volleyball-sized knot that had previously been impossible for anyone to untie, adding to his legendary status. He also meets a local bully from the East End named Mars Bar. When Amanda’s family discovers that Maniac is sleeping in the local zoo, they invite him to stay with them, and he happily accepts, grateful to finally have an address. However, soon the prejudice of the Black townspeople pushes him to run away again for fear that his presence will cause the other residents to retaliate against the Beales.

In Part 2, Maniac meets Earl Grayson, an elderly white man who becomes a father figure and a mentor to him. Grayson feeds him and takes him to the YMCA, where Maniac can take a shower and dispose of his dirty clothes. He also allows Maniac to live in the back room of a park bandshell. Maniac tells Grayson that he does not want to attend school, because he feels like it is a home where he cannot stay. The relationship between Grayson and Maniac develops further as they share stories about baseball; Grayson is a former pitcher in the minor leagues. As they get to know each other, Maniac is shocked to find out that the old man cannot read. Grayson asks for Maniac’s help, and slowly, with a great deal of encouragement, Grayson eventually learns to read his first sentence and later his first book.

Maniac and Grayson decorate the small park room together as Thanksgiving and Christmas approach. On Christmas morning, they both exchange presents such as baseball gloves, books, and their favorite dessert. Maniac is elated that he has found a home and family once again. However, Grayson dies just five days after Christmas. Maniac spends a full day saying a meaningful goodbye to Grayson before calling for help. When the funeral is held days later, Maniac realizes that, aside from the funeral director and the rude pallbearers, he is the only person to attend. Overwhelmed, he runs away yet again.

In Part 3, Maniac tells himself that his presence in the lives of others curses them and brings only bad luck. He is determined to keep to himself and not bother anyone again. Starving and cold, he sleeps at an old war monument within Two Mills. There, he meets two boys who have run away from home with plans of going to Mexico. Maniac is concerned about their safety and bribes them with free pizza (his prize for untying the knot, and one he cannot enjoy because he is allergic) and convinces them to stay in town. He then finds out that the boys are the younger siblings of the pitcher who threw the frog. They do not have a mother and are being raised by a father who has an alcohol addiction.

Maniac continues to stay with this family, the McNabs, even though they are racist and are misguidedly preparing for war against the East Enders. He believes he can teach the young McNabs to be more tolerant. One day, as Maniac is running around town, Mars Bar silently joins him, and the two form a tentative unspoken friendship. When Maniac cannot save the McNabs from falling off a trolley trestle—the same trestle where his parents died—Mars steps in and earns the children’s respect. At the end of the novel, Mars and Amanda find Maniac sleeping in the zoo and persuade him to come back to live with the Beales. Maniac is afraid at first, but he finally accepts that he is not cursed and deserves to have the home he has wished so desperately to find.