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Literature / Maniac Magee

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Ma-niac, Ma-niac,
He's so cool
Ma-niac, Ma-niac,
Don't go to school
Runs all night
Runs all right
Ma-niac, Ma-niac,
Kissed a bull!
— Two Mills jump-rope rhyme

Maniac Magee is a 1990 children's book written by Jerry Spinelli. It features a strange boy named Jeffrey Magee who loses his parents and runs away at age eleven, ending up a year later in Two Mills, a town in Pennsylvania that's divided into two sides: The East End, where all the black families live, and West End, with all the white families. Completely ignorant of how the town works, he meets a girl on the East End named Amanda Beale, from whom he borrows a book.

As the days go by, Jeffrey is sighted all over town doing incredible things - stealing football passes from high schoolers in the middle of practice, rescuing a boy from the backyard of the creepiest old man in town, and running - running - on the steel rail of the train tracks. When he tries to return Amanda's book, he both makes an enemy in "Mars Bar" Thompson, a kid who doesn't like seeing a white boy in his neighborhood, and finds a home with Amanda Beale's family. Months go by and Jeffrey makes a name for himself as the kid who can untie any knot, who runs like a demon, and who doesn't seem to understand that he looks different. He even earns a nickname: Maniac.

But while the Beales accept him into their family immediately, a few citizens of the East End aren't quite as welcoming. Trouble starts brewing for the Beale family, and before they know it, Maniac is off and running again.

The book follows Maniac's year-long search for a home in Two Mills and his attempts to deal with the ugly feelings on both sides of Hector Street, as told by a narrator possibly decades later detailing the facts behind a town legend.

A film adaptation aired on Nicklodeon in 2003, although it was lighter in comparison with the book.

These are the following tropes:

