Book Review: “Maniac Magee” by Jerry Spinelli

I have conflicting feelings about this book, and it took me a while to decide how to rate and review it. Overall, I liked it! However, it wasn’t my favorite and I did have some issues with it. I will be keeping this one in my classroom library, but probably won’t be using it for any lessons or activities.

Spoiler-Free Review: “Maniac Magee” is a middle grade novel that explores themes of poverty, racism, and inequality and is set in the fictional town of Two Mills. The East and West sides of this town are racially segregated, unbeknownst to Maniac Magee when he first arrives in town after running away from home. The time period in which this novel is set is ambiguous, which I found frustrating. At first I thought it was set during the Civil Rights Movement due to how explicitly segregated things were, which would make it historical fiction. However, after doing some searching it seems that it is realistic fiction that is not meant to be set in any specific moment in history. While segregation is definitely still happening today, the way it was presented in the novel seemed too exaggerated. I also felt that the themes in this book regarding racism were a little too contrived, simplistic, and outdated. However, I did really enjoy the characters! Especially Maniac Magee; he was charming and intriguing and kept my attention the whole way through. Overall, this book was good, but not great. There are better middle grade novels out there that explore the same themes, but considering when this book was written I’d say it was a step in the right direction!

Below you will find a more thorough review containing my thoughts about the book. If you’re wanting to avoid any spoilers, you are welcome to jump to the TL;DR summary at the bottom of the page if you’d prefer!

“Maniac Magee” by Jerry Spinelli
Maniac Magee - Reid's Rad!
  • Year of Publication: 1990
  • Genre: Realistic Fiction (Middle-Grade)
  • Summary:

Jeffrey Lionel “Maniac” Magee might have lived a normal life if a freak 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. This is where the myth of Maniac Magee begins, as he changes the lives of a racially divided small town with his amazing and legendary feats.

Format: Paperback

Themes: Family is about more than blood. People are people; we’re all human. It’s possible to find love after loss. People aren’t always who they seem.

Character Development: I would say the character development is the strongest part of this novel. I really enjoyed the main character, Jeffrey “Maniac” Magee. He went through so much and lost so much, but he never gave up hope of finding a family. I also really love the people he befriends along the way and the different things he learns from all of them. I especially love the Beale family and how welcoming they were (it just made my heart happy!).

Plot/Pacing: The pacing of this book was slow, and the plot didn’t have much to it. It was definitely a character-driven novel rather than plot-driven, which is fine! However, I did struggle to motivate myself to keep picking this book back up. I worry that this would be off-putting for kids as well.

Writing Style: I enjoyed the writing style! It was fairly simplistic and the chapters were short, which definitely helped compensate for the slow pace.

“Bingeability”: Low. As I said previously, I struggled to motivate myself to pick this one up each night, and frequently opted for video games instead which really slowed down my reading for the month.

Emotional Investment: Moderate. I definitely wanted a happy ending for Jeffrey “Maniac” Magee, but I didn’t feel an incredibly strong investment in the story.

Windows and Mirrors: Racism. Segregation. Poverty. Loss of loved ones. Homelessness.

Overall Thoughts: Overall, I liked this book! But it wasn’t my favorite. One issue I had with it is that the themes were a little simplistic, contrived, and outdated. For instance, it seemed that one of the main themes about racism was preaching “colorblindness” (i.e. ignoring race altogether), which is an outdated concept that is not actually anti-racist. I did like how it explored poverty, though, and I felt this compensated a little for the lack of complexity in the themes regarding race.

Another issue I had with this book is that it was written by a white man. I really hope he did proper research and consultations while writing this book, but I don’t know for sure. In general, this book was fine! But there are better own-voices middle-grade novels exploring these same themes with more nuance and complexity.

Recommendation: I recommend this book. I think it’s a good one to have in a home or classroom library, it’ll definitely spark some interesting conversations! It could also be used in the classroom as a character study (or possibly an author study, though I haven’t read his other books yet).

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

TL;DR:
Year of Publication: 1990
Genre: Realistic Fiction (Middle-Grade)
Summary: Jeffrey Lionel “Maniac” Magee might have lived a normal life if a freak 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. This is where the myth of Maniac Magee begins, as he changes the lives of a racially divided small town with his amazing and legendary feats.
Themes: Family. Racism. Love. Identity.
Character Development: Strong.
Plot/Pacing:
Slow. Character-driven.
“Bingeability”:
Low.
Emotional Investment:
Moderate.
Windows and Mirrors:
Racism. Segregation. Poverty. Loss of loved ones. Homelessness.
Overall Thoughts:
Outdated and contrived themes about racism. Book about race/racism written by a white man. Better “own voices” books out there nowadays.
Recommendation: Yes
Rating:
3.5 out of 5 stars

Thank you for reading my review! Leave a comment letting me know if you’ve read this one or have any questions about it, and keep an eye out for my next review!

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