Magic in Maniac Magee


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.

Shapeshifter David vs Hydra-headed Goliath: Chris Crutcher


Well, as I finish Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, I have to stop and dash off my pink cloud valentine to Chris Crutcher, the pen warrior. I see some patterns between Deadline and Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes that I consider noteworthy and even admirable. Like a good baker, Crutcher knows that if you stay true to the right measurements of your ingredients, you can be creative with substitutions, and come out with something original each time.

His adolescent boy-protagonists: two extremes in one body, usually the asset hidden behind the hairline, the deficit visible to all the world – what a great way to shape the representative of the Age of Development. Hence, Ben in Deadline is undersized and terminal, and Eric in Sarah Byrnes is fat; both smart. In this way, our hero can discover and discuss thorny social and political dilemmas from a variety of angles  (because he is not scared to use his intelligence) while retaining the essential vulnerability of anguished physicality, the most painful aspect of adolescence, in my experience.  Religion, nationalism, racism and sexuality, even death, are brought into play, through our flawed protagonist. We can love him, since his imperfections are always visible, and we feel his experiences, as his vulnerabilities bring us into his world.

His superheroes are female: they embody the feminine mystery of life by carrying a secret, or more, of the painful realities of an oppressive and misogynistic culture; unveiling these drive the story towards its ultimate goal: the truth. These females have greater spunk and grit while showing how to overcome, or at least resist, the  abuse of a hypocritical society; another set of contradictions. They inspire our protagonist, and us, to face the truth, however horrible it is.

His villains are male: their destructiveness is two-fold, coming from the inability to question oneself, i.e. use one’s intelligence; and believing that physical domination is a solution. Despite their darkness, sometimes they are a mixed bag, like Sooner in Deadline, who is redeemed by his athleticism, team spirit, and the possibility that his death will change his abusive father; and Dale in Sarah Byrnes, who is brought onto the winning team by Sarah Byrne’s tactical strategies.

He has two kinds of families, too: the ones that are able to support each other in a healthy way, despite obstacles (Eric and his single mom in Sarah Byrnes; Ben and his brother Cody in Deadline); and families that have threads of violence, abuse and fractured relationships (Sarah in Sarah Byrnes; Dallas in Deadline). He also depicts families ruled by single obsessions, like Sooner’s dad in Deadline, and Ellerby in Sarah Byrnes.

Crutcher challenges the reader to think about issues raised by the smarter kids in the school; he alternates that heady thinking with pulse-racing descriptions of athletic competitiveness, an all-American pursuit. In this manner, he keeps his polarized balance by offering critiques of our political and social culture while cheering us on with the adrenaline of sports.

So, I am warmed by Crutcher’s big, democratic, all-American heart that believes that engaged young people, thinking, feeling, reasoning, will find solutions to the complex, unfair world they are inheriting, despite dark endings.  The desire to have young people commit to their intelligence, their uniqueness, their strengths, is an evident pattern in his books, and in the funny and loving way he depicts all  his young people.

Challenging Perspectives


“Miss, miss…why do we have to study literature? What makes it literature, anyway?”

“Well, its writing that we have decided holds enough layers, meaning, subtlety and complexity that it is elevated to a higher designation: literature.”

“You mean like Push?”

“Well…do you think Push falls into all those categories? For example, tell me about the layers in Push.”

“The layer I liked was when Precious started to write poetry; when she could hardly read or write at the beginning.”

“Yeah…and how about the way she figured out how to get her breakfast, but left her book behind? And the other girl saw it?”

“And meaning?”

“Her teacher knew that writing in her journal would help her in alot of ways.”

“Ok…did you find Push subtle or complex?”

“Sure…the way Precious had to figure out how to talk to the principal, and the social worker, not giving anything away…and how she thought it was better to pee her pants than walk in front of her classmates and get dissed.”

“Well, do you think Push should be called literature?”

“Yeah, sure, why not? It had alot of different language in it, and alot happened to her; she showed courage, and we all wanted her to succeed by the end. I would call it literature. Hood literature.”

“Well, then, let’s put Push on our list of Personal Literature Favorites.”

We need more of this: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

*I am going to preface by saying this post will be more of a mushy gush about how much I loved The Disreputable History instead of a clear analysis. But stay with me here.*

First off, let me start off by saying I could not put down The Disreputable History. I am fairly certain I burned through it in a day,

And I think the main conclusion I walked away with from the end of reading it is that we absolutely, absolutely need more of this kind of YA Lit on the bookshelves. While Frankie’s methods for achieving what she wants may not have been the best way to handle the situation (despite making for ingenious entertainment), the message was clear: it’s okay for a teenage girl to want to be a go-getter (in fact, she should be). I absolutely love this idea of a young teenage girl understanding that while she doesn’t need to apologize for wanting and even enjoying traditionally feminine things (the popular senior boyfriend, for example), they are not worth losing herself and who she yearns to be in the process of it. I think this is a seriously important point that we constantly forget to drive home to our young women in this 21st century world.

Second, frankieI absolutely love, love, LOVE how well the book addresses this concept of connections and bonds in the “Old Boys Club.” While we’ve heard the concept of the glass ceiling time and again- I think this novel really gets to the language and attitude that forms the beams for the ceiling itself. Frankie is constantly called “adorable, sweet, bunny rabbit, pretty, darling, etc” by others, but these are never words she uses to describe herself throughout the novel. Language plays a lot into how women are perceived by others, and Lockhart does an execellent job of showing how quickly people (both friends and family) are prepared to underestimate her based on the way she looks or how they feel she thinks.

Lastly, a particular quote that stuck with me was:

“Matthew had called her harmless. Harmless. And being with him made Frankie feel squashed into a box– a box where she was expected to be sweet and sensitive (but not oversensitive); a box for young and pretty girls who were not as bright or powerful as their boyfriends. A box for people who were not forces to be reckoned with.

Frankie wanted to be a force.”  (pg 214)


The boundaries and lines outlined for Frankie (be sweet, adorable, smart-but not too smart, just be what I want to be and nothing more) are ones many young women face at some point when growing into who they want to be. By understanding that they don’t have to prescribe to these conditions already set out for them by society and challenging them, they give themselves a chance to grow into women who can build their own paths–without being boxed into something else along the way.

I say more lit like this on the shelves could really make a difference in the minds of young girls.

Because no one ever wants to be called “harmless” by someone who supposedly cares for them.