I was recently telling my boyfriend that I think I was probably most rational when I was a kid, and he said, immediately, “Sure. Everyone was. And becoming an adult is getting that back again.” Which is something that I’d never thought about in those terms, but I think that may be a true statement–and why, again and again, I’ll read or reread a book that’s won the Newbery Medal and feel like nothing better has ever been written. And although I’m not quite a reference book for mature behavior, I think that children’s books are incredibly mature and honest about the world in a way that books about adults can’t be. Maybe it’s because these stories are aimed at a group that hasn’t ever read a book review or taken a class on literature—kids’ tastes are more completely their own than they’ll ever be again—or the fact that kids are, if not forced, at least regularly urged to read, which might make them the best audience of all—but when these books are good they’re good. I spent last evening eating cinnamon toast for dinner and reading Maniac Magee (which won its Newbery in 1991) and I’m not sure if wine and Don Delillo could have possibly made me happier. And I really miss wine.
There’s Jerry Spinelli’s style, which is exuberant and sandlotty: “It was a hot day in August. So hot, if you were packing candy, you had soup in your pocket by two o’clock. So hot, the dogs were tripping on their own tongues.” He tells stories exactly how you want to hear them, with a child or a wacky-grandpa’s touch of gleeful exaggeration. But the story of Maniac Magee is really the thing.
It’s about this kid whose parents die, whose uncle and aunt neglect him, and one day he rips out of the school play and runs “out the side door and into the starry, sweet, onion-grass-smelling night.” He comes to this town in Pennsylvania that’s divided into the black East End and the white West End and, living with the deer in the town zoo, begins to turn into a legend. He runs all day on the rail (the rail) of the train tracks. He shows up everywhere, intercepting a varsity touchdown pass with one hand, striding nonchalantly into Old Man Finsterwald’s backyard, untying the legendary Cobble’s Knot—and when a black family takes him in, he starts ruffling feathers around town. People start harassing his family, so he leaves, and, homeless again, makes friends with a burned-out ex-pitcher named Grayson. Grayson teaches him how to play baseball, and Maniac teaches him how to read, and Grayson moves into the baseball equipment room where Maniac’s been crashing and they make a home, with a hot plate and a Christmas tree and all that—and then Grayson dies, and Maniac takes off running again. And so on. Eventually he forces the town to somewhat of a racial reconciliation.
The story is lightly drawn enough so that you don’t realize why this story is so affecting. You don’t think about the fact that Maniac’s heart is more extraordinary than his kid-legendary feats, or that the reason why Maniac is so curiously free is that he has such strange, wonderful priorities: to not burden anyone, to help people who need it, to eat Butterscotch Krimpets, to refuse to care about anything that doesn’t make sense to him. I really, really love this book. If you still have it around, reread it.