  • Abnormal Allergy: Maniac is allergic to pizza. No, not to any of the ingredients in it. Really: he's allergic to pizza (don't think too hard about it...). Ironically, he wins a certificate giving him one free pizza a week for a year.
  • Abusive Parents: Played with for Aunt Dot and Uncle Dan. It's never mentioned if they were abusive to Maniac, but their hostile relationship didn't exactly provide a loving environment. After eight years, it's clear to see why Maniac wanted out.
  • Adults Are Useless: Maniac skips town in the middle of a school concert, and the choir director is the only adult there who makes any kind of effort to stop him. Maniac's aunt and uncle are too driven by their hatred of one another to notice.
  • All Part of the Show: In Maniac's concert, there is a song about talking to animals. Maniac screams at his aunt and uncle to talk to each other during the song and after it ends. The audience mistakes it for improvising until Maniac runs out of the auditorium.
  • All Bikers are Hells Angels: Briefly parodied. Among the spectators gathered to watch Maniac tackle Cobble's Knot is a tricycle gang of preschoolers who call themselves the Heck's Angels.
  • Alliterative Family: All ten of the Pickwell children have names that start with the letter D.
  • Ambiguously Absent Parent: The three McNab brothers live with their father, and no mention is made of their mother.
  • And Your Reward Is Edible: Maniac's reward for solving Cobble's Knot is one extra-large pizza each week for a year. Ironically, he's allergic to pizza.
  • Artistic License – Physics : Grayson's "stopball," a supposed secret pitch of his that allows the ball to stop in midair. Probably a lie, but Maniac believes it and even manages to convince John McNab's younger siblings that it's real.
  • Anger Born of Worry: Amanda loves Maniac like a brother, but he drives her absolutely crazy running off all the time.
  • Awful Wedded Life: Aunt Dot and Uncle Dan despise each other, but won't divorce due to their faith. This creates a miserable situation for them and an even worse one for little Jeffery, who's caught in the middle of their (extremely hostile) relationship.
  • Black and Nerdy: Amanda loves reading and school.
  • Black Comedy: The first chapter takes this route when Maniac's parents are killed with "the whole kaboodle took a swan dive into the water" as the narration.
  • Blithe Spirit: Maniac to Two Mills, very slowly. The main part of the book takes place over more than a year, and by that time very little has changed overall - but by the year the narrator is speaking from, well in the future, the segregation is a thing of the past and little girls from both sides of Hector Street sing the jump-rope song together.
  • Bratty Half-Pints: Piper and Russell.
    • Hester and Lester, to an extent.
  • Cerebus Callback: While staying with Grayson, Maniac paints the number 101 on the door, dubbing his new home "Band Shell Boulevard". After Grayson passes away, Maniac angrily brushes the number back out before taking off again.
  • Cool Old Guy: Grayson.
  • Crazy Survivalist: The McNabs are building a bunker around their house to prepare for the invasion of Black East Enders.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Poor Maniac lost his parents at an early age to a horrible trolley crash. And Aunt and Uncle weren't much help when they took him in, despite hating each other too much to give their nephew the time of day.
  • Death by Newbery Medal: Earl Grayson.
  • Death Glare: Mars Bar can cause a traffic jam just by doing this, according to legend. He later proves that he absolutely can.
  • Delegation Relay: When Maniac comes to live at the home of the McNab brothers, they all see a dog taking a leak on the floor. Oldest brother John tells one of his younger brothers to clean it up. That brother tells the third to clean it up. The third brother ignores them. Maniac finally finds some newspaper and cleans it up himself.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: Amanda gives one to Mars Bar at the end of the novel. "How bad can you act if everyone's calling you Snickers?"
  • First-Name Basis: Amanda, and by extension her whole family, will only address Maniac by his given name: Jeffrey.
  • Heroic BSoD: Maniac suffers a huge one after Grayson passes away.
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: Maniac really just wants a home and a family to go back to every night.
  • Jerkass: John and George McNab, Mars Bar for most of the book.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Mars Bar becomes this after saving Russell from being run over.
  • Kick the Dog: Amanda kicks the family dog, Bow Wow, in a fit of rage after having an argument with Maniac that resulted in Maniac running away.
  • Last-Name Basis: Earl Grayson makes a point of telling Maniac to call him by his last name, "like ever'body." Also, John McNab for the first part of the book, until Maniac meets the rest of his family and starts calling him by his first name.
  • Like Brother and Sister: Maniac and Amanda, plus the littler Beale kids. He actually refers to them as such when describing them to Grayson:
    "Do you know the Beales? Of seven twenty-eight Sycamore Street?"
    The old man shook his head.
    "Well, they were my family. I had a mother and father and a little brother and sister and a sister my age and a dog. My own room, too."
  • Lonely Funeral: Maniac is the only mourner at Grayson's funeral, which is little more than just burying the man's dead body in a hole.
  • Loners Are Freaks: Averted. Maniac just wants to be accepted by everyone.
  • Magical Realism: A classic kid-friendly example. The book features a few elements that are implied to be supernatural (maybe), but never really treated as such by the characters. Maniac can run for days at a time without getting tired, he can run backwards faster than some kids can run forwards, he tries to learn a baseball pitch that can make a ball stop in mid-air, and he's allergic to pizza (no, not to any of the ingredients in it—to pizza). Possibly justified by the implication that Maniac is just the hero of a modern-day folktale.
  • Meaningful Name: Piper McNab, whose laughter is like the blast of a truck horn.
  • Memetic Mutation: In-universe, Maniac's exploits become the subject of a jump-rope chant.
    Maniac, Maniac, he's so cool
    Maniac, Maniac, don't go to school
    Runs all night
    Runs all right
    Maniac, Maniac, kissed a bull
    • It is actually a mutation - he kissed a baby buffalo. The error is even lampshaded by a footnote:
    Nobody knows why "buffalo" became "bull" in the jump-rope song. History often gets things wrong.
  • Men Can't Keep House: The McNab brothers and their father live in a house filled with trash and animal refuse. The place is infested with roaches, and there's even a dissected bird on the kitchen table. It's made very clear that none of them care enough to even try to keep the place clean.
