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Jerry Spinelli (1941-) - Sidelights

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Best known for his Newbery Award-winning book Maniac Magee, as well as for the novels Stargirl, There's a Girl in My Hammerlock, and Loser, Jerry Spinelli's written work is distinguished by his accurate and humorous depiction of adolescent life. Washington Post Book World contributor Deborah Churchman deemed Spinelli "a master of those embarrassing, gloppy, painful and suddenly wonderful things that happen on the razor's edge between childhood and full-fledged adolescence." While some parents may cringe at his characters' ribald jokes and risqué topics of conversation, Spinelli's approach has earned the author a loyal following among young readers. Critics maintain that Spinelli is popular because he accepts kids for what they are. The author "neither judges nor berates but shakes everyone up in his own bag of tricks and watches to see what will spill out," explained Ethel R. Twichell in a Horn Book review of Spinelli's Dump Days.

Growing up in Norristown, Pennsylvania, Spinelli's first claim to fame was that a local paper published a poem he wrote about a hometown team's football victory. Although an early dream had been to become a cowboy, this experience prompted Spinelli to reconsider his career plans, and began to seriously consider writing as an option. However, he did not discover his narrative voice until he was married and a parent: One of his children's feats—pilfering food Spinelli was saving for his own snack—became the inspiration for his first novel, Space Station Seventh Grade. Spinelli once remarked that when he started writing about youngsters he began "to see that in my own memories and in the kids around me, I had all the material I needed for a schoolbagful of books. I saw that each kid is a population unto him- or herself, and that a child's bedroom is as much a window to the universe as an orbiting telescope or a philosopher's study."

Space Station Seventh Grade recounts the everyday adventures of middle-schooler Jason Herkimer. With seemingly mundane events—such as masterminding classroom pranks and chasing after girls—the author traces Jason's awkward entrance into adolescence. Although Jason seems impulsive and has a penchant for getting into trouble because he speaks before he thinks, he must also contend with more serious issues, including coping with divorced parents and accepting a stepfather. Some critics disapproved of the crude humor in the novel, but judged that Spinelli accurately represents the adolescent milieu. Voice of Youth Advocates contributor James J. McPeak called the story "first-rate," and Twichell, writing in Horn Book, deemed Space Station Seventh Grade a "truly funny book."

Jason and Marceline is a sequel to Space Station Seventh Grade. Now a ninth grader, Jason continues to cope with the daily trials of adolescence, such as his attempt at sparking a romance with Marceline, a trombone-playing classmate who once beat him up. Marceline initially rejects Jason's advances when he exhibits the same bravado and macho behavior his friends employ in their romantic conquests. When he shows his caring side in a heroic lunchroom incident, however, she forgives Jason's antics and their relationship progresses. With Jason and Marceline Spinelli earned praise for pointing out that respect and friendship are necessary in a loving relationship between people of any age. Writing again in Horn Book, Twichell noted that Jason "truly sounds like a teenager."

In Who Put That Hair in My Toothbrush? chapters alternate between the first-person narration of Megin and Greg, siblings who are two years apart and who have vastly different personalities. Greg is preoccupied with a possible romance, while sports-crazy Megin secretly befriends an elderly woman confined to a nursing home. The pair fights constantly, but when a crisis nearly erupts they join forces. Critics appreciated Spinelli's humorous depiction of sibling rivalry mixed with his inclusion of weighty themes. In a review for Horn Book, Karen Jameyson credited the author with a "sure ear for adolescent dialogue" and called the novel "hilarious."

Maniac Magee, Spinelli's Newbery Medal winner, is about an athletically gifted boy whose accomplishments ignite legends about him. Jeffrey "Manic" Magee is a caucasian orphan who has run away from his foster home. His search for a loving household is problematic in the racially divided town of Two Mills. Maniac's first stay is with a black family, but after racist graffiti is spray-painted on their house, he leaves. He spends several happy months with an old man in a park equipment room, but the man eventually dies. Maniac then moves in with a white family, but finds the house filled with roaches, alcohol, and cursing. Maniac then attempts his greatest feat: initiating better relations between blacks and whites in Two Mills.

Although some critics felt that Spinelli dilutes his message about the absurdity of racism by presenting Maniac Magee as a fable, others cited the author's focus on such an incident as noteworthy. Alison Teal, in her New York Times Book Review appraisal, judged that "Spinelli grapples . . . with a racial tension rarely addressed in fiction for children in the middle grades," and Washington Post Book World contributor Claudia Logan lauded Spinelli's "colorful writing and originality."

