My state's suggested curriculum said that we read Jerry Spinelli's "Maniac Magee." Myself, along with about 60 6th graders, found that this book has so much to love about it, and I thought that you, dear readers, might just love it too.
The book starts out with a spunky tween named Jeffrey Lionel Magee, who is at his wits end living with an aunt and uncle who can't stand each other and refuse to talk. After being orphaned at only three-years-old, he's sent to live with a couple who should have divorced but instead chose to have two of everything (even down to the toaster). Eight years later, Jeffrey can't stand the tension they've put him in and decides to run away from home. Soon he finds himself in a city 200 miles away called Two Mills.
While Two Mills is fictional, the imagery will land you squarely in a picturesque Pennsylvania town that feels very real. One of the things that my students and I loved was Spinelli's keen talent for imagery. Couple that with his charismatic prose, and you're in for a real treat (along with a hankering for krimpets-Jeffrey's favorite food).
Once in Two Mills, Jeffrey makes his first friend --a girl named Amanda Beale. He sees her walking down the street carrying a suitcase and asks her if she's running away from home like him. Unexpectedly, it turns out that Amanda's younger siblings have the very bad habit of coloring on any paper they can find, leaving her to carry her most prized possessions, her books, with her everywhere she goes. Jeffrey begs to borrow a book, and for some reason, unknown to Amanda, she agrees to lend him one. Soon Jeffrey finds the very thing he's wanted all along, a family.
But, no story is complete without a problem for the main character to solve. When Jeffrey made his way into Two Mills, he missed the most important, but unspoken, rule to all of the town's inhabitants. The whites lived on the west side of Two Mills, and the blacks lived on the east side. So when the new white kid moves in with a black family, tension runs high on both sides of Two Mills, leaving our 12-year-old protagonist in the sticky mess of navigating a life going against social expectations.
I'll admit my apprehension in tackling such an emotional topic with newly minted middle schoolers. Still, this book not only lends itself well for discussing big ideas but also does so in a refreshing way. And if my praise isn't enough, all 60 of my 6th graders will happily recommend it to you as well. So if you've got some kiddos in your life, or you just want a delightful read, I would highly recommend picking up a copy of "Maniac Magee."