Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli
From the jacket: “Jeffrey Lionel ‘Maniac’ Magee might have lived a normal life if a trolley accident hadn’t made him an orphan. After living with his unhappy and uptight aunt and uncle for eight years, he decides to run — and not just run away, but run. And this is where the myth of Maniac Magee begins, as he change the lives of a racially divided small town with his amazing and legendary feats.”
My take: This is one of those books where if you judge it by its cover, you will miss out on a gem. Its cover makes it look like a typical sports novel, but it is so much more than that. (And, yes, I recognize that sneakily trying to get adolescent boys to pick it up may be part of the marketing plan.)
Jeffrey’s parents died in a trolley accident when he was a baby, so he was sent to live with his aunt and uncle, who, unfortunately, couldn’t stand each other. They refused to speak to one another and found they could make that work by dividing the house into two and splitting Jeffrey’s time between them. But such an environment is not one for raising a healthy, happy boy, and eventually Jeffrey cracks and literally runs away.
He turns up a year later in the town of Two Mills, skinny and hungry and in shoes that are falling apart. The first person he encounters is Amanda, who is lugging her complete collection of books to school. After much convincing, she agrees to lend him a book to read. He also runs into a couple of other kids, including John McNab, who is striking out kid after kid until Jeffrey shows up. When the encounter turns sour, Jeffrey takes off running — and runs right across the tracks and straight into more trouble — this time with a boy called Mars Bar Thompson. The two sides of the town may not agree on much, but they share a belief that Jeffrey is a little nuts, dubbing him “Maniac” Magee.
Jeffrey does a great many things with grace and elegance — from running to knot detangling to child minding — but interacting with his peers (with the exception of Amanda) is a challenge for him, as is picking up clues about how his disregard for color barriers puts a great many people on edge. When the message finally does hit home, Jeffrey takes off running yet again. Will Amanda Beale and her family, two rival teenage boys, and a groundskeeper named Grayson be able to convince him to stop?
Set in what I’d guess to be the late 1970s, Maniac Magee gives us the story behind the folklore of a boy who helped to unite a town. It is sweet and more than a little bittersweet and I highly recommend it.