Maniac Magee

Maniac Magee Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Why do you think Jerry Spinelli divided the book into three parts, each made up of ten to twenty chapters? What distinguishes the parts from one another?

    In each part, Jeffery lives in a different major location: Part I with the Beales in East End, Part II with Grayson in the band shell, and Part III with the McNabs in West End. The breaks between these parts parallel the strict, invisible lines dividing the parts of Two Mills from one another, making it even more surprising when Jeffery leaves the major location of the part (for example, when Jeffery goes to get Mars Bar and eventually returns to the Beale home in Part III). The many chapters within each part lend the story a quick, exciting pace within these parts, and Spinelli often spills thoughts and action between chapters.

  2. 2

    How might Jerry Spinelli’s background have influenced the writing of Maniac Magee?

    Spinelli, hailing himself from Pennsylvania in the early 20th century, likely created the fictional city of “Two Mills” based on his own experiences growing up in the white part of a segregated town in the North. Furthermore, by naming his protagonist “Jeffery” - quite close to his own name - he was likely drawing a comparison between the character and himself as a child. However, another character Spinelli likely wrote close to an image of himself is Grayson - Spinelli played baseball as a child and writes on his website that he gave up his dreams of playing in the Major League only because he found a love of writing and journalism late in high school. Perhaps the scene in which Grayson learns to read by comparing his motivation and perseverance to playing baseball for a tough coach is something Spinelli thought of decades before writing Maniac Magee because he experienced it himself.

  3. 3

    How is a “home” different than a “house”? What does Maniac look for in a home and where does he find it?

    While a house is simply a place where one might live - a structure that protects one from the elements - a home has the components of family and belonging that Maniac seeks after his parents’ deaths. Spinelli presents the reader with many examples and counterexamples of homes by demonstrating where Maniac wants to stay and where he decides to leave.

    Though the legal system decided the best home for Jeffery would be with his Aunt Dot and Uncle Dan, their house is hardly a home because they don’t communicate with one another - there is no love or care to create belonging. On the other hand, the Pickwells invite in whomever needs a place to stay and give them food and acceptance unconditionally; however, Maniac still does not have the sense of belonging that he seeks.

    The two truest homes presented in Maniac Magee are the Beale household, Jeffery’s eventual home where he is accepted as a true member of the family (including reading to the younger children and getting slapped for bad behavior), and the band shell Jeffery shares with Grayson. In the Thanksgiving and Christmas scenes in the band shell, Spinelli demonstrates that even a poor, two-person pseudo-family can make a better home and have a better holiday than many richer, more socially acceptable families.

  4. 4

    Where does the racism in Two Mills come from? What does Maniac Magee teach readers about ending racism?

    It seems like racism comes from two places in Maniac Magee - it is passed down from parents to children and it is enforced by society. In the story, we see many adults who hold negative and even wrong views about other races; both Mr. McNab and Grayson hold racist views against blacks from East End without really knowing any. In the case of the McNabs this is passed down through what the family says and the games that the children are allowed to play.In many scenes, the reader sees young black and white children fighting against one other without even knowing one another, something that children must be taught to do.

    However, society seems to play a bigger role than anything in the perpetuation of racism. Because the blacks and whites in Two Mills live in different neighborhoods and attend different schools, churches, and social events, people don’t have the chance to meet one another and find out how similar they are.

  5. 5

    What does Maniac Magee teach readers about truth and legends? What is the importance of "Maniac" Magee as a legend?

    As readers, we read the myths about “Maniac” Magee before we ever meet the real character and learn his name and his background. This move by Spinelli parallels the way people in Two Mills see Jeffery - often, they heard the legends and made their impressions of him before really meeting him. 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.

    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.

  6. 6

    After Mrs. Beale asks Jeffery whether he is “that Maniac,” she tells him “You’ll be nothing but Jeffery in here. But out there, I don’t know” (53). The narrator then says that “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). What role do nicknames play in Maniac Magee? How can nicknames influence the way people see and treat one another?

