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Maniac Magee

by Jerry Spinelli

The Book Club Novel Guide outlines a complete theme-based unit with Book Club lesson plans focusing on Maniac Magee.

Buy the Novel Buy the Book Club Novel Guide

Below you will find a synopsis, further reading materials, discussion topics, and reviews that you might find useful during your teaching of Maniac Magee.

A Synopsis

Eleven-year-old orphan Jeffrey Magee runs away from the home of his aunt and uncle, a feuding couple who do not talk to each other. A year later, Jeffrey turns up in the town of Two Mills. He amazes people with his ability to run, jump, spin, dance, and outthink everybody he meets. For all of his astounding feats, he earns the nickname “Maniac.”

There are two things Maniac Magee can’t do: find a permanent address and understand why white people stay on the West End and black people stay on the East End. In fact, he doesn’t even see how people can call themselves black or white when they are obviously many different colors. When someone vandalizes the home of the black family he’s been living with, Maniac realizes that he has made enemies in both communities and that he must leave the closest thing to a home he’s found.

Maniac moves on and befriends an old man who works in a local zoo. When his friend dies and no one but Maniac turns up at the funeral, he runs away again. After a period of wandering, Maniac moves in with a racist white family in the West End. Events reach a crisis when one of the boys in this family wanders out onto the bridge where Maniac’s parents were killed. Maniac can’t rescue the boy, but one of his “enemies” from the East End does. Maniac is then called home by the black family he loves. The now-complete legend of Maniac Magee brings readers full circle to the first scene in the book, in which East End and West End children jump rope together.

Further Reading and Links

The following sites can be used to support and enrich the Book Club unit for Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli.

About the Author and the Book

  • Jerry Spinelli — At the author's official website visitors find a biography, a photograph of the author, a question and answer segment that explores his writing style and source of inspiration, and short descriptions of some of his books.
  • Jerry Spinelli — Book Browse provides another biography, interview, and list of his books.
  • In His Own Words — At this site, Jerry Spinelli describes the path that led him to become a writer of books for young adults.
  • Common Sense Media — This review of the book gives it 5 out of 5 stars. See also user reviews and details about the book.

Learn More About the Setting of the Novel

  • Valley Forge National Historic Park — Information about the park is provided by the National Park Service.
  • Valley Forge History Site — A wealth of information about the events and important people of the Revolutionary War period is presented in a way that is both factual and interesting. The topics covered are far too numerous to list and are all easily accessed and enjoyed by students.
  • Schuylkill River — A photograph of the river, a description of its path, and a discussion of its importance are a few of the specific details about the Schuylkill River that can be found on or accessed from this site.

Find Out More About Events in the Characters' Lives

  • P & W High Speed Line — This site focuses on various P & W trolley cars and their lines. The text is very informative and is accompanied by photographs of the various cars, including one positioned on a high truss bridge over the Schuylkill River.
  • Minor League Baseball — The various leagues and their classifications are given as well as the teams belonging to each league. Other information, such as press releases, schedules, and lists of all-star players, can be found on this official site of minor league baseball.
  • Children's Crusade — Visitors can read a brief explanation of the Children's Crusade of 1212.
  • Untangling the Mathematics of Knots — Many ideas about knots are presented here, including the mathematics of knots, how to make them, and other activities related to them.

Read Theme-Related Literature

  • "The Death of the Hired Man" by Robert Frost — This poem explores the concept of home, inviting intertextual connections with Maniac Magee.
  • "Meditation XVII" by John Donne — This meditation on the interconnectedness of all people has resonance with the themes of family and community. "No man is an island. . . . Never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee."

Big Theme Questions

Why does battling prejudice require heroism?

How does prejudice have a ripple effect on society?

What makes a house a home and a group of people a family?

How do legends and heroes influence your life? Explain.

