by Jerry Spinelli. (Little, Brown, 1999. ISBN 9780316809061. Order Info.) Novel. 180 pages. Grades 3-9.
For those of you who haven't already had the pleasure, let us introduce you to this wonderful book. It's about prejudice and love and home and baseball and fear and understanding. It's about Jeffrey Lionel Magee, sometimes known as Maniac Magee, and about the people of the fictional town of Two Mills.
Jeffrey's parents were killed in a trolley accident when he was three and he spent the next eight years in the bizarre household of his Aunt Dot and Uncle Dan, who hated each other but refused to divorce and so lived in the same house without speaking to each other, using Jeffrey as their go-between. In a scene that will remind some of you of John Irving's adult novel, Prayer for Owen Meany, Jeffrey screams at them from the middle of a school concert, "Talk to each other!" and then runs away.
That's the beginning of his running and his search for a real home. He ends up in the town of Two Mills, two hundred miles away from his aunt and uncle. Two Mills is a town divided by race into East and West End. There Jeffrey becomes "Maniac Magee", the subject of legends that have lasted ever since. In his search for a place to belong, he eventually succeeds to some degree in uniting the town by forcing at least some of the Blacks and Whites to know each other.
There's enough to work with in this novel to take up a whole school year, but first of all, the novel is fun. There is much to laugh out loud about before you cry and then you think about what Spinelli is telling us in this book which is understandable, at least on one level, by children as young as third graders. It won the Newbery Medal the year it came out.
You won't need most of these suggestions for things to talk about. The book is so rich and so well written that after reading it you'll need to talk about it and so will the kids.
First of all, there's Magee himself. He has a strong sense of justice, a thirst for knowledge and an amazing lack of fear. The only time he shows any fear is near the end of the book when he cannot walk out on the trolley trestle where his parents were killed, not even to help a frightened little boy. He is patient, determined and loves to laugh. He wants to be loved and understood, but for most of the book, it is he who must understand others. If you agree with that description, can you find action in the book to defend it?
There's Amanda Beale, the black child who is the first person to stop and talk to Magee when he first arrives in Two Mills. She carries her books with her at all times and is as avid a learner as Magee. She has a fierce temper and is stubborn as well. It is with Amanda and her family that Magee finds his home.
John McNab is a giant of a white child -- five feet eight when he was only twelve. He's a bully and the first to take on Magee in a baseball game when he first hits town. He's a member of the Cobras, a survivalist gang who hate and fear Blacks.
Other than Maniac himself, the most memorable character in the book is probably Earl Grayson, the old man at the zoo, who befriends Maniac. Earl Grayson was a minor league baseball pitcher who blew his one chance at the majors, but not before he struck out Willie Mays. Magee teaches Grayson how to read and makes his home with him at the bandstand at the zoo. Their relationship is warm and loving, but Grayson dies and Magee is without home and love again.
Things to Talk About and Notice
- Much is made in the book of nicknames. Almost everyone in the book has at least one nickname. Jeffrey worries about being called "Maniac" because he's "afraid of losing his name, and with it the only thing he had left from his mother and father. " Amanda calls Mars Bar Thompson "Snickers" after he loses his fierceness. Look at who does and who does not have a nickname in the story. How do they earn them or lose them? How do you feel about a nickname for you? McNab's gang is called "The Cobras" and the tricycle set are called "Heck's Angels." What do each of those names connote? Watch to see which characters call Jeffrey "Maniac" and which do not. Is there a reason?
- There's a subplot in the book about learning. Magee teaches Grayson to read. How does he do it? What books does he use? Which ones would you use? Is there any significance to the first book Amanda lends Magee to read? Magee is determined to keep Russell and Piper McNab in school. Why? Notice the tricks he uses. Which ones work best? Why isn't Magee himself in school if it's so important? Will he go to school at the end of the story?
- Homes and homelessness are very important to the plot. If Jeffrey loves being with the Beales so much, why doesn't he stay there from the beginning? How does Spinelli make us understand Jeffrey's search and needs? How does Jeffrey define home? How do you? Notice his determination to have an address, even painting a number on the band shell. Notice when he erases it.
