Jeffrey Lionel (Maniac) Magee
Maniac is an 11-year-old homeless orphan. After imparting the "birth scream of a legend" during his elementary school concert, Maniac runs from the dysfunctional home of his Aunt Dot and Uncle Dan. He shows up in Two Mills, "a scraggly little kid jogging . . . the soles of both sneakers hanging by their hinges and flopping open. . . ." He is friendly and open minded, saying "hi" to everyone he passes and ignoring the prejudice that exists in Two Mills.
In Maniac Magee, Spinelli has created a legendary character. When Maniac arrives in Two Mills, he performs extraordinary feats that amaze everyone, making him "cool times ten." With a book in one hand, he catches a football and punts it perfectly. Unafraid, he rescues a young boy from Finsterwald's yard. John McNab, a Little League pitcher who throws fastballs, does not intimidate Maniac. Maniac hits several home runs — breaking John's perfect record. Maniac also runs on the rails of the railroad track, and when he wanders — which he does often — he jogs. Maniac's reputation precedes him wherever he goes in Two Mills. Even though the feats that he performs make him "different" from others, Maniac appears unaffected by his talents.
Maniac makes a "home" for himself in the deer pen at the zoo. He never complains about his homelessness; however, his embarrassment and shame are evident when Mr. Beale drives him "home." Maniac gives Mr. Beale an address in the East End, an unrealistic address because only black people live in the East End. He is somewhat naïve because he is "blind" to the dividing line, Hector Street, which separates the East End where the blacks live and the West End where the whites live.
Maniac is a catalyst used by Spinelli to try to unite the East End and the West End. Maniac is oblivious to discrimination and prejudice. The Beales, a black family, invite him to live with them. Maniac loves his life with the Beales and "can't see this color business." Color means nothing to Maniac. "For the life of him he [can't] figure out why . . . East Enders call[ed] themselves black." He observes a variety of colors in the East End, but not black. Maniac is also unaware of the negative feelings each race has for the other. Consequently, he is unprepared when Mars Bar tries to intimidate and hurt him or when John McNab and the Cobras chase him into the East End and stand on Hector Street laughing at him. Maniac is perceptive, and soon realizes that what he is experiencing is discrimination. He is called "whitey," "honkeydonkey," and "fishbelly." When a racial epithet is written on the Beales' house, Maniac realizes that his presence is causing them pain, so he gives up his new home.
Maniac educates Grayson and the McNabs about black people, and he educates Mars Bar about white people. He realizes that prejudice and discrimination stem from ignorance.
Maniac has "bad luck with parents." His own parents were killed when he was three years old, he feels he has to protect the Beales, so he leaves their home; Grayson, who cares for him as his own child, dies. Maniac's response to his grief and despair is to run. Running relieves Maniac's pain. When Maniac can't alleviate his pain by running, he attempts to commit suicide; however, his compassion for others (runaways Russell and Piper McNab) does not allow him to take his life.
Throughout the novel, Maniac's love for books and learning is evident. Even though he doesn't attend school, he understands the importance of it. He borrows a book from Amanda Beale, buys books from the library, teaches Grayson to read, and performs amazing feats to bribe Russell and Piper to go to school.
Maniac's goal is to have a home — an address — a place to go where people love and talk to each other. He is proud of his address when he first lives with the Beales. When he lives with Grayson, and feels as though he is "home," he makes up an address for the band shell. And finally when Amanda takes him back to the Beales', Maniac knows that finally "someone was calling him home."
Amanda Beale is a young black girl who attends elementary school in the East End. She has a small library of books that she is "finicky about." To prevent her brother, sister, and dog from ruining her books, she carries them to school everyday in a suitcase. Her most prized possession is her Volume A of an encyclopedia.
Amanda is a friendly and generous person. Even though she is suspicious of Maniac, a white stranger, she loans him one of her books and later defends him and invites him to her home. She gives up her room so Maniac can live with her family and she shares her books with him.
Like Maniac, Amanda is not prejudiced towards the opposite race. She loves him as a brother despite his white skin color. Amanda tries to protect Maniac from the cruelty of discrimination by preventing him from seeing the racial epithet that is written on the side of the Beales' house. She is hurt when Maniac leaves. At the conclusion of the novel, Amanda accompanies Mars Bar to the zoo (where Maniac is sleeping) to urge Maniac to return to the Beales' house to live. She tells Maniac that he is going home with her and he is "going to sleep there tonight and tomorrow night and the night after that and every night. . . ."
John McNab is a "giant." He is five feet eight inches tall, weighs one hundred and seventy pounds, and is only 12 years old. He pitches for one of the Little League teams in Two Mills. He is "like a shark," because he strikes out all of the players on the opposing team with his fastball. When Maniac arrives in Two Mills, not only does he hit McNab's fast ball, but he hits home runs and humiliates McNab. To retaliate, McNab and his group of friends (they call themselves the Cobras) chase Maniac into the East End. McNab and the Cobras stop at Hector Street, the dividing line between West End where the whites live, and East End where the blacks live. They laugh, believing they have inflicted the worst possible punishment on Maniac.