Outline of Lesson Plan | Discussion Topics | Writing Prompts

The following section can be used to get discussions started in your classroom. It is based on the Lesson Plan within the Book Club Novel Guide for Maniac Magee. The Lesson Plan includes blackline masters for the students that support the writing prompts. The writing prompts provided are meant as suggestions only. As students become more comfortable with the Book Club format, they will certainly have ideas and questions that go beyond the prompts. Consider giving students “free choice” as a log option. Book Club Reading Logs help students respond to literature and organize ideas as they participate in Book Club.


Chapters 1–6 | Language Conventions: Introduction to Book Club

  • Describe some of the legendary feats of Maniac Magee.
  • Do you know anyone personally whom you would call a legend? What makes this person a legend?
  • What do you think Maniac did during the year he traveled the two hundred miles from Hollidaysburg to Two Mills?

Chapters 7–11 | Literary Elements: Point of View and Perspective

  • How would this story differ if it were told from Maniac’s point of view? From the point of view of a child from Two Mills? Retell a paragraph or passage from one of these points of view.
  • Identify some of the things that influenced Mars Bar’s and Maniac’s perspectives. Describe their perspectives on each other.
  • Choose a striking image from the text and draw a picture of the mental image you formed from the description. Explain briefly which elements in the text made you choose the image and visualize it the way you did.

Chapters 12–16 | Comprehension: Story Elements

  • Identify one internal and one external conflict Jeffrey faces in these chapters.
  • Describe the mood of these chapters. What kinds of literary techniques does the author use to create this mood?
  • Write a character sketch of one of the main characters in the story. You might choose Jeffrey, Mars Bar, Amanda, Mrs. Beale, or another character.

Chapters 17–21 | Literary Elements: Characterization

  • Is Maniac an empathetic character? Why or why not? What elements does the author include to make him empathetic?
  • What universal feelings does Maniac experience? When have you felt the same way before?
  • How does discrimination affect Maniac and the Beales? Do you think Maniac made the right choice in leaving?

Chapters 22–24 | Language Conventions: Qualities of a Good Book Club Discussion

  • Has Maniac forgotten the Beales? How do you think he feels about them? How do you know?
  • How does Grayson view people from the East End? Why do you think this is so?
  • Make a prediction about the relationship between Grayson and Maniac. Be sure to use clues from the story to support your prediction.

Chapters 25–29 | Literary Elements: Theme and Plot

  • Write a brief response to one of the big theme questions. Use ideas and examples from the text to help you answer the question.?
  • Write an evaluation of the plot of the novel. Are the conflicts and events interesting? Are you enjoying the story? Are you eager to find out what will happen next?

Chapters 30–32 | Comprehension: Sequencing

  • Make a sequence chart showing how the relationship between Maniac and Grayson changed over time.
  • Have you ever lost someone you were very close to? Can you relate to how Maniac feels?
  • Predict what will happen to Maniac now that Grayson is gone.

Chapters 33–35 | Literary Elements: Setting

  • How do certain settings in the book inform the reader about characters?
  • Which major theme of the book is stressed in Chapters 33–35?
  • Make predictions about events to come based on the clues in this section.

Chapters 36–38 | Composition: Examining a Character’s Motivation

  • What motivates Maniac to perform the feats described in these chapters? What motivates most of Maniac’s behavior on a deeper level throughout the book?

Chapters 39–42 | Comprehension: Intertextual Connections

  • Identify shared themes and compare and contrast how they are presented in Maniac Magee and Bud, Not Buddy, “The Death of the Hired Man,” or another literary work.
  • Compare and contrast Maniac’s and Bud’s searches for home.
  • How are the influences of legends different and similar in Maniac Magee and Bud, Not Buddy?
  • How does prejudice affect the main characters and the people they meet in Maniac Magee and Bud, Not Buddy?
  • Choose a novel or poem that you have recently read and make connections to Maniac Magee. You might discuss themes, characters, plots, settings, or any other important aspects of the works.

Chapters 43–46 | Response to Literature: Analyzing the Story’s Ending

  • Draw a picture of a scene from today’s reading. What words does the author use to help you visualize this scene?
  • Why does Maniac walk away at the end of Chapter 44? How do you think you would have reacted in the same situation?
  • Why does Maniac tell Mars Bar that he can’t visit his house?
  • What do you think of the way Amanda treats Maniac when she comes to get him? How does it make him feel?
  • How do you feel about the way the author resolved the story’s conflicts? Would you have ended the book any differently?
  • Free write about your reaction to the book as a whole.

