In this novel of a young boy's attempt to unify the town of Two Mills, Spinelli juxtaposes three distinct themes: homelessness, racial prejudice, and literacy. The themes demonstrate Spinelli's realistic portrayal of the world as he sees it.
Throughout the novel, Spinelli focuses on home — or the lack of it. Maniac "was not born in a dump." In fact, the first three years of his life were spent in an average house with a mother and father. He has a home and a family — a place where he belonged. When his parents are killed, his home and family cease to exist. He lives with his Aunt Dot and Uncle Dan. Even though he lives in a house, he does not feel as though he belongs or as though he is "home." At the age of 11, Maniac chooses homelessness over a dysfunctional household.
Spinelli reinforces the significance of having a home — an address — when he says that Maniac, the legend, has a name, but not an official address with numbers. Maniac lives in the deer shed at the zoo. When Maniac is running from John McNab and the Cobras, he sees "the town whizzing past . . . a blur of faces, each face staring from its own window, each face in its own personal frame, its own house, its own address, someplace to be when there was no other place to be, how lucky to be a face staring out from a window. . . ." Maniac soon discovers a home for himself at the Beales and is happy to have an address. Despite the fact that the Beales are black and Maniac is white, he fits in and loves his new home. For a change, he is on the inside.
Because Maniac is homeless before living with the Beales, he knows how to survive on the streets. His notion of survival is a harsh contrast to the "cardinal rules of survival in the West End." which are simply to stay away from Finsterwald's and from high school boys. After experiencing racial discrimination, Maniac thinks he should leave the Beales because his presence is bringing them pain. He frustrates Amanda by refuting her argument about why he should stay at the Beales with his own argument about how he can survive on the streets. Maniac's feelings are hurt when Amanda tells him that he "can't get a library card without an address!"
Living in the band shell, Maniac has an address again — 101 Band Shell Boulevard — and a family in the form of Earl Grayson. Maniac doesn't attend school because to him, "school seems sort of like a big home, but only a day home. . . ." Maniac feels that, because you can't live in a school, you would need a night home with an address, a place "where everybody talks to each other and uses the same toaster" (in contrast to his aunt and uncle's house). Having a day home without having a night home doesn't make sense to Maniac.
When Grayson dies, Maniac is once again without a home and a family. He ends up staying at the McNabs' house, wondering why he is there. It is a roof over his head, but it isn't a home or a family. After Maniac manipulates Mars Bar into going to the McNabs', he walks around until he thinks he should go home — only to sadly remember that he doesn't have a home.
Maniac is found by Mars Bar and Amanda as he is sleeping once again in the buffalo pen at the zoo. Amanda insists that Maniac "come home." At long last, Maniac "knew that finally, truly, at long last, someone was calling him home."
Racial prejudice is another major theme of Maniac Magee. When Maniac jogs into Two Mills, he says "hi" to everyone he passes. The people are taken aback because "people just didn't say that to strangers, out of the blue." Spinelli suggests that people in today's society are alienated from one another and are strangers to each other, particularly along racial lines.
In Two Mills, the racial line, or boundary, between the blacks and whites is Hector Street. The blacks live in the East End and the whites live in the West End. Spinelli uses Maniac as a catalyst to unite the East End and the West End. When Maniac meets Amanda Beale, a black girl, she is suspicious of him. She wonders what a white kid is doing in the East End. Maniac is oblivious to the difference in their skin color. He and Amanda share an interest in books and become friends. Maniac lives with the Beales and is accepted as part of the family. The image of Maniac taking a bath with Hester and Lester Beale portrays the joining of the races to live together as family and Spinelli's ultimate hope for desegregation and an end to racial prejudice.
The color of someone's skin is not a problem for Maniac. He loves the colors of the people in the East End. He "[can't] see it, this color business." Nor does he see the dislike and hatred that is directed at him because he is white. He is called "whitey" by the old ragpicker, "fishbelly" by Mars Bar, and a racial epithet is scrawled on the Beale's house attacking Maniac because he is not black.
Spinelli portrays the ignorance people have about races different from their own. Maniac is harassed by Mars Bar and does the unthink-able — he takes a bite of Mars Bar's candy, biting over the exact spot where Mars Bar had bitten. It is as though "black germs" or "white germs" are deadly to the opposite race. Maniac educates Grayson about blacks, explaining to him that they are "regular people, like us." Similarly, the McNabs do not understand blacks. The McNabs believe blacks are "today's Indians" who are going to revolt and attack whites.
When Maniac races Mars Bar, and shows him up, Mars Bar's hatred towards whites becomes a hatred for one person: Maniac. Mars Bar is able to rise above race and see Maniac as a human being. This change in Mars Bar allows Maniac and Mars Bar to develop respect for each other and later, a trusting friendship.
Maniac tries to perform a "miracle" by taking Mars Bar to the McNab house. He realizes that the unification, or desegregation, of Two Mills will have to be accomplished by educating people about the opposite race. Even though Maniac's plan is not totally successful, it paves the way for better relations along Hector Street.
Literacy is the third significant theme that Spinelli addresses in Maniac Magee. Reading and learning is exhibited throughout the novel as something positive and good. Amanda Beale carries all of her books — her prized possessions — with her at all times in a suitcase so they will not be ruined by her younger siblings or dog. Maniac carries a book with him wherever he goes when he first arrives in Two Mills. When he is living with the Beales, he reads to Hester and Lester. Spinelli includes the destruction of Amanda's Volume A of the encyclopedia and portrays it as a tragedy. Later, living with Grayson, Maniac begins his own library, buying books about a variety of topics from the library. He tells Grayson that he wants all the books he can get because he's "learning everything!" Maniac even teaches Grayson to read and when Grayson reads his first book cover to cover, the accomplishment is worthy of a celebration.
Exposing his readers to the issues of homelessness, racial prejudice and discrimination, and the importance of literacy, Spinelli attempts to instill hope and enthusiasm for a society of more tolerant and understanding human beings.