Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Norristown, Montgomery County
Children's author Jerry Spinelli, recipient of the 1991 Newbery Medal for Maniac Magee, was born in Norristown in 1941.
Awards: Newbery Medal
Jerry Spinelli was born in Norristown in 1941. After graduating from Gettysburg College in 1963, he earned his Masters of Arts degree at Johns Hopkins University. Spinelli spent nearly twenty years writing novels after graduating college, none of which were published. In 1977, he married Eileen Mesi Spinelli. In 1982, his first book, Space Station Seventh Grade, was published. In 1991, Spinelli won the Newbery Medal for Maniac Magee. At the time of this writing, he writes from the home he shares with his wife in Wayne, Pennsylvania.
Jerry Spinelli was the first born of two sons born to Louis Spinelli and Lorna Mae Bigler Spinelli on February 1, 1941 in Norristown, Pennsylvania, on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Spinelli’s childhood in Norristown—full of sports, races, bicycles, yo-yos, girls, and comics—would provide the whimsical backdrop to and the inspiration for his poignant and celebrated children’s books.
Throughout his youth, Spinelli never imagined himself as a future writer and never read more than the literature printed on the back of cereal boxes. Instead, he dreamed of becoming a cowboy. He loved country tunes, Roy Rogers, and cowboy apparel, and sporting spurs on his heels in grade school. By the time Spinelli reached age eleven, though, the cowboy phase had passed and was replaced by a passion for sports, baseball especially. During his adolescence, Spinelli fantasized about playing professional shortstop, preferably for the New York Yankees. It was not until his junior year of high school that he wrote a poem that would change his dream of homeruns and the World Series to a dream of bestsellers and, eventually, a Newbery Medal.
In 1957, while Norristown was celebrating after the victory of an intense football battle, sixteen-year-old Spinelli was at home, writing a poem about the event. He titled the short piece “Goal to Go,” gave it to his father to read, and then forgot about it. Louis Spinelli recognized his son’s potential and submitted the poem to the Norristown Times-Herald. About a week later, to Jerry Spinelli’s surprise, “Goal to Go” graced the front page of the sports section. The community loved the poem and praised Spinelli. It was the start of his writing career.
After graduating high school, Spinelli pursued writing at Gettysburg College where he received his Bachelor of Arts degree in English in 1963. At Gettysburg, he began writing his first short stories and was the college’s literary magazine editor. A year later, Spinelli received his Masters of Arts degree from Johns Hopkins University, where he studied creative writing. He was also a student at Temple University during this time. After college and serving six months on active duty with the U.S. Naval Air Reserves, Spinelli began writing his first novel in between his work shifts as an editor for a department store magazine. Nearly two decades would pass, however, before Spinelli would publish his first book.
In 1977, Spinelli married Eileen Mesi, a writer and mother of six, and settled into his role as suburban husband and father. Despite working a full time job as a writer and editor at the Chilton Company in Radnor, Pennsylvania, Spinelli would come home at night, fill his ears with cotton to drown out the noise of half a dozen children, and write. He refused to give up on his high school dream, even though his first four novels, thirteen years of work, were never published. “I wrote four of them. Four big-deal, important, grownup, adult novels,” Spinelli wrote in an autobiography. “Nobody wanted them.”
The inspiration behind Spinelli’s first published book, Space Station Seventh Grade, came from a small, domestic dispute in the Spinelli household over chicken wings. After dinner one night, Jerry hid five leftover chicken wings in the refrigerator so he could take them to work the next day. When he awoke in the morning, the chicken was mysteriously gone and only the picked over bones remained. Spinelli knew that one of his six kids had stolen his wings, although none would confess to the crime. That day, instead of eating lunch, he began to write—“One by one my stepfather took the chicken bones out of the bag and laid them on the table. He laid them down real neat. In a row. Five of them”—the opening sentences to Space Station Seventh Grade. It was, or so Spinelli thought, his fifth adult book. In 1982, it became his first published kid’s book and the start of his career as a children’s author.
