Although Jeff Magee seems like an idealized adolescent in many ways in Maniac Magee (even-keeled, accepting of others, good instincts, resourceful), he also shows a visceral response to loss and pain by running, a totally realistic boy response. One could argue his easygoing ways are a result of being shutdown. Maniac’s creative solutions to taking care of himself are brave and exciting, but also exhibit a certain lack of interest in himself, others and possible consequences. His feats of daring-do create a legend amongst the young, but could come about from an emotional disconnect. His other choices about how to live day to day after losing one’s parents and getting an inadequate substitute, reflects the loss of everything important: home, school, friends, community, belonging. So the wish fulfillment embodied by a boy running his way through a series of temporary families, and discovering that they all hold pain, loss, trouble and uncertainty, is a beautiful construct with lots of room for magic.
One beautiful magic in Maniac Magee is the examination of racism and prejudice through Maniac. His apparent indifference to accepting people’s judgements and prejudices, begs the question about how racial assumptions passed onto children by unthinking elders can be shaken loose by the children themselves without their being completely emotionally unmoored first, with nothing to lose, like Maniac. This is not an easy question.
Although we want to believe that racism can be reduced to rubble through individual bridges like those shown in Maniac Magee, this is like thinking one can reform a sociopath, someone incapable of empathy towards others, by modelling “nice” behavior. This is mistaking the symptoms for the problem. The larger forces of societal bigotry are reinforced through many physical manifestations like neighborhood segregation: “our” part of town, “your” part of town. The same goes for our schools. This monolith of passive social acceptance of an “us” vs “them” mentality through neighborhoods, communities, schools and places people live in, is difficult to face.
One way I might try to examine the issue of societal segregation in Maniac Magee would be through the two elements of neighborhoods and schools in the book. We would examine the ways racism is shown in the towns, areas, streets and neighborhoods that Maniac runs through, especially “East” and “West” parts of Two Mills. We would look at the narrower glimpse into schools depicted in Maniac Magee. We would then try to imagine the schools the “East” kids attend, followed by imagining the schools the “West” kids attend, with group creations of buildings, classes, teachers, curriculum, grading and sports, some created physically, some written out, some put together digitally, all stemming from clues in Maniac Magee. We would do the same for our imaginings of more positive, idealistic schools, for both the “East” and “West” schools. (These two extremes would point us towards utopian and dystopian YA fiction, to be explored at a later date.) Then we would discuss the differences between these imaginary schools, and vote on which we prefer; which we believe more realistic; how we might blend the two into both more idealistic, and more realistic models.
We would also explore people’s specific experiences with racism in their schools and neighborhoods, and ask the question: How could these deeper roots of racism be changed? How can individual actions change the systemic reinforcement of inequality and prejudice? These discussions and brainstormings might lead us into civics and self-government questions, leading us back to Maniac Magee by asking: Could Maniac have found any other places, maybe public places, to go with his loss, abuse and misery? Can society, while creating racial division an separation, also create places where young people, children and adolescents, can take themselves to be with each other, free of demands and expectations? What would this place look like?
While all this is deep work, students see all too well what doesn’t work, what hurts, what restricts, what is deadening themselves and others all around. It is important to know that we can create alternatives, beginning in our minds, through collective investigation and exploration, as does Jeff Magee in Maniac Magee.