  • Minor Living Alone: The protagonist is a young boy without a permanent home, whose only living relatives don't seem to care that he's gone.
  • Mirroring Factions: Both the East End and the West End have loving families (the white Pickwells and the black Beales) and horrible racists (the McNab family and Old Ragpicker).
  • Mundane Made Awesome: Maniac unites a racially divided community behind him by untying a knot.
  • Naïve Newcomer: Maniac, at first.
  • Never Learned to Read: Grayson, at least until Maniac teaches him.
  • No Accounting for Taste: Maniac's aunt and uncle have a deep mutual hatred for each other, yet stay together because divorce is against their religion. It's their horrible relationship (and specifically, their hatred) that finally makes Maniac just snap and run as far away as he can from them at the start of the book. They make no effort to find him.
  • No Communities Were Harmed: Two Mills is based on Norristown, Pennsylvania, Jerry Spinelli’s childhood town. As such, Two Mills has a lot of geographical similarities with it, including the Elmwood Park Zoo and Valley Forge.
  • An Odd Place to Sleep: As a homeless kid, Maniac has slept in all kinds of odd places, such as the buffalo pen at the zoo. He compares the feeling of sleeping in a normal bed to "slowly rising on a scoop of mashed potatoes."
  • Only Known by Their Nickname:
    • Mars Bar.
    • And Maniac, to some parts of the town. Even if other people know his real first name, only the Beales keep calling him Jeffrey.
    • A number of minor characters are known by nicknames as well.
  • Parental Abandonment: Maniac's parents died in a train crash when he was only three years old.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: After someone destroys Amanda's encyclopedia volume to make Maniac's Cobble's Knot confetti, he decides he must leave to protect them. He starts back towards the white side of town and is repulsed by John McNab and his white gang welcoming him. It's the same on the other side of the street with Mars Bar. So he heads out of town walking down the center of the street. Walking.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: Amanda tends to talk this way when annoyed.
  • Punny Name: Earl Grayson. It's probably unintentional, though.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Amanda is a master. Maniac gets a few for running away, including one she delivers when he's not even present. She yells it at the front door.
  • The Rival: Mars Bar to Maniac. It's largely one-sided on Mars Bar's part, though.
  • Rule of Symbolism: While staying at the McNab household, Maniac put up with their filthy habits because their living room was a (relatively) clean place in the house. But after McNab senior set up a trench made up of concrete blocks in the living room, Maniac leaves without a word. He leaves, not necessarily because it's a little dirtier than it was before, but because it's unclean on the principle of how the concrete trench represents the McNabs' blatant racism and his unbridled hatred.
  • The Runaway: Maniac ran away from his aunt and uncle at age eleven, and hasn't had a steady home since.
    • Russell and Piper McNab run away from home on a regular basis.
  • Sassy Black Girl: Amanda.
  • Scary Black Boy: Mars Bar. He eventually warms up a little bit.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Maniac tries to get his aunt and uncle to talk to each other at his school's musical, only to realize that they despise each other too much to care. He abandons the school and runs away from them for good.
  • Starbucks Skin Scale: Maniac doesn't understand why the East Enders call themselves black. To him, their skin colors are closer to things like cinnamon or butter rum or gingersnap or light fudge or dark fudge. But never licorice, which he considers "real black".
  • Super-Speed: Maniac. He outruns every member of a championship football team, scores an inside the park home run by bunting a frog, and beats Mars Bar in a race despite starting late and running backwards.
  • Sweet Tooth: Mars Bar, presumably.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Maniac will do anything for a pack of Tastykake Butterscotch Krimpets.
    • Mars Bar is rarely seen without a candy bar. He earned his nickname for a reason.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Russell and Piper McNab are filthy, destructive little hellions who are not above smoking, drinking, or stealing. They're estimated to be about eight years old.
  • Truth in Television: A street that divides a community neatly in half? St. Louis has it.
    • Spinelli based Two Mills on his hometown of Norristown, PA where US-202 splits the town in half.
  • Tsundere: Amanda behaves this way towards Maniac and Mars Bar.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Certain parts are deliberately left unclear, since it's a retelling of a story the kids of a town embellished over the years. Certain things like Mars' glare stopping traffic and the various feats Maniac performs to keep Russell and Piper in school may not be true - but, since many are actually requests made by little kids after both boys are famous, they certainly could be.
  • Urban Legends: The intro of the book, and some critical interpretations, imply that the story of Maniac Magee was nothing more than a local legend.
    • Cobble's Knot grew its own legends.
  • Urban Racism: The West Enders and the East Enders have this attitude towards each other. It comes to the forefront when Magee is cooling off from the summer heat with a bunch of East Enders, using a burst fire hydrant - an old black man comes up to him and throws racial epithets at him, saying he doesn't belong there, until someone drags the old man away. Maniac leaves that night, and then for good a few weeks later.
  • Wham Line:
    • "Five days later the old man was dead."
    • And, to a lesser extent, "So why don't you go ahead and teach me to read?"
    • Maniac takes "You can't get a library card without an address!" as this. Amanda is pretty ashamed of herself for saying it.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Neither Aunt Dot nor Uncle Dan are referenced again after Maniac runs away from them.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Maniac not only beats Mars Bar in a race, but goes about doing it backwards! Afterwards he's not too pleased with himself for humiliating his opponent for no reason.
  • Worthy Opponent: Maniac and Cobble's Knot. Maniac studies it for a long time at first, like a Rubik's Cube speed runner.
  • You Know I'm Black, Right?: Maniac is a subversion. Having not grown up in the highly segregated Two Mills, he doesn't realize how things work, which confuses the hell out of people who've dealt with it their entire lives.
  • Younger Than They Look: John McNab is 12 years old, 5'8", and 170 pounds.