Planet Book Club's Review

We would like to introduce Planet Book Club's student book reviewers: Carmen and Charles.

Note to Our Readers: You will notice that the book gets two reviewers. Why? Because we believe two opinions are generally more helpful than one opinion. Remember that people have completely unique sets of experiences that shape how they think and feel about things. Something else to keep in mind: Even perfectly pleasant human beings can have cranky days, lazy days, and confused days. Let's face it—we can't be thoughtful, clear-headed, and fair every moment of our lives. Our reviewers, though friendly and occasionally brilliant, are only human. So, to be fair to you and to each book, we always give two points of view. That way, if one reviewer is having a bad day and seems completely out to lunch, you can perhaps connect with the other reviewer. Got it? Good.

Knowing something about the reviewers might help you to understand their opinions. So, let's get to know them:

Planet Book Club Reviewer Charles

Hey—this is Charles. I like to write poetry, play football, play drums, and cook. I'm really good at making spaghetti sauce. My goal is to be a famous author and chef someday and get invited to give talks and speeches all over the country. I would really like to read one of my poems at a presidential inauguration. I would also like to write a book that combines recipes, poetry, and short stories. That's what I have to say about Maniac Magee...

Charles: I will write my review of this novel in a poem/folk song of my own. I know you can't hear it, but I am strumming my mother's guitar:

Ode to Maniac Magee
by Charles

They call him Maniac Magee
Oh yeah—he has a gift to see
What is sort of cool and special
in folks like you and me.

He plays his sports just like a pro
And people he meets, he gets to know.
Nothing seems to frighten him.
It seems the world is his own show.

But troubles he has—they are many, not few.
He runs from some homes and lives in a zoo.
He learns about racism, loneliness, and death
And must have the strength of not one kid but two.

But living life as an outsider
makes him just a bit wiser.
He sees bad things for what they are,
and helps some folks to be warmer and kinder.

They call him Maniac Magee
Oh yeah—he has a gift to see
What is sort of cool and special
in folks like you and me.

The End
Copyright © 2001 by Charles the Poet

Planet Book Club Reviewer Carmen

Hello, my name is Carmen. I'm president of my own online club—Future Physicists of America. My other interests include collecting magnets, playing badminton, training my pet mice, and swing dancing. I admit—I'm difficult to please. I hate clutter and I want everything to make sense. If it can't be explained by a graph or spread sheet, it probably won't interest me. Well that's me in a nutshell. So let's get to the task at hand, here is what I think about the book...

Carmen: Do you know what a legend is? In English class we read about the legend of Paul Bunyon, a giant lumberjack with superhuman strength. People would sit around campfires telling stories about Paul, who might have been based on one man or several men. With each story, Paul would grow in size and his feats would become more astounding. In Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, twelve-year-old Jeffrey Magee becomes something of a legend in his own time. Some stories about Jeffrey have a bit of truth, while other stories about him are outrageously false. Spinelli's novel gives the real story behind this special kid. He may not completely live up to his legend, but he is unforgettable in his own way.

So why is Jeffrey, nicknamed "Maniac," so special? Why does he get such a reputation in Two Mills, the town he begins to call home? For one thing, Jeffrey is different from other children. And we all know people love to gossip about those who are different! He's lived an unusually independent childhood—after losing his parents he drifts from place to place, occasionally getting help from people but mostly taking care of himself. This leads me to the second reason why Jeffrey is different. Because he is often on the outside looking in, he can see things for what they are. For example, he is confused by the racism that divides the town of Two Mills. He also sees special qualities in people that others do not see. Being in a separate world means he is both innocent and wise when it comes to dealing with people. You will enjoy reading about the adventures of Jeffrey, a.k.a Maniac, who is both fun and heroic. You will also learn lessons about human nature right along with him.