This book may be my favorite book of the year. Written by the author of one of my recent favorites for middle and high school, Stargirl, was recommended to me by the students in one of my third grade classes. They’d been read the book by their teacher. I’d been given all sorts of recommendations, Captain Underpants, among them. This one stuck in my mind, because I knew it had won the 1991 Newbery Medal and because I’d always meant to read it.
Jeffrey Magee was orphaned at the age of three when his parents’ trolley went off the tracks of the P & W Trestle into the Schuylkill River. Jeffrey moved in with his aunt and uncle who always fought. One day, he ran away, literally. He ran all the way to a town called Two Mills. Two Mills was split by Hector Street. The West End of town was reserved for whites. The East End of town was for blacks. The two populations didn’t mix at all. In fact, no one who was white dared come into East End. Likewise, no one who was black purposely went into the West End of town. Until Maniac Magee, unaware of the rules, showed up in the East End of town. He met a girl named Amanda Beale, a great lover of books. He managed, unbelievably, to borrow a book from her, a girl who did not, as a rule, lend her books. He promised to return it and ended up living in Amanda Beale’s house. There, he had two little brothers, a sister and a mother and father – a home. Maniac Magee was fearless. He could do extraordinary things. He hit home runs off a star pitcher, ran touch downs on the football field, untangled complicated knots, ran on a single rail of a railroad line and actually sat on the Finsterwald’s front steps to read a book. He never went to school but loved to read. He was a maniac. He was legend. All was going well until one day someone pointed out that he was white. Maniac, didn’t even realize it himself. Things changed after that day. People didn’t like that the Beale’s were sheltering him. So, Maniac ran. He ran and found a home at the local zoo, in the buffalo pen. There, he met a true friend, Grayson, who would make him another home in the park. Soon, Maniac had to run again, this time, to the West End and a house where two small boys needed someone who would keep them safe. He was fine there, taking care of those two boys who needed him and for whom he would do anything. Until the day they asked him to do something he absolutely could not do, and he ran again.
Like my students, I became completely absorbed in Maniac Magee’s story. I hope you will too.