How much can happen to a child in the space of a few years of his life? A lot, if you are what legends are made of. The legend is Jeffrey Lionel Magee, aka Manic Magee, in the book of the same name, by Jerry Spinelli.

He was born in an ordinary house, of ordinary parents. But when a streetcar crashed into the river and killed them, Jeffrey’s life began to change. He was sent to live with his Uncle Dan and Aunt Dot, who lived together but shared nothing and never spoke to each other.

After eight years of this, one day Jeffrey started screaming during a school play. Then he ran out of the auditorium and never stopped.

Thus began his life as a homeless child. He found himself in the black section of town, with a girl dragging her entire library in a suitcase, to and from school. After he pleaded with her, Amanda finally slowed him down a book to read.

After that, the stories about him began. He was the only child … ever … ever! … who was not afraid to enter Finsterwald’s backyard. If you lost your baseball or model airplane because it flew over the fence into their backyard, you didn’t dare go in there to get it back. No one would deliver papers there. No one would clean that sidewalk, not even for a trillion dollars.

But Jeffrey Magee was not afraid. He rescued Arnold when some high school boys tried to throw him, screaming, over the fence into Finsterwald’s backyard. These things, plus his athletic prowess, were what started calling him “Maniac,” and the name stuck.

But he had no home. He jumped the fence at night to sleep with buffalo at the zoo. He snuck into Mrs. Pickwell’s house for dinner every once in a while, and no one thought anything was wrong, because they had so many kids to start with, and usually a couple of friends too, that they all thought he was just someone’s friend more.

More than anything, though, this is the story of Maniac and the friends he makes, the fights he fights, and the challenges he faces. So many things happen to him, there are more things here than an encyclopedia.

The chapters are short, and the way the people and events in your life intertwine as the book progresses is interesting. Regardless, Maniac keeps running, running, running, looking for a place and people to return home to.

This has been a popular book with children since it was published in 1990. In part, it’s just that a lot is happening, and in part it’s that Maniac and the things he does are so unusual. Children can relate to his feeling that he doesn’t belong anywhere, but he keeps trying.

It is a difficult book to categorize. It’s not really about sports, although there is some baseball and running. It touches on racism, but that’s not most of the story either. You will have to read Manic Magee, by Jerry Spinelli, yourself, to see what you think.