Saturday, June 6, 2009

Cool Hand Magee

The next installment of my Newbery Challenge was Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, the 1991 Newbery Winner. The lyrical and rhythmic narrative voice of this piece lent itself to an aural effect that fit the content of the story well. Maniac Magee, a little boy who's been running away (from home, from places that are almost home, and places that never felt like home in the first place) and in the meantime cultivates a hero-like mythology about him.
Though the entire book was well-written and enjoyable, my absolute favorite section was when Maniac starts living with Grayson, an old caretaker of the zoo and baseball field. When it turns out that Grayson was a minor league pitcher, he and Magee start to swap baseball advice for reading lessons (Grayson is illiterate). It was an incredibly emotional passage, and the descriptions of Grayson's old, leather baseball glove struck a chord with me particularly.
Though race is a central theme throughout this entire novel, Spinelli steers clear of familiar tropes, and the characters of this world are well rounded and believable. It made me wonder though, how much of this really feels fresh anymore. There are so many books written for kids about white people and black people learning to accept each other's humanity (Newbery Winner, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, for example), that at some point it begins to feel stale and didactic no matter how good the writing is. Of course, as my coworker Rich so aptly pointed out, I come from a very liberal, Bay Area racial education, and that my perspective on the matter is not typical country wide. He's right of course, but because I primarily deal with kids with a similar background to me, I wonder how well a book like this will hold up with that crowd.
It heartens me that the only way to find that out is to recommend it to as many kids as I can.

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