In Crash a smug jock is transformed into a more empathetic young person. Seventh-grader Crash Coogan has the athletic ability of Maniac Magee but nowhere near the same sensitivity to others. He bullies kids smaller than he, including Penn Webb, a target since first grade; he even threatens a girl who rejects his romantic advances. Crash is competitive about everything, and it is not until his beloved grandfather suffers a life-threatening stroke that the teen begins to show some humanity. A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that, "without being preachy, Spinelli packs a powerful moral wallop, leaving it to the pitch-perfect narration to drive home his point." Reviewing the novel in School Library Journal, Connie Tyrrell Burns concluded that "readers will devour this humorous glimpse at what jocks are made of while learning that life does not require crashing helmet-headed through it."

Stargirl focuses on nonconformity and popularity. When the eponymous protagonist enters all-white middle-class Mica High School, she attracts considerable notice for her off-beat behavior, odd clothing, and her habit of cheering for both sides after making the cheerleading squad. Though Stargirl is initially admired, when she does not conform to the culture of her new school she finds herself "dropped" by her supposed friends. Some reviewers found the novel one-dimensional and heavy-handed; as Ilene Cooper noted in Booklist, Spinelli's protagonist is so unbelievable that "readers may feel more sympathy for the bourgeois teens than the earnest, kind, magic Stargirl." Others, however, praised the author's handling of a complex and relevant theme. "As always respectful of his audience," wrote a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, "Spinelli poses searching questions about loyalty to one's friends and oneself and leaves readers to form their own answers."

Other novels that chronicle the perils of the middle grades include There's a Girl in My Hammerlock, which finds eighth-grader Maisie Potter trying out for the school wrestling team. The school allows her to participate, but Maisie encounters various roadblocks, including her teammates' jealousy about the media attention she receives. Also for younger teens is Spinelli's "School Daze" series, which includes Report to the Principal's Office, Do the Funky Pickle, Who Ran My Underwear up the Flagpole?, and Picklemania. Featuring Eddie, Salem, Sunny, and Pickles, these books chronicle the antics ongoing at Plumstead Middle School. Sunny is a grump, Eddie is something of a wimp who is in love with Sunny, Salem is an aspiring writer, and Pickles is . . . , well, uniquely Pickles.

Spinelli's award winning novel Loser finds goofy, awkward Donald Zinkoff slowly transforming from class clown to class loser as he moves from elementary school into middle school. Despite the taunts and barbs of his critical classmates, Donald maintains a "what, me worry?" attitude due to a healthy optimism and a lack of concern for what others think. Peter D. Sieruta noted in a Horn Book review that through the novel's "present-tense, omniscient narrative," readers are introduced to another one of "Spinelli's larger-than-life protagonists," and praised the novel as "a wonderful character study." In School Library Journal Edward Sullivan called Donald "a flawed but tough kid with an unshakable optimism that readers will find endearing," while a Kirkus reviewer dubbed Loser "a masterful character portrait; here's one loser who will win plenty of hearts."

A library card becomes the ticket out of mundane and often impoverished lives for four youngsters in a group of interlinking stories published as The Library Card. Shoplifting Mongoose leaves his thieving ways behind when he enters a library for the first time and discovers a world of facts; Brenda is a TV addict who discovers a new world of invention in books; Sonseray recaptures memories of his mother in an adult romance title; a hijacker even falls under the spell of books in a bookmobile. A Publishers Weekly critic felt that "while the premise (the card) behind the stories may seem contrived, the author uses it effectively" to create "four vaguely unsettling tales." Joan Hamilton asserted in Horn Book that "Spinelli's characters are unusual and memorable; his writing both humorous and convincing."

Spinelli has continued to create a body of amusing and fast-reading work for both young adult and younger readers. Fourth Grade Rats focuses on peer pressure and growing up too fast. The main characters are Suds and Joey, friends who decide they have to become tough and mean now that they are entering fourth grade. Niceguy Suds initially balks at the plan, but Joey's relentless needling persuades him to reconsider. The experiment is short-lived, however, as both boys are forced to resume their normal behavior—and relieved when this happens. Tooter Pepperday and its sequel, Blue Ribbon Tales, feature a reluctant young transplant to suburbia and her adventures adapting to her new environment.

With his 1998 Newbery Honor book Wringer, Spinelli returns to the weightier themes that made Maniac Magee so popular. A tenth birthday is something to be dreaded for nine-year-old Palmer LaRue. At that time he will qualify as a wringer, one of the boys who wrings the necks of wounded birds in the annual pigeon shoot in Palmer's rural hometown. While other kids cannot wait to perform this role, Palmer is different. He secretly harbors a pet in his room, a stray pigeon he calls Nipper. Palmer leads a double life, trying to fit in on the outside, until the pigeon shoot forces him to act on his true beliefs when Nipper is endangered.

In a School Library Journal review of Wringer, Tim Rausch cited the novel for "Humor, suspense, a bird with a personality, and a moral dilemma familiar to everyone," characters who are "memorable, convincing, and both endearing and villainous," and a "riveting plot." Suzanne Manczuk, writing in Voice of Youth Advocates, commented that "Spinelli has given us mythic heroes before, but none more human or vulnerable than Palmer." New York Times Book Review critic Benjamin Cheever also had high praise for Wringer, describing the novel as "both less antic and more deeply felt" than Maniac Magee, and adding that Spinelli presents Palmer's moral dilemma "with great care and sensitivity."

