How a Maniac Touched My Life

By Melissa Sandler 

“Write what you care about. That’s the only credential you need.”

Jerry Spinelli

     Remember those books from your childhood? The ones that compelled you to ignore the world and give up an entire day to reading them? The ones you read secretly at night by flashlight when you were supposed to have gone to bed? For me, Maniac Magee was that kind of book.

       Maniac Magee was written by Jerry Spinelli, Newbery award-winning children’s author and writer of some of the most beloved pre-teen books as Wringer and Stargirl. These aren’t books of the moment; they’re the books of adolescence, the kind that kids, parents, teachers and book experts all agree on. The kind that appear on lists of best young adult books of all time. Maniac Magee was the first book of Spinelli’s I ever read. It’s a poignant story about a town called Two Mills as seen through the eyes of the main character, Jeffrey Lionel “Maniac” Magee. While I may be a little hazy on the names of characters and the plot sequence, the setting of the book has always stuck with me.

     So last month when I got to meet Jerry Spinelli and hear him talk about his new book, The Warden’s Daughter (Random House Children’s Books), I chalked it up to one of the great perks of being part of the “Just the Right Book Podcast” team. The host of the event — and of our podcast– was Roxanne Coady, owner of the famous indie bookstore R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, CT. I’ve attended many bookstore events over the years, but this one, this time, my experience was very different.

     For me, bookstores have always been the ideal place to escape. When I was younger, it was the thing to do when you weren’t the kind of kid who hung out at the mall. I spent a lot of time at the Pickwick Bookstore in Nyack, NY. It’s where I bought the first of many Vonnegut books. There were a lot more bookstores around when I was growing up, and I certainly didn’t discriminate between indie or chain. They were all fine with me. I remember asking my dad to drop me off at the local Borders. He’d roll up right to the doors, and yell, “Get lost kid!” I now know he intended the double meaning. Years later when I moved to New York City, I spent a lot of time at the Barnes and Noble on 17th Street. I bought my favorite book of all time, Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol, at Strand. They should make it into a movie because I’m still trying to figure it out.

     I thought it would be nice to bring my son to R.J. Julia for the event. He hasn’t read Spinelli yet, but he’s a book lover in training.  I’m glad we arrived early, because R.J. Julia is such a beautiful store, you need time to soak up the rich woods, thick molding, area rugs, wide staircases, and a tin ceiling before you even check out the books. Wonderful handwritten book recommendations from the staff decorate the shelves on what seems like a never-ending string of pennant banners. The staff picks really impressed my son, and he ran from shelf to shelf to see what they said. I wasn’t sure if he was looking for a book he’d like to read or amazed the recommendations were handwritten.

     If you’ve read Jerry Spinelli, you know the setting of many of his books are inspired by Norristown, PA, where he grew up. As Spinelli tells it, he’s the Faulkner of Norristown. Many of Faulkner’s stories were patterned after Lafayette County, MS, and so it is with Spinelli, north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

     Spinelli talked about his book The Warden’s Daughter, and we learned it was inspired by a true story of a girl who lived at The Hancock County Prison, an abandoned jail in Norristown. The main character lost her mother when she was a baby. Her dad is the warden, so that’s where she grows up. It’s intriguing to imagine how to come of age and find freedom when you live in a prison. According to Spinelli, there’s perpetual talk of bringing this castle-like fortress back to life by turning it into offices, or a hotel, or something trendy to fit the arts district where it currently exists. But after hearing Spinelli express its beauty and symbolism, its significance to Norristown and his book, one only hopes it will continue being reclaimed by nature.

       Maniac Magee is also based on Norristown, and it plays an important role in illustrating the separation between blacks and whites in a town, both existentially and geographically depending on which side of the tracks you’re on. Maniac is new to the town, but he quickly establishes himself as a local legend due to his feats of athleticism and ability to untangle even the most complicated knot. Spinelli adds to Maniac’s mystique by equipping him with a lack of racial bias in a town that is clearly divided by race. Maniac is also homeless, and because no one knows where he lives, his status quickly turns to enigma. In one of the most touching moments of the book, Maniac eventually moves into a baseball equipment room and gives his new “home” an address and a number, 101. During his talk, Spinelli told us that on a visit back to Norristown, he met with a group of school kids at the real site in Norristown that served as inspiration for the book. To his surprise, someone had painted the number 101 on the door of the equipment room.

     Norristown is 15 miles from Philadelphia. It’s easy to see why Spinelli wrote so much and so vividly about it. It’s the quintessential U.S. suburb, the tiny, idyllic American town inside the snow globe. There’s a desire to see its perfection and even recognize something in our own hometown, but you don’t really know a town until you live in it.

     Spinelli spoke and answered questions about writing and his books for more than an hour, and then we picked up a copy of The Warden’s Daughter so we could have him sign it. I also brought along my original copy of Maniac Magee, indented spine, pages aged and browned, so I could get it signed. While we stood there, I listened to kids along the line comparing notes on all the books by Spinelli they’ve read, and a feeling of énouement overwhelmed me. It was like picking up a familiar scent in a place you’ve never been. It felt like being home.

     Meeting an author you love should be on every bucket list. It’s not on the level of bungee jumping, but there’s an excitement and anticipation to meeting an award-winning author who has reached out with his words and touched you. There’s a silent kinship in being at a bookstore surrounded by people who have read the exact words you have.

     Back in the car, I told my son, “You know, no matter where you go in life, books will always be there for you.” Then I added, “Get lost, kid!” He didn’t answer me, but someday he’ll know what I meant.

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