Maniac Magee is the story of a legend. For real—how many of your friends have kissed a bull (or even a buffalo)? When he runs away from home, he doesn't just pack a suitcase and go sit at the local bus station waiting for his Aunt Dot to miss him and come get him. He actually takes off. He lives with buffalo, races trains, hits homerun frogs, makes friends, and even makes enemies.
But Maniac Magee is also the story of a normal kid looking for a home. Jeffrey Lionel Magee starts off with a family and a home, just like most of us do. Then, when he's only three, he loses both. He loses his family to a drunk trolley driver, and his home when he moves in with his awfully cold aunt and uncle. That's a lot for a three-year-old to take, right? Right. And it only gets worse.
Until it gradually starts to get better. After all, what kind of story would be if he didn't find a home? Because he does. Several, in fact. He even finds a family. (Also several). Maniac makes mistakes, and so do those that care about him, but he ultimately learns that families come in all shapes, sizes, ages, and colors. And the love they have for each really does conquer all. Gee, is that a tear in our eye?
Ahem. If it is, we're not alone. When Jerry Spinelli's book was published in 1990, readers of all kinds—kids, adults, fancy reviewers—loved it. It won the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award in 1990, the Newbery Medal in 1991 (like an Academy Award for children's books), and several more the year after.
Because Maniac is just a boy, standing in front of a family, wanting that family to love him. More or less. In some ways this is a small story: a boy who's been let down by those he trusted the most, looking for a place in a family. But it's so much bigger than that, too. Because Maniac isn't just a boy, he's a legend.
But what exactly does it mean to be a legend? Does it mean that Maniac is fundamentally different or special? Or does it mean that he's a normal kid in extraordinary circumstances? Or is it a little bit of both?
We're going to go with a little bit of both. It's about a kid who's not that different from our little brother or best friend growing up. It's about a kid who get's dealt a particularly bad hand. And it's about a kid who has to go out on his own and find what most of us take for granted. Most of us probably can't imagine doing the things Maniac does. But maybe that's just because we've never had to.
See, for all his independence and bravery, Maniac just wants a family. The fact that he makes his own school and sleeps with a baby buffalo? Well, all he really wants is to have homework and nosh on a boring PB&J sandwich at lunch with the rest of the kids. So maybe Maniac can make us all appreciate the families we do have just a little more—and realize that, perfect or not (mostly not), our families are the most important things we have.