Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Classics Review: Maniac Magee

Premise: Jeffrey Lionel Magee, called Maniac, is on his own in a town that's divided. Along the way, Maniacs gain epic status as a master knot-untangler, baseball hitter, and football catcher. He also discovers caring families of all shapes and colors.

Title: Maniac Magee
Author: Jerry Spinelli
Length: 184 pages
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Series or Stand Alone: Stand Alone
Content appropriate for: Grades 4-7
Format: Audiobook narrated by S. Epatha Merkerson

Three adjectives that describe this book: complex, fun, memorable

I read this book as part of the Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics books in 5 years. My list is comprised entirely of children's books.

Even though Maniac Magee is a school classic, required reading in 4th and 5th grades, I had not read it until now. I chose to read Maniac Magee as an audiobook, and S. Epatha Merkerson's narration was exceptional.

Much of the novel was written as a tall tale. For instance, at one point he faces a pitcher who has struck out every single batter. Yet Maniac hits the first pitch, and continues to hit every single one afterward - even when the pitcher hurls a frog instead of a baseball.

This narrative style makes the story fun, but it also raises the complexity of the text. When my 5th grade students discuss Maniac Magee, it's clear that they see these events as actual, rather than exaggerated. I wish Spinelli had made the tall tale aspect more explicit.

As the story progresses, some great things emerge. Maniac spends time with wonderful families, and some that are struggling. I love that Jerry Spinelli explored both ends of this spectrum.

Some other things I loved:
* Explicit discussion of racial issues
* Both positive and negative figures that are both black and white
* A fascinating father-figure who is homeless
* Learning is highly valued both in and out of school

Overall, I can see why Maniac Magee is loved by teachers everywhere. Many students love it too, but others find it lacking in action.
4.5 stars

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