Throughout Maniac Magee, Spinelli pays close attention to portrayals of race and the divides - both real and artificial - created to keep blacks and whites together in late-20th-century US society. A major way Spinelli does this is by providing imagery-laden descriptions of the times that Jeffery crosses Hector Street - the line between West End and East End of Two Mills, Pennsylvania. Spinelli writes,
he turned and started walking north on Hector, right down the middle of the street, right down the invisible chalk line that divided East End from West End... [people from] both sides were calling for him to come over. And then they were calling at each other, then yelling, then cursing... And that's how it went. Between the curbs, smack-dab down the center, Maniac Magee walked - not ran - right on out of town. (76)
This passage illustrates the distance created between blacks and whites in a single city and is especially powerful as it is children experiencing this situation and perpetuating it by intensifying their yelling at one another. Jeffery's position in the middle of the street shows both his inability to choose the side he belongs on and his unwillingness to take part in this maliciousness.
Race as a Spectrum
One of Spinelli's main points about race throughout Maniac Magee is that there isn't a dichotomy of races - black and white - but a whole spectrum and variety of colors a person can be. A good example of the way Spinelli uses imagery to communicate this message is when Jeffery experiences the Fourth of July block party in East End. Spinelli writes, "Maniac loved the colors of the East End, the people colors. For the life of him, he couldn't figure out why these East Enders called themselves black. He kept looking and looking, and the colors he found were ginger snap and light fudge and dark fudge and acorn and butter rum and cinnamon and burnt orange. But never licorice, which, to him, was real black" (51). The enumeration of outlandish yet wholly positive colors in Jeffery's mind as he looks around at his neighbors demonstrates that he sees them not as a single color or identity, but a broad array of people. Following this logic, communicated so artfully, the reader also better understands why Jeffery might feel he is not so different than these people - just like they are not licorice black, he is not paper white, meaning his coloring must be, in his mind, more similar than dissimilar to the people he so wants to be accepted by.
Grayson's Struggle to Read
In Part II, a major part of Jeffery's life is spending time with Earl Grayson and helping him learn to read. Using the strategy of many great teachers, Grayson uses where he is to get him where he wants to be - that is to say, he uses baseball as a means of learning how to read. Spinelli writes, "the kid was a good manager, and tough. He would never let him slink back to the showers, but kept sending him back up to the plate. The kid used different words, but in his ears the old Minor Leaguer heard: 'Keep your eye on it... Hold your swing... Watch it all the way in... Don't be anxious... Just make contact'" (102). Through this use of baseball imagery, Spinelli artfully demonstrates how perseverance pays off in both sports and education, making the struggle and joy of reading apparent to other young, sports-loving readers. He also paints a lovely picture of how comfortable and motivated Grayson felt with Jeffery as a teacher.
Grayson and Jeffery Celebrate Christmas
One of the most beautiful moments in Maniac Magee occurs in Chapter 31: Christmas morning at the zoo. Spinelli meticulously describes Jeffery and Grayson waking up, walking through the snow, visiting "their tree" (112), wishing each of the animals a happy holiday, and giving the buffalo special Christmas presents. Then, back in the baseball equipment shed, "breakfast was eggnog and hot tea and cookies and carols and colored lights and love" (113). This scene is not meant to forward the plot, but dwell in imagery of holiday love to demonstrate the different kinds of homes and families people can find joy in. Spinelli also uses this almost overblown imagery of contentment to contrast with the final sentence of the chapter - "Five days later the old man was dead" (114) - making this moment shocking and tragic for the reader.
Maniac Magee Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Maniac Magee is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.