Later in the novel, when Maniac returns Russell and Piper (John's younger brothers) to the McNab household, John is grateful. Maniac ends up staying at the McNabs' even though it is a chaotic and filthy environment. Maniac meets John's father and feels uneasy because John's father appears to be a racist. He also observes the McNabs and the Cobras building a fortress (a "pillbox") out of cement blocks — in the living room of the house. The fortress is a defense against "today's Indians," the blacks, when they revolt. Because of John's ignorance of black people and his father's racist influence, he is prejudiced toward black people.
When Maniac brings Mars Bar to the McNab house for Piper's birthday party, John attempts to intimidate Mars Bar and cause Mars Bar to initiate a fight. Maniac intercedes and Mars Bar criticizes the disgusting condition of the McNab house. Because Maniac defends Mars Bar, and because Maniac is viewed as a hero in Two Mills, it is logical to assume that after the interaction between John and Mars Bar, John views black people differently. However, Spinelli does not reveal any changes that take place regarding John's attitude toward black people; this issue is left to the reader to decide.
Mars Bar Thompson
Mars Bar Thompson is a young black boy who lives in the East End. He is a dynamic character. He changes during the course of the novel due to his experiences and actions. At first, Spinelli describes Mars Bar as a stereotypical tough-acting, not-afraid-of-anything bully. Mars Bar harasses Maniac by blocking his way and tries to intimidate Maniac with an intense glare. Mars Bar uses words spoken in the East End such as "bad" and "fishbelly." Mars Bar walks with a "super-slow dip-stride slumpshuffle," which is said to stop traffic because it takes him so long to cross the street.
Mars Bar dislikes Maniac because Maniac is white. Maniac confuses him because Maniac is not prejudiced toward him or afraid of him. When Maniac takes a bite of Mars Bar's candy — an unheard of act because blacks and whites never put their mouths where the other has been — Mars Bar is shocked by Maniac's nerve. Later, Spinelli implies that Mars Bar put the racial epithet on the Beales' house because he'd previously called Maniac "fishbelly" and because he is prejudiced against whites. As Maniac leaves town, Mars Bar and his group of friends heckle him.
Mars Bar is as ignorant of white people as John McNab is of black people. Mars Bar challenges Maniac to a race and loses. Because Maniac humiliates him by showing him up, Mars Bars' hatred is directed at Maniac rather than at the white race. Mars Bar begins to change when he can finally see Maniac as an individual. Afterward, when Maniac goads Mars Bar into being the "baddest" by crossing Hector Street and going to the West End, Mars Bar feels proud because his fame has spread to the West End. The Pickwell children know who he is and are respectful of him. The McNabs, on the other hand, are disrespectful. While Mars Bar is at the McNab house, Mars Bar is quite uncomfortable. "His jaw [is] clenched and his eyes [keep] straying to the gaping hole in the ceiling — and to the Cobras. . . ." Mars Bar is "as scared as any normal kid would be, but [is] not showing it . . ." Underneath Mars Bar's bravado, he is vulnerable just like anyone else. Crossing Hector Street with Maniac earns him Maniac's respect — not for what he does, but for the person he is.
Mars Bar begins running in the early mornings like Maniac. Soon they are running together, never talking or paying attention to the other. Mars Bar and Maniac become equals. Mars Bar forgets color, rescues Russell McNab from the trolley trestle, and takes the McNab brothers back home — to the West End. Mars Bar shows his concern and love for Maniac when he finds him sleeping in the buffalo pen at the zoo. Mars Bar even invites Maniac to live with him and his family. Spinelli creates the friendship between Mars Bar and Maniac to portray the beginning of desegregation in Two Mills.
Earl Grayson is a "grizzled" old man who finds Maniac at the zoo. Grayson takes Maniac to the band shell and feeds and clothes him. As Grayson and Maniac get to know each other, a devoted friendship develops between them. Grayson tells Maniac stories of having been a pitcher for a minor league baseball team and gives maniac his old baseball glove for Christmas. Grayson is embarrassed when he admits to Maniac that he is illiterate — he can't read or write. Because he trusts Maniac, he asks Maniac to teach him to read.
Grayson is also a character who is ignorant about black people. He asks Maniac questions about the Beales, and when Maniac tells him that, "they're just regular people like us," Grayson responds, in disbelief, "ain't that somethin'. . . ."
After Grayson reads his first book cover to cover, Maniac hugs him. Grayson feels "unburdened for the first time in thirty-seven years. . . ." He feels loved by Maniac, as a son would love his father.
Grayson and Maniac are two misfits who, as fate would have it, find each other. They bring out the best in each other and, due to the nurturing each provides the other, they shine and are happy with the nontraditional family they create. Grayson dies a happy man.