Maniac Magee is a scraggly, footloose 12-year-old orphan who lopes through the streets of a small town in Pennsylvania, a kid-size mixture of Paul Bunyan and ) the Scarlet Pimpernel. His real name is Jeffrey, but awestruck children call him ''Maniac'' because he can hit 30 home runs in a row, untie the most stubborn knot, and race faster than anyone going backwards . He sleeps in the buffalo pen at the zoo, makes friends with stray kids around town, and never goes to school.
But the main maniacal thing about Maniac is that he can't see the town's invisible but inviolable color barrier-he runs straight from the all white west side of town to the all-black east side. On the east side, he faces up to the baddest big kid and moves in with the family of the book-loving Amanda Beale. He loves the black community. Then some rough types start calling him ''fishbelly'' and Maniac runs again. This time he takes shelter with a slummy white family that turns out to be racist. By the end of this hyperkinetic novel, Maniac has heroically brought black and white children together and has become a legend in his own town.
Maniac Magee is prose on a pogo stick, bounding breathlessly from one outrageously exaggerated comic contretemps to another. The characters are engaging and the dialogue zings with slangy bravado. But when Spinelli gets serious, the plot turns to mush. Maniac is just too sweet and good, even for a legend. His tender relationship with an illiterate old baseball player verges on the embarrassing. And no kid who reads this book is going to believe that racism can be conquered so easily and sentimentally. Still, energy and good- heartedness make this novel most of the time an exhilarating read. B+