Space Station Seventh Grade, Spinelli’s favorite among his works, catalogs thirteen-year-old Jason Herkimer’s awkward transition into adolescence, his struggle to accept divorce and a new stepfather, and his first crush. To write the story, Spinelli observed the brood of young adults in his household, but also heavily drew upon his own experience, recalling childhood feelings, stunts, and places. “Spinelli does not mince words when relating how teenagers act and think,” wrote Rosemary Chance, St. James Guide to YoungAdult Writers contributor. Spinelli’s refusal to censor the rawness of teenage life received varying criticisms, from inappropriate and appalling to “sensitive and always uproariously funny” as Marilyn H. Karrenbrock wrote for the The ALAN Review. “In my mind I was writing an adult book,” Spinelli told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “There was no reason to give any consideration to censoring myself. It’s a totally honest book.”
At the age of forty-one, Spinelli had finally achieved the dream he had been working towards since he was sixteen: he was an author. His next book, entitled Who Put That Hair in MyToothbrush?, a tale of sibling rivalry published in 1984, continued to entertain readers with its dead-on portrayal of young adulthood. In 1986, Spinelli wrote Jason and Marceline, a sequel to Space StationSeventh Grade. Although a published writer, Spinelli was not yet nationally known and continued to work at the Chilton Company to support his large family. In 1989, he finally decided to quit his stable job of twenty-three years and take a gamble on his success as a full-time author. Shortly after, a slew of financial burdens plagued the Spinellis. “These days, we refer to that as Black Wednesday,” Spinelli confessed. “Most people don’t understand what a miracle it is to make a living, to actually pay the bills and feed your family writing stories.”
In 1990, Spinelli received the phone call that would enable him to permanently live that miracle. His latest book, Maniac Magee, had just won the 1991 Newbery Medal, the highest honor in children’s literature. “Within a couple of days your living room looks like a funeral home,” Spinelli said about winning the award. “There are so many flowers, many of them from all those people who sent you rejection slips.”
In Maniac Magee, Spinelli breaks from the realism of his previous novels and enters into the mythic realm. In the book, Jeffrey Lionel Magee is a drifting, eleven-year-old boy capable of astonishing athleticism, running faster and hitting a baseball farther than any other kid. Orphaned at age three, Jeffrey lives in his aunt and uncle’s broken home until he runs away to Two Mills, a segregated town with blacks living on the east end and whites the west. After witnessing his physical feats, the kids of Two Mills bestow Jeffrey with the nickname “Maniac,” ensuring his legend in the town. Maniac crosses the race boundary when he is taken in by the Beales, a black family. Some of the black kids do not accept Maniac on the east end and bully him into leaving the Beales. He then finds himself staying on the west end with the bigoted McNabb family, where he is chastised for associating with the Beales. By making friends and enemies on both sides of Two Mills, Maniac weaves the lives of the black and white families together. Spinelli’s parable tackles racism in a way that is captivating for children to read. Booklist reviewer Deborah Abbott, claimed Maniac Magee is “an energetic piece of writing that bursts with creativity, enthusiasm, and hope for the future; in short, it’s a celebration of life.”
Spinelli’s own interpretation of Maniac Magee is slightly different than the majority’s reading of the tale. In an interview with Mary Cappello in 2007, Spinelli said, “Maniac Magee, almost nobody knows this, I mean, I began reading reviews when it came out and I was told that this was a book about homelessness and racism and so forth and all those things are true I suppose… operationally, functionally, from my perspective, as I was writing it, what it is is a book about childhood recollected.”
Maniac Magee also earned Spinelli the 1990 Boston Globe-Horn Book, the 1993 Parents’ Choice, and the 1993 Pennsylvania Young Readers’ Choice Awards, among others across the country. In his 1990 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award acceptance speech, Spinelli answered a question that had been asked to him by his librarian: “were you Maniac?” “I sure was,” Spinelli said. “Weren’t we all?”
After securing his place among children’s literature greats with Maniac Magee, Spinelli continued to write grade school favorites from his home in Pennsylvania. He published Crash and Wringer in 1996 and 1997, respectively. Crash told the tale of “Crash” Coogan, a boy with Maniac Magee’s athletic prowess, but none of his humanity. Wringer, a story about peer pressures, conformity, and tradition, won Spinelli the Newbery Honor in 1997. In a review of Wringer, Rosemary Chance wrote, “Even with such momentous conflicts driving the narrative, Wringer manages to evidence Spinelli’s trademark humor… It takes special talent to combine humor with sensitivity, but Spinelli manages this challenging combination well.”
