by Jerry Spinelli
(Coach J’s Choice)
The 63rd winner of the Newbery Award, Maniac Magee is a short book that packs a powerful storyline. As an adult, I can read this book in a single sitting, but still marvel at the main character, Maniac (few knew him as ‘Jeffrey Lionel’) Magee. If Harry Potter had been a muggle, he might have been Maniac Magee. After running away from his Aunt & Uncle who fostered him following his parents death, Maniac settles in the town of Two Mills. Maniac is far from innocent in the suffering department, but when it comes to racial divisions, he seems to be clueless. In his wholesomeness comes opportunity. Maniac is devoid of the anger and hate generally associated with racial tensions, and by reacting from a place of love, compassion, and curiosity, Maniac puts himself in a position to transcend race.
“Inside his house, a kid gets one name, but on the other side of the door, it’s whatever the rest of the world wants to call him.”
These first three favorites are not presented in any order of preference, but instead, represent three books that I have carried with me since elementary school. Dear Mr. Henshaw got the nod for first spot in honor of the late Cleary, and it has only been recently that I discovered (and devoured) the three books that expand and continue the story from Lowry’s The Giver. These books are beautiful for their plots, but also for their ability to connect with readers of all ages. Another one to add is Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl to the list of books which I did not read until recently; as a father, I was strongly moved by Stargirl’s introduction to the world, for better and worse. These writers have raised a generation who now looks to turn the world over to their children. It is these stories that inspire us to introduce knowledge to our youth who in turn will sculpt a more beautiful future.
Bridge to Terabithia
by Katherine Patterson
Between 1972 and 2021)
If Maniac Magee is an early manifestation of Harry Potter, I could think of this story as an early John Green novel. Strong main characters who develop and change as they learn about themselves, and help each other discover who they are. Jess and Leslie forge a make-believe kingdom (Terabithia) where we are invited to grow with them. Anyone who spent time in the woods as a kid can easily relate to the freedom and connections forged unencumbered in nature. It is in our childhood “play-world” where we learn the lessons that help us cope with our interactions in the real-world.
“It was up to him to pay back to the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned him in vision and strength.”
I haven’t read this book in at least two decades, and just writing this review has left me heavy with the emotion of this story. As much as this story is a fantasy, it is as much a tragedy. For me, the best books are those that evoke emotions. Of course, I hope for happy emotions, but it is only the strongest of writers that can build characters who you feel so deeply connected to, that their tragedy becomes your own suffering. Katherine Patterson’s place as a two-time Newbery Winner is well-deserved (Jacob, Have I Loved, 1981), and the memories I have of this book are as strong as if I had just experienced them this year.
The Voyages of Dr. Doolittle
by Hugh Lofting
Between 1922 and 1971)
The 2nd winner of the Newbery Award, The Voyages of Dr. Doolittle gets the obligatory early Newbery Winner disclaimer. This story is ridiculously incredulous. Just go to the Wikipedia page to get the full synopsis of the many different interactions Dr. Doolittle has with the different animals. SPOILER ALERT: The ending was memorably crazy for me. Dr. Doolittle (who if you don’t know, has the ability to talk to animals) decides it’s time to head home. Having survived several near-tragedies, he just gets his whole crew to climb inside the shell of a giant snail, who takes them from South America back to England along the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, a trip that takes less time than you think because the snail is so gigantic.
“Lions and tigers, the Big Hunters, should never, never be seen in zoos.”
While Maniac Magee is a book that attempts to break-down racial stereotypes, one of the main characters of this story is uncomfortably stereotypical. I won’t elaborate on the specifics, but what was most surprising about this book (not as much on reflection, but I was a bit under-informed on the story before reading it) is the feeling that animals deserve protection and status in the natural world. When I think of 1923, I think of a conflicted movement where National Parks were being created by leaders who also treasured big game hunting, as well as Ringling-Barnham Bailey’s heyday, not social movements towards animal rights. However, it does make sense. If you could talk to animals, they would probably ask you to stop treating them like a commodity and more like a cohabitant on this planet.