Orphan Jeffrey Lionel “Maniac” Magee first raced onto the children’s book scene in spring 1990. The tall tale of a boy known for his fast feet and his ability to bridge the bitter racial divides of a Pennsylvania town drew vast audiences and critical acclaim before it netted author Jerry Spinelli the 1991 Newbery Medal. To date, Maniac boasts sales of 3.3 million copies. This month, Little, Brown is releasing a 25th-anniversary edition of the book featuring a new introduction by fellow Newbery Medalist Katherine Applegate as well as a Q&A between the two authors.
Spinelli says it’s difficult to pinpoint one specific spark for the book, but “I would say the best I can do to identify an inspiration is to recall a pop song by Martha and the Vandellas, called ‘Dancing in the Streets.’ I loved it as a tune and not long after I began loving it as a message. It became a personal anthem for me, a vision of how things could be. That was the emotional kernel, and it seemed to patch itself onto a more generalized thought about my next book.” Spinelli says he had been kicking around the idea of writing about “a kid who is a hero to other kids.” Pairing that thought with the pop song, he notes, “The two coming together was a platform for a story.”
Armed with a creative roadmap of sorts, Spinelli set off on his novel, and his thoughts naturally turned to his own childhood. “Yes it’s that cliché ‘write what you know,’ ” he says, “And I extended that to ‘write about where you came from.’ ” In Spinelli’s case he recalled 1950s Norristown, Pa., (a version of which became the fictional Two Mills) where he grew up – a place with clearly defined racial divisions. “I played with a lot of black kids when I was little. I didn’t read because I was always out playing ball; I wanted to be a basketball player. I took pride, even at the age of 12, at being the only white friend invited to my black friend’s birthday party. I really was comfortable with every shade of kid. That was the beginning of a sensitivity, and I had no idea I was building an archive of memories and experiences that I would tap into decades later.”
But when Spinelli started to put things down on paper – literally, writing about 80 pages longhand – “The story was out of control,” he says. “I was trying to make my character a superkid, and it was too unfocused.” When a second attempt, another 100 pages or so, proved similarly frustrating, Spinelli put the project away and out of his mind. “Then a funny thing happened,” he says. “It was the only authenticated visit from the muse in my life. Some words just came to me: ‘They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump.’ They landed on my pencil. I wrote them down and read them to my wife Eileen. She said, ‘Oh my God. That’s it!’ And I followed those first words into the story.”
After about a year, Spinelli turned in the manuscript to his then-editor John Keller, former president and publisher of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. “I didn’t get a sense of ‘hold the presses,’ ” says Spinelli. But Keller and Betsy Groban (now senior v-p and publisher of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers; then marketing director at Little, Brown) quickly began to realize there was something different about the project. As Spinelli remembers the story, Keller and Groban were on a flight to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair when Groban read the manuscript and remarked, “John, do you know what we have here?” According to Spinelli, “That was my first indication it was a special book.”
Readers, reviewers, and a closed-door panel of librarians agreed, naming Maniac Magee the Newbery winner of 1991, a development that stunned Spinelli. “Our living room looked like a funeral parlor it was so filled with flowers,” he says, of the hours and days following the announcement. “Suddenly you’re the grand marshal of your own parade. But after a while, it swallows you whole. You play the game for a while and wave from the convertible, but then you need to stop the car and get out.” As requests for appearances flooded in, Spinelli knew he had to start saying no to things and carefully schedule the time away from his desk. “It’s great to give some time to appreciate it and it was fun,” he says, “but if you value what you do, you need to get off that and get back to work.”
After Keller retired in 2001, Alvina Ling, v-p and editor-in-chief at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, became Spinelli’s editor. Though she admits she hadn’t carefully tracked Maniac’s approaching 25th birthday, she was buoyed by the enthusiasm of the sales and marketing teams to produce an anniversary edition. Ling approached Applegate about writing an introduction and then extended that invitation to include creating a Q&A, as it turned out that Applegate was a deeply devoted fan of the book. “It felt like it was kismet, like it was meant to be,” Ling says. The new paperback also features a slightly tweaked cover image of a boy’s sneaker-clad feet, mid-run.
As the new edition hits shelves, both Ling and Spinelli believe that the book is still relevant. And timely, in light of recent racial violence in communities around the country. “One sad reason the book has stood the test of time is that racism still exists and is so prevalent,” says Ling. “It’s such a beautiful book and it addresses the issue in a sensitive way. It’s an entry point for so many people.” But there are plenty of other reasons that readers keep flocking to the title—the gold Newbery seal notwithstanding. “It’s powerful and moving,” adds Ling. “But it’s also a funny tall tale. And it’s just a really enjoyable book to read.”
Maniac fans will be pleased to know that 25 years later Spinelli is returning to the setting of the fictional Pennsylvania town of Two Mills for his next novel tentatively titled The Warden’s Daughter (Knopf, not yet scheduled). “I’m sort of in the final stages,” he says. “It’s about a girl who grows up in prison because her father is the warden of the county prison and their living quarters are in the prison. It takes place during the summer preceding her 13th birthday in 1959 and then comes up to date.”
As his writing comes a bit full circle, back to Two Mills, Spinelli reflects on Maniac Magee’s life over the past quarter century. “I know how lucky I am,” he says. “I know how difficult it is to make a living writing stories. I thought I had hit my zenith when I had more than one book published. I was drenched in appreciation and gratitude.”
But some of his favorite and most meaningful recollections of the effect Maniac has had are not splashy moments. He relates the story of a Georgia teacher who was reading the book to her students when the bell rang for lunch. “They begged her not to stop. They gave up their lunch period to hear more,” Spinelli says. He is also proud of the fact that the government of South Africa purchased 600 copies of Maniac in the early 1990s in an effort to promote the anti-Apartheid movement. “That’s what it’s about,” Spinelli notes. “Sure, it’s nice to get a royalty check, but the small moments like that, that’s the payoff.”