Thursday, November 12, 2020

Newbery Wayback Machine: Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli (1991)

I freely confess that I am probably the wrong reader for Maniac Magee. This book not only won the 1991 Newbery, but the 1990 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, as well as enough regional and state book awards to fill a trophy case. It placed #17 on the 2010 Fuse #8/School Library Journal Top Children's Novels poll. Plenty of smart, careful readers love this novel. The weight of opinion is on their side. You should probably listen to them.

I...did not love Maniac Magee. It's not a long book, and the chapters are extremely short, but I still had more trouble finishing it than anything I've reviewed since Miracles on Maple Hill. My brain kept actively resisting the novel, partly for reasons that are possibly unfair, and partly for reasons that I think are genuine flaws in the book.

Let's get the unfair stuff out of the way first. The title character, Maniac Magee himself, is less an actual kid, and more of a figure out of a tall tale. The introduction frames him exactly this way, and big chunks of the book are spent describing his various feats of athleticism and bravery. We've established before in this space that child characters with near-superhuman abilities are a tough sell for me in books that are neither high fantasy (the Harry Potter exception), or intended to be larger-than-life comedies (which exempts the likes of Pippi Longstocking). I found the sections of Maniac Magee that focused on Maniac's legendary exploits tiresome, but a different reader could easily feel otherwise.

On a deeper level, Maniac Magee is really about the way that Maniac manages to bridge the gap between Black and White residents of the town of Two Mills. In an era where Antiracist Baby is a bestseller, and books such as Brown Girl Dreaming, P.S. Be Elevenand Patina and the rest of Jason Reynolds' Track series dig deeply into the entrenched causes and profound effects of American racism, Maniac Magee reads to me as almost unbearably naive. Maniac (who is White) "doesn't see color," and that's what lets him unite the two halves of the town. The American history of slavery, segregation, and discrimination doesn't seem to enter into it. 

Look, I was there in the 1990s, and I remember the dominance of the strain of thought where the main thing we needed to overcome racism was to see everyone as "a member of one race -- the human race." While I'd certainly agree that we need to see the common humanity we all share, there's a whole lot more to dismantling structural racism than the power of that brand of positive thinking. Jerry Spinelli certainly captured a moment in time, but it's a moment where the prevailing ideas were, in my opinion, overly simplistic. In its own way, thinking that Maniac could unite the town in the way that he does is just as fantastical as Maniac's running exploits and knot-untangling skills.

Certainly, Maniac Magee has its heart in the right place, and maybe I'm being too harsh on a book in the light of later developments -- which is something I've previously complained about when it comes to books like Waterless Mountain. I don't want to be unfair in my criticisms of a beloved novel. I don't think Maniac Magee has aged very well, however. 

Other notable American children's novels of the year included the only Honor book, Avi's The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle; Caroline B. Cooney's thriller The Face on the Milk Carton, which scrapes the upper edge of the Newbery eligibility guidelines; Jean Craighead George's The Far Side of the Mountain; and Judy Blume's Fudge-a-Mania.  It's unusual for the Newbery committee to only name one honor book -- before 1991, the most recent time that that had happened was in 1980, and as of this writing, it hasn't happened since 1999 -- and so it's possible it was perceived as a thin year. But, given the many accolades Maniac Magee received at the time, it would be hard to argue that the book didn't deserve the gold medal. I'm still not sold on it, but again, it's entirely probable that I'm just not the right reader for the book.