• Happy birthday Susan Bonners (Edwina Victorious), Linda Crew (Children of the River), and Steven Schnur (The Koufax Dilemma).
  • It’s the birth date of Harold Keith (1903-1998), Rifles for Watie, Ruth Chew (1920-2010), The Wednesday Witch, and Trina Schart Hyman (1939-2004), Saint George and the Dragon, King Stork.
  • In 1904 Longacre Square in Manhattan was renamed Times Square. Reread The Cricket in Times Square by George Seldon, illustrated by Garth Williams.
  • It’s Draw a Picture of a Bird Day. Read How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird by Jacques Prevert, illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein.

Twenty-one years ago, in April 1990, Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee was published. I first read an advanced reading copy of the book before it was published and then watched it sweep the prizes, including the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award and Newbery Medal. Still going strong, it has now become a classic, one of the books remembered with great fondness by those in their twenties.

The book’s unconventional approach distinguished it from so much else that had appeared at the time. Jerry Spinelli combined realistic fiction with tall tale, legend, and a dose of fantasy to craft a book unlike any other. In Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book, singer Tyler Hilton admits that as a child he wasn’t much of a reader until he found Maniac Magee and was inspired by the hero. “But then I met Maniac Magee,” he writes, “a mysterious young wanderlust of a kid, and knew that I had a new role model.” And letter from a contemporary student just won one of the top prizes in the Center for the Book’s Letters About Literacy competition.

Maniac Magee has both one of the best openings and closings in the children’s book canon. “They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump. They say his stomach was a cereal box and his heart a sofa spring. They say he kept an eight-inch cockroach on a leash.” An orphan running away from his guardians, Jeffrey Lionel Magee lives by his own rules and in a variety of locations. Legends grow around him as he does one outstanding feat after another. Fearless, he breaks all the rules in the town of Two Mills, Pennsylvania. This young white boy sees no race barriers in a town divided by them. So he lives with families in both the East and West End, as well as the buffalo pen in the local zoo.

But Maniac Magee is always haunted by his past—the death of his parents and the bad things that happen to those he loves. For a time he takes up with Grayson, a failed baseball player in the minors, who sets up a temporary home for the boy in the equipment room of the band shell. But then Grayson dies, and Maniac starts running again.

Slowly, in this town torn by racial hatred, Maniac Magee begins to make a difference. And by running and racing and being involved with the people in the town, he heals himself enough finally to accept an invitation to stay with a black family that he has come to love. The book ends, “He knew that finally, truly, at long last, someone was calling him home.”

With humor, heart, and wit, Maniac Magee brings to life an unforgettable hero and explores the issues of class and race in a way that a child can understand. Not only did the character of Maniac Magee make a difference in his small Pennsylvania town, but also this book has made a difference in the lives of children everywhere.

Here’s a passage from Maniac Magee:


Jeffrey fell to his knees. He and Amanda and the suitcase were like a rock in a stream; the school-goers just flowed to the left and right around them. He turned his head this way and that to read the titles. He lifted the books on top to see the ones beneath. There were fiction books and nonfiction books, who-did-it books and how-not-to books and just-regular-kid books. On the bottom was a single volume from an encyclopedia. It was the letter A.

“My library,” Amanda Beale said proudly.


Originally posted April 8, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: Award Winning, Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, Family, Humor, Newbery, School
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for Maniac Magee


  1. Melissa says:

    Jerry Spinelli has to be one of my favorite authors to use with students. Great book!!!

  2. Jude says:

    I love this one. My son read this three years ago in fifth grade. I seem to remember that Grayson’s claim to fame is that he struck out Hank Aaron. Or maybe it was Jackie Robinson.

  3. Danni says:

    One of the things that Jerry Spinelli does well is create fantastic characters. From Maniac Magee (or Jeffrey, as he likes to be called) to Stargirl, his characters are quietly life-changing. My favorite Spinelli books are Maniac Magee, Wringer, Crash, The Library Card, and Stargirl (I can’t pick just one!).

  4. Victoria says:

    Spinelli was definitely one of my first author obsessions! I can still see in my mind the copies of Space Station Seventh Grade, Jason and Marceline, Who Put That Hair in My Toothbrush?, and Maniac Magee on the shelf at my school library when I was younger. I would take them out over and over. Like book versions of comfort food. Comfort books? Anyway, Spinelli has a way of telling original stories and creating wonderful characters while at the same time showing such respect for his young readers, and this is especially seen in Maniac Magee and in my other favorite, Stargirl. A great choice!

  5. Barbara Gogan says:

    Most of the 6th graders in our town read this as a Core Curriculum book. My son did a final project of a time capsule and they filled it with items memorable for Maniac. My son was the only one on his team that picked a church as one of his 10 items and it really touched my husband and me that he recognized that.

    I also saw how it touched him in a different, but equally important, way with him as it had with my book-loving daughter. He will never read Stargirl, but Maniac Magee is now part of him. Thank you Jerry Spinelli!

  6. Erica S. says:

    As one of the “those in their twenties,” I definitely remember this book fondly. I need to reread it, but the detail about Jeffrey being able to untie any knot will always stick with me. Anytime I encounter a particularly difficult entanglement, I think of Maniac Magee!

  7. Sarah S. says:

    This is one of the first books I remember reading and absolutely loving. The entire concept was new and exciting–the idea that a kid could run until he found his home. From the opening line, Spinelli captured my heart and kept it until the very end.

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