In 2000, came Stargirl, another novel that examines the social conformity and the rejection of individualism that plagues young adults. The book tells the saga of Susan Caraway, self-named “Stargirl,” in a parable style that echoes Maniac Magee. “…Stargirl, is, in my view, about someone who is perhaps a throwback to the way we were, or maybe, I see it as an almost evolutionary story, as someone who is one half-step perhaps ahead of the rest of us, and someone to whom the rest of us hopefully, someday, will catch up,” Spinelli told Cappello in 2007. Spinelli’s inspiration for Stargirl’s character, the real-life person the world hopes to catch up to, is his wife, Eileen Spinelli.
The stay-true-yourself-message of Stargirl spoke to female teens across the country and inspired a tidal wave reaction. In 2004, the first Stargirl Society was formed in Kent, Ohio to support creative expression, acts of kindness, and individuality. Since then, Stargirl Societies have popped up everywhere—even as far away as Italy. “I was impressed and heart-warmed at the idea that my little story provoked such a response from those kids,” Spinelli said while visiting the founding Stargirl Society in 2007. “I personally find the Stargirl Societies so appealing and meaningful that I can imagine them becoming a legacy that I cherish more than the book itself.”
In 2003, Spinelli wrote a story that broke the pattern of his previous novels. He published Milkweed, a story about a kid’s perspective of escaping the Holocaust. Milkweed surprised readers and reviewers alike and many wondered where Spinelli’s motivation for the tale came from. According to Spinelli, he simply followed his own golden rule of writing and wrote what he cared about. “It seems to me if you write what you care about, you’re giving yourself the best chance to touch a reader,” Spinelli told Cappello. “And I think that’s where it begins.”
Throughout his decade-spanning writing career, Spinelli’s ability to understand kids has impressed and awed readers. Even now, as Spinelli nears the seventy-year mark, his stories about puberty, conformity, bullies, and maniacs continue to relate to adolescents. Many assume that his kid’s intuition comes from raising his own six children and being grandpa to sixteen others. Spinelli’s real insight comes from trips down memory lane. “More often than not, my reference point is not on the kids or the grandkids, but myself when I was that age. I remember the days at Hartranft Elementary and Stewart Junior High in Norristown,” Spinelli told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2008. To Spinelli, a true kid-at-heart, he has not been writing books for kids all these years. “I write about kids,” Spinelli insists, “and that’s a huge distinction as far as I’m concerned.”
Currently, Hollywood producers are working to adapt three of Spinelli’s books, Stargirl, Wringer, and Milkweed to film, while Maniac Magee made it to the big screen in 2003. His 2007 novel, Eggs, is now a play. Spinelli’s most recent work is Smiles to Go, published in 2008.
Today, technology has forced Spinelli to change the way he writes. “I used to write longhand,” Spinelli told reporter Sandra Boodman. “I use a computer now, but I was one of the last ones to do that.” When Spinelli is not writing from the home he shares with Eileen in Wayne, Pennsylvania, he is scrambling after their grandkids, visiting his hometown, and on Halloween he’s handing out books, not candy, to the trick-or-treaters going through their cowboy and baseball player phases.
Young Adult Novels
Space Station Seventh Grade. Boston: Little, Brown, 1982.
Who Put That Hair in My Toothbrush? Boston: Little, Brown, 1984.
Jason and Marceline. Boston: Little, Brown, 1986.
Maniac Magee. Boston: Little, Brown, 1990.
There’s a Girl in My Hammerlock. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.
Crash. New York: Random House, 1996.
The Wringer. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
Stargirl. New York: Random House, 2000.
Loser. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
Milkweed. New York: HarperTrophy, 2003.
Eggs. Boston: Little, Brown, 2007.
Smiles to Go. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.
Knots in My Yo-Yo String. New York: Knopf Books, 1998.