- The book starts by relating the legends which built up about Maniac Magee and it's fun to go back to those first two pages when you've finished reading to see how far from the truth the legend has grown. There's even a jump rope rhyme about Magee that the kids can jump to and make up other verses for. Stay with the jump rope rhymes and make up other rhymes about other characters in this book and others.
- Make a flow chart of the action of the book: if you had six blocks of action to relate the plot, what would you put in each block? What about five blocks? three? Defend your choices.
- Similarly, you could make a line of house shapes and put into each the name of a place where Jeffrey Magee lived. You'll need a good many places. We came up with: his parents, his aunt and uncle, the Beales, the buffalo pen, the baseball room, the McNabs, the Beales again, the Pickwells, the buffalo pen again, backyards, the buffalo pen again, and the Beales. There may be more. Children could pick one of those dwellings, describe it, and tell what it did to Magee and what he did to it.
- Then there's the knot: the wonderful knot at Cobble's store which has defied untying for years, but is conquered by Jeffrey Magee. First of all, can you create a knot with rope that defies challengers? Then, have a knot untying contest. Find out about the Gordian Knot. Who mastered that one? How?
- There's a lot about baseball in Maniac Magee. Look at all the names of the teams. What would you name yours? Find out about Minor Leagues then and now. There are many baseball pitches named and described. What are some others? Make some up and try to pitch them.
Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting. Illustrated by Ronald Himler. (1991, Clarion. ISBN 9780395559628. Order Info.) Picture Book. 32 pages. Gr 2-4.
This is a sensitive book about a boy and his dad who live at the airport. Homelessness is not a common subject for any children's book and a picture book on this small family is a daring deed for Bunting and Himler to attempt. They had to walk a fine line to tell us this story. A misstep in any direction would have brought condescension, oversimplification, false cheerfulness or hopelessness and Fly Away Home is free of all those things. Read More including related books, activities and links.
Finding Buck McHenry by Alfred Slote. (1991, HarperCollins. ISBN 9780785701736. Order Info.) Novel. 256 pages. Gr 4-8.
Jason loves baseball although his playing skills are less than outstanding. Cut from his Little League team, he is crushed and unburdens himself on the school janitor, Mack Henry. It turns out that Mr. Henry knows a lot about baseball, especially about the Negro League which Jason knew nothing about. His collection of baseball cards gave no indication of such a league. A trip to the card store, however, turns up a card for Buck McHenry who may or may not be Mr. Henry. Jason is a lot like the character Grayson in Maniac Magee.
The Moves Make the Man by Bruce Brooks. (1994, HarperTeen. ISBN 9780064470223. Order Info.) Novel. 256 pages. Gr 5-8.
Jerome Foxworthy, 13, ace student, first black in an all white school and a basketball fanatic, narrates this story of his friendship with Bix. Bix's game is baseball but Jerome recognizes in his skill the same passion and technical accuracy that he himself has in his sport. This is an exquisite portrait of Jerome, a bright confident loner and Bix, distant and frightened and the fragile friendship that develops between them.
Read More including classroom activities, related books and links.
Little Blue and Little Yellow by Leo Lionni. (1995, HarperCollins. ISBN 9780688132859. Order Info.) Picture Book. 48 pages. Gr PreK-8.
On a surface level, the book about friendship is easily understood by preschoolers. On a slightly deeper level, the story is about color and how primary colors can be combined to make secondary ones. Digging deeper, it may be viewed as an allegory for racism and, as such, is one to intrigue older readers and viewers. Read More.
The Goats by Brock Cole. (2010, Square Fish. ISBN 9780312611910. Order Info.) Novel. 192 pages. Gr 5-9.
In this modern survival story Laura and Howie are the victims of a camp prank where a boy and a girl are stripped and left on an island in the lake. They are the Goats, chosen because of their inability to fit in. Laura and Howie decide to disappear both for revenge and because they don't want to return to the cruelty of the kids at the camp.
- Miles to Go for Freedom: Segregation and Civil Rights in the Jim Crow Years by Linda Barrett Osborne. (2012, Abrams. ISBN 9781419700200. Order Info.) Nonfiction. 128 pages. Gr 6-12.
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