    Lots of people in Maniac Magee have nicknames - from “Maniac” himself, to “Mars Bar” and James “Hands” Down, to Grayson, who simply goes by his last name rather than his first. For many of these characters, it is not clear where these names got started, and besides Grayson they seem to have carried these people to a level of fame. Nicknames are often given for two opposing reasons - either friends give you a positive nickname or foes give you a negative nickname. For “Maniac,” this distinction is quite important; since the word maniac can either mean someone crazy (a usually negative attribute) or very skilled or obsessed with something (a generally positive attribute), it is difficult for the reader and Jeffery himself to figure out how people see him. However, it is clear that the nickname goes along with his status as a kind of local legend and, along with the stories about him, mean that people make impressions of him without even meeting him first.

  7. 7

    What does Jeffery’s running symbolize in Maniac Magee? Start by thinking about situations in which Jeffery has run toward or away from something: who and what was involved in making him run? Then, think about moments when Jeffery has not run: who and what was involved in him not running?

    Jeffery seems to run when emotion takes hold of him, and this is often in situations when he suddenly realizes he is not at home. For example, Jeffery runs away from his aunt and uncle's home and he runs away from Grayson's funeral when he realizes Grayson is truly no longer with him.

    An especially important example of Jeffery running is the climax of Maniac Magee wherein he runs away from Russell when he is stranded on the train tracks. In this case, it seems Jeffery is simply overcome by the memory of his parents and the immense struggles he has faced trying to replace them and the home they provided him.

    However, one important counterexample is when Jeffery leaves the Beale home following his untying of Cobble's Knot. In this case, Jeffery makes a conscious decision to leave for the good of the family, so he walks out of East End even while he is heckled. This also lays the foundation for Jeffery to return to the Beale household at the end of the story.

  8. 8

    Is the relationship between Grayson and Jeffery more like a coach and a player, friends, a father and a son, or something else? How does this relationship become a family?

    Grayson and Jeffery form a relationship that over time becomes like a close-knit family. However, their family structure is not a common one, and doesn't necessarily adhere to singular family roles for each. In some situations, especially in the beginning of their relationship, it is more like Grayson is an adoptive father to Jeffery, feeding him, making sure he bathes and has clothing, taking him to work, and even begrudgingly telling him stories about his life. However, at other times, Jeffery takes on the role of mentor, coach, or teacher, giving Grayson the attention, support, and skills to tell his story and even learn to read and write on his own. From the relationship between Jeffery and Grayson, we learn that it is mutual care and respect that makes a family, not a house, biological link, or set family role.

  9. 9

    What do you predict happens after the story ends? If there was a Part IV of Maniac Magee, what would it contain?

    Maniac Magee ends on a very positive note of people from West End and East End working together to solve a problem and Jeffery finding a home again with the Beales. One might predict that Jeffery stops running, mostly, after finding a permanent home with the Beales since he has been using that as a coping mechanism for his lack of a home. Furtermore, with more time in East End, one would hope more people there would come to meet and accept Jeffery regardless of his skin color.

    However, in a practical sense, the relationship between people in East End and West End would likely not change drastically; though efforts have been made throughout the country since the mid-20th century, racism and social segregation remains an issue in US society well into the 21st century. Finally, since Spinelli has split the parts of his story by the location where Jeffery lives, Part IV might either center around his return to the Beale home or could even move on to discussing Jeffery's next home, perhaps the one he shares with a family of his own when he grows into adulthood.

  10. 10

    How has reading this book affected you? Have there been times you've experienced racism or segregation in the place you live? Has anyone ever judged you based on only what they've heard? Do you have a negative or positive nickname that has followed you?

    Reading this book has made me more aware of the segregation and racism in my own community. I attended school in the "county" area of my town which was 80 to 90 percent white, while the "city" schools had a much higher percentage of black students. Though this had a lot to do with what schools were closer to certain neighborhoods, perhaps busing or other measures taken in certain locales could have increased the amount of contact, respect, and understanding between black and white children in my town.