By Tim Ballingall
“A couple of people truly remember, and here’s what they saw: a scraggly little kid jogging towards them, soles of both sneakers hanging by their hinges and flopping open like dog tongues each time they came up from the pavement” (Chapter 2, pg. 9).
That description is from the Newbury Medal-winning Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli. Spinelli was born Feb. 1, 1941, in Norristown, Pennsylvania, which Spinelli himself has openly cited as inspiration for the fictitious town of Two Mills, the racially divided setting of Maniac.
Spinelli’s writing career began by accident. In high school, as an athletic sixteen-year old, Spinelli dreamt of becoming a major-league baseball player. After one particularly exciting victory, Spinelli felt the urge to express his excitement in the form of poetry. Unbeknownst to him, his father mailed a copy of the poem to the local newspaper. Upon seeing his poem printed, Spinelli immediately knew, rather than one of a baseball player, a career as a writer would fit him like a glove.
The glove, however, required some breaking in. Spinelli’s first four manuscripts, written for adults, were rejected. His fifth and first-published novel, 1982’s Space Station Seventh Grade, was also intended for adults but better suited a children’s readership. His fourth published novel, 1990’s Maniac Magee, sealed his place among noteworthy authors.
Critics praise Spinelli’s twenty-six-book body of work for its humor, adventure, and subtle didacticism. Challenging issues on the minds of young adults—racism, sex, bullying, peer pressure—appear as both pills concealed in mashed potatoes and the mashed potatoes themselves.
At Gettysburg College, Spinelli wrote numerous short stories and edited Mercury, the college’s literary magazine. He graduated in 1963, going on to complete his MA at Johns Hopkins University in 1964. From ’66 to ’72, Spinelli served in the United States Navy Reserve. In 1977, he married fellow children’s book author Eileen Mesi. They have six children, some of whom have inspired a few of Spinelli’s books.