I was reading an article online about Barnes & Noble’s ‘free book’ reading program, and one of the books mentioned was Maniac Magee. I haven’t thought about that book in ages, but just seeing the title brought it back to my mind so vividly. I could hear the thumping of Maniac’s shoes as he ran, feel Amanda’s anger over the desecration of her beloved books, and see that knot hanging in the middle of the town. I was 11 when I first read Maniac Magee but I can still remember thinking as I got to the part about Cobble’s Knot, this is a great image for this book: Maniac picking apart the knot, because he’s the only one who can go between the black and white people. I wish I could say I got all the meaning behind the story, the racism and the homelessness, but as an eleven-year-old growing up in Nanticoke, I didn’t really have much firsthand experience with those issues at all. What I do remember is the way the strong, bright prose stayed with me, the endless running away Maniac did, Amanda’s frustration, the reality of the story as it related to my own life. I hadn’t seen racism or endured homelessness, but I understood being lonely even when you were surrounded by people… I wanted to weep with Amanda over the thoughtless depredations of her younger siblings… And I knew all about dealing with bullies like Mars Bar.
So I sat at my computer last night and I remembered all the other Newbery Medal books I loved, the stories that opened up to me in the sunny and cheerful Nanticoke library. These were the books that taught me to love words, the way they flow and how they sound; they tugged me insistently into new worlds, luring me in with that golden medal flashing on the front cover. The Witch of Blackbird Pond: Kit and Nat and wise old Hannah Tupper, poor unloved little Prudence, the harsh Puritans and the Connecticut landscape. I read The Witch of Blackbird Pond in two days flat, when my cousin Erica brought it down to the beach house in Longport because it was on her summer reading list. I couldn’t put it down. I can still hear Erica trying to convince me to come outside and play, and myself thinking that I just wanted to know if Kit escaped the fire, if Nat realized he loved her? Oh, Nat. Before Gilbert Blythe, Faramir, Mr. Darcy, or Jamie Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser, there was Nat: the first male character I ever remember falling in love with.
There are so many other books I could name. A Wrinkle In Time taught me to love fantasy, tales that swept from universes to middle-school classrooms, introducing me to misfits and close-knit families. Number The Stars, Bridge To Terabithia, Roll Of Thunder, Hear My Cry, The Giver… I can recite their names like rosary beads slipping through my fingers, but I could never count the hours I spent lost in their worlds, learning to build my own. The golden Newbery Medal on the front cover was like a key on a map. It whispered that I would find good strong words inside, stories worth savoring. It was a promise that was always kept.