"What's true, what's myth?" the narrator asks before the story begins, answering, "It's hard to know" (1). Maniac Magee is the story of a boy without a home, but it's a story seen through the eyes of those around him, and many times those perceptions are colored by expectations and legends heard before they've met the real person. Even the title, Maniac Magee, alludes to Jeffery Magee's nickname, a moniker given to him for his rumored feats (e.g., running, mingling with people not his race) and used by people from both ends of Two Mills. The fact that Spinelli starts the reader off by talking about the legends around “Maniac” Magee also creates something of an “unreliable narrator,” meaning the reader doesn’t know if everything they are reading is the truth. Finally, we see in the case of Earl Grayson that learning his true history, rather than simply looking at his external appearance, may be more interesting than any myth. Maniac Magee teaches you to not always trust what you hear or read, especially before making your own impressions of something, because it may not be the truth and it might not allow you to get close to someone or something you will like.
Race and Racism
Race and racism are of utmost importance to Maniac Magee, a story of the colored lines segregating northern US cities at the end of the 20th century. Issues of race can be seen from Jeffery's youthful analysis of the use of the terms "black" and "white," though in truth all people are on a spectrum between those colors. Racism can be seen in painfully bold images of both adults and children lacking understanding, empathy, and care for people of other races - from explicitly negative characters like the father of the McNab children to Jeffery's closest companion Earl Grayson. The moral of Maniac Magee seems to be that increased communication between people of different races, separated by social constructs like segregated neighborhoods as well as social boundaries and stereotypes passed down from adults to children, could lead to a more positive United States. Spinelli also shows that the actions and beliefs of even one person can begin to lead others toward this understanding.
Home and Belonging
Due to his parents' deaths in the beginning of the book, Jeffery's objective throughout Maniac Magee is to find home and belonging somewhere in Two Mills. This is complicated by the fact that he has no biological family in Two Mills and, due to his "color blindness" and apparent acceptance of all people, that he seeks out family in nontraditional places. When Maniac fails to find belonging, he copes with this by running, perhaps because he feels that constant movement is the only way to mentally combat lacking a permanent place to stay. Maniac creates a temporary home with the Beales and then Grayson, and the reader witnesses him focusing on the presence of an address as a symbol of home and stability. These homes also call attention to belonging as what creates a good home, in comparison to the more socially appropriate housing arrangement with Aunt Dot and Uncle Dan which Jeffery rejected as a home by leaving.
Like home and belonging, family is constantly on Jeffery's mind after his parents die in a trolley accident at the beginning of the story. Maniac Magee shows many different kinds of families, but also demonstrates that families can be very similar regardless of race or family structure. The defining feature of a family is caring for one another. Jeffery specifically compares the Beales and the Pickwells, thinking that anyone who met either family would change their views about the difference between races and about the stereotypes of each race. Furthermore, Jeffery's happiness in a pseudo-family with Grayson compared to his dissatisfaction with being in a family with Aunt Dot and Uncle Dan reveals that traditional family structure can be less important than respect, love, and care for one another.
Maniac Magee is a tale of childhood, though it may not always seem so due to Jeffery's need to mature quickly after his parents' deaths. Spinelli creates a tone of childlike wonder, fear, and confusion at different points in the story by using imagery like worms coming out when it rains and the looming superstition around Finsterwald's house. In specific cases, Jeffery also remarks upon his own childishness and maturity, thinking that he does not want to act as a father to Piper and Russell McNab because he wants to be a son with a father himself. He remarks late in the story upon seeing he is at eye level with Mars Bar Thompson that now "I must be growing, too" (144). Maniac Magee, it might be said, is less a "coming of age" book than a story of grappling with age, wherein Jeffery finally can settle back into his age when Amanda Beale bosses him back into her home and her family once and for all.
Names and Nicknames
There are many nicknames in Maniac Magee, and understanding the use of names and nicknames is of great importance to understanding the story and relationships therein. Spinelli writes, "Mrs. Beale smiled. 'Yeah, I know you all right. You'll be nothing but Jeffery in here. But --' she nodded to the door - 'out there, I don't know.' She was right, of course. Inside his house, a kid gets one name, but on the other side of the door, it's whatever the rest of the world wants to call him" (53). While Mrs. Beale promises to call him Jeffery, she recognizes that others refer to him as Maniac for various positive and negative reasons and that this is how he will continue to be called throughout Two Mills. Reading deeper, her advice in this quote is to know your true self but understand that people will not always be interested in getting to know that self, preferring the myth or version they create. From Mars Bar to James "Hands" Down to Grayson (who doesn't use his first name), we get only glimpses of how these names were created, but we come to understand the complex effects of having a legacy that requires another name.
Literacy is a large theme in Maniac Magee, and it is an important one as it speaks to the tangible social effects of racism and socioeconomic stigma. Grayson speaks of his education as a child, saying that his teachers hardly bothered to teach kids whose parents were poor and/or drunk. Likewise, due to the segregation of neighborhoods within American cities, blacks and some whites continued to get a worse education than whites even living just minutes away throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. This makes Amanda Beale a purposeful oddity and success story, demonstrating the motivation of some black children even in the face of adversity caused by these unlawful circumstances (under Brown vs. Board of Education). Throughout the story, Spinelli also uses different books that characters read as symbols in themselves, requiring a kind of metaphorical literacy to understand and calling attention to the importance of reading to the characters.
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.