Book Reviews

Maniac Magee: A Review

They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump. They say his stomach was a cereal box and his heart a sofa spring.

They say he kept an eight-inch cockroach on a leash and that rats stood guard over him while he slept.

They say if you knew he was coming and you sprinkled salt on the ground and he ran over it, within two or three blocks he would be as slow as everybody else.

They say.

Maniac Magee by Jerry SpinelliBut before anyone said any of those things, Jeffrey Magee was just a normal boy. At least he was until he was orphaned and ran away to Two Mills a year after. No one knows why it took him a year to get to Two Mills. No one knows where the truth ends and the myth begins.

This is what we do know: Finsterwald is gone now but kids will never sit on those front steps. Two Mills still has a Little League and a band shell. Cobble’s Corner is still at the corner of Hector and Birch and the man behind the counter still has the clump of string. And grade school girls still sing about Jeffrey Magee, though they might not know him by that name.

If you want to know about Maniac, just run your hand under your movie seat and be very, very careful not to let the facts get mixed up with the truth in Maniac Magee (1990) by Jerry Spinelli.

Find it on Bookshop.

Maniac Magee was the 1991 Newbery winner and recently selected as number 17 in Betsy Bird’s 100 Greatest Children’s books poll over at her blog A Fuse #8 Production. It is also a surprisingly rich story given its 184 pages (paperback edition).

Part legend, part tall tale, Spinelli spins a yarn here about an ordinary boy who, through his own ingenuity and maybe a bit of luck, does extraordinary things–things that have the power to change the lives of those around him. But at its core, Maniac Magee is a story about a boy looking for a place to call home and a family of his own.

Spinelli skillfully captures the wonder of youth in his writing here. Maniac Magee is a wonderful, fun story that is more than ready for a book discussion.

Possible Pairings: Lucky Strikes by Louis Bayard, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, You Don’t Know Me by David Klass, Holes by Louis Sachar, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

Book Reviews

Stargirl: A Review

Stargirl by Jerry SpinelliOkay, I’m going to say it: Stargirl (2000) by Jerry Spinelli is a young adult classic (maybe even a children’s classic but that’s really a cataloguing issue that I am ill-equipped to discuss). (Find it on Bookshop.)

This designation raises the question: What makes a book (any book) a classic? For me it means a book that is timeless; something you can read years and years after it was written without the book losing its vibrancy. A classic also needs to have memorable writing and characters. It needs to speak to the reader. It needs to be a book that you enjoy more every time you read it or talk about it. Classics are the books you want to immerse yourself in: the books you wish you could live in with the characters that you wish were your friends.

I’ll say it again: Stargirl is a classic.

The story starts with Leo Borlock, who moved to Mica, Arizona at the age of twelve. Around the time of his move, Leo decided to start collecting porcupine neckties–no easy task, especially in Mica. For two years, Leo’s collection stood at one tie. Until his fourteenth birthday when an unknown someone presented Leo with his second tie, someone who was watching from the sidelines.

Mica’s unusual events don’t stop there. The story continues when Leo is a junior in high school. On the first day the name on everyone’s lips is Stargirl. Formerly home-schooled, Stargirl is a sophomore like no one Leo (or any of the other Mica students) has ever met before:

“She was elusive. She was today. She was tomorrow. She was the faintest scent of a cactus flower, the flitting shadow of an elf owl. We did not know what to make of her. In our minds we tried to pin her to corkboard like a butterfly, but the pin merely went through and away she flew.”

After finishing this book and recently reading Love, Stargirl (Spinelli’s newly released sequel), I have my own explanation: Stargirl is magical. She represents the kind of magic more people need in their lives: to appreciate the little things, to dare to be different, to be kind to strangers. The kind of magic where you still believe things can be wondrous.

In the story, Leo soon realizes that Stargirl might be someone he could love.

Unfortunately, high school students don’t always believe in (or appreciate) magic like Stargirl’s. As the school moves from fascination to adoration and, finally, to disdain Leo finds himself in an impossible position: forced to choose between the girl he loves and his entire lifestyle.

Technically speaking I love everything about this book: the characters, the story, the cover art. This one has the full package. Spinelli’s writing throughout the story is perfect. He captures Leo’s fascination with Stargirl as well as his equivocation as he is forced to choose between Stargirl and “the crowd.”

Stargirl is not a long book. The writing is cogent, sentences brief. Nonetheless, the text is rich. This book never gets old or boring. Spinelli creates a compelling, utterly new narrative here (with a charmingly memorable heroine).

Possible Pairings: Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, A Little Wanting Song by Cath Crowley, The Blue Girl by Charles De Lint, Paper Towns by John Green, The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, Love, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, Holes by Louis Sachar

Book Reviews

Living in the now: a review of Love, Stargirl

Love, Stargirl by Jerry SpinelliI just finished Love, Stargirl (2007) by Jerry Spinelli (find it on Bookshop). And I have not been able to pick up another book because I don’t want to lose the feeling of satisfaction that came from finishing it. At first, I didn’t think that this book could be as good as it’s “prequel” Stargirl, but now I’m hard-pressed to say which was better.

Love, Stargirl picks up where Stargirl left off. She has left Mica High in Arizona and, more importantly, her boyfriend Leo. The story reads as a year-long letter to Leo as Stargirl lives life as only she can and tries to understand how things went wrong with Leo and what her feelings are for him now.

Spinelli brings in a lot of memorable characters. My favorites are Charlie and Betty Lou. Betty Lou, particularly, has a special place in my heart because she gives some of the best advice I have ever heard when she tells Stargirl to live in the now and make the most of each today that she finds. Which, being Stargirl, she does. As the story progresses, Stargirl changes from a stranger to an integral part of her new hometown. Through small kindnesses, unexpected friendships, and leaving behind lots of oranges, Stargirl makes as much of an impression here in Pennsylvania as she did at Mica High–maybe even more.

The entire novel, especially the ending, is magical. I am as enchanted with Stargirl now as I was when I read Spinelli’s first novel about her. It was refreshing to see this amazing girl’s thoughts and hear things from her point of view (the first book is told in Leo’s POV). If you aren’t touched by Stargirl and her little kindnesses and the beauty of this book, then you are beyond all help. These books are fairly quick reads with straightforward prose, but both are the rare books that I feel strongly everyone should read. I think that if everyone tried to be a little more like Stargirl the world would be a better place.

Possible Pairings: Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, A Little Wanting Song by Cath Crowley, The Blue Girl by Charles De Lint, Paper Towns by John Green, The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, Holes by Louis Sachar