In 2003 Spinelli produced two works that marked a change of pace for the longtime novelist. For one, he made his debut as a picture-book writer with My Daddy and Me, which chronicles the close relationship between a puppy and his dog-father in illustrations by Seymore Chwast. Spinelli's novel Milkweed also found the author charting new territory due to its setting in Poland during World War II. The novel focuses on orphaned Misha Pilsudski, who is trying to survive by his wits in the Warsaw ghetto. A capable thief and liar, Misha manages to escape the violence meted out to others in the ghetto and eventually finds a home with a Jewish family. Despite his miserable circumstances, the character of Misha "is another of Spinelli's exuberant, goodhearted protagonists," wrote Sieruta, while in School Library Journal Ginny Gustin noted that Milkweed would be "appreciated . . . by those who share Misha's innocence and will discover the horrors of this period in history along with him." Praising the author's choice of narrator as a "masterstroke" in terms of illustrating the horrors of the war for a younger readership, a Kirkus Reviews writer explained that Misha "simply reports graphically, almost clinically, on the slow devastation" suffered by Warsaw's Jewish population during the Holocaust.

Spinelli, while often irreverent and sometimes crude to the adult ear, has gained a reputation for speaking to young readers in terms they can understand. As Booklist reviewer Hazel Rochman maintained, whether it is gender roles he is writing about, as in There's a Girl in My Hammerlock, or the power of myth, as in Maniac Magee, or a bevy of kids learning the joys of the library, as in The Library Card, Spinelli "is able to convey the message with humor and tenderness and with a fast-talking immediacy about the preteen scene." For fans interested in the inspiration for much of Spinelli's work as well as an introduction to the early life of the writer, Spinelli's partial autobiography, Knots in My Yo-Yo, is an indispensable guide. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly called this 1998 memoir a "montage of sharply focused memories," and concluded that as "Spinelli effortlessly spins the story of an ordinary Pennsylvania boy, he also documents the evolution of an exceptional author."

In his Newbery Award acceptance speech excerpted in Horn Book, the author recounted his conversation with a group of schoolchildren. When they asked him where he gets his ideas, the author replied, "from you." Spinelli continued, "You're the funny ones. You're the fascinating ones. You're the elusive and inspiring and promising and heroic and maddening ones."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 41, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.

Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Volume 7, Beacham Publishing (Osprey, FL), 1994, Volume 10, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.

Children's Literature Review, Volume 26, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.

Pendergast, Tom, and Sara Pendergast, editors, St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, second edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999, pp. 783-785.

Silvey, Anita, editor, Children's Books and Their Creators, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1995.

PERIODICALS

Alan Review, fall, 1986, pp. 15-18.

Book, September-October, 2002, review of Loser, p. 40.

Booklist, June 1, 1990, Deborah Abbott, review of Maniac Magee, p. 1902; June 1, 1996, p. 1724; February 1, 1997, Hazel Rochman, review of The Library Card, p. 942; September 1, 1997, p. 118; May 1, 1998, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Knots in My Yo-Yo String: The Autobiography of a Kid, p. 1514; June 1, 2000, Ilene Cooper, review of Stargirl, p. 1883; May 15, 2002, Michael Cart, review of Loser, p. 1597; March 1, 2003, Julie Cummins, review of My Daddy and Me, p. 1204.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, June, 1995, pp. 359-360; May, 1996, p. 315; March, 1997, pp. 257-258; October, 1997, p. 67.

Carousel, summer, 1995, p. 22.

Horn Book, June, 1984, Karen Jameyson, review of Who Put That Hair in My Toothbrush?, pp. 343-344; March, 1987, Ethel R. Twichell, review of Jason and Marceline, p. 217; May, 1988, Ethel R. Twichell, review of Dump Days, p. 355; May-June, 1990, Ethel R. Twichell, review of Maniac Magee, p. 340; July-August, 1991, Jerry Spinelli, "Newbery Medal Acceptance," pp. 426-432; September-October, 1995, Elizabeth S. Watson, review of Tooter Pepperday, p. 595; September-October, 1996, p. 600; March-April, 1997, Joan Hamilton, review of The Library Card, pp. 204-205; January 1999, Peter D. Sieruta, review of Knots in My Yo-Yo String, p. 87; July 2000, review of Stargirl, p. 465; July-August, 2002, Peter D. Sieruta, review of Loser, p. 472; November-December, 2003, Peter D. Sieruta, review of Milkweed, p. 756.

Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, October 2001, "Social Worlds of Adolescents Living on the Fringe," p. 170; October 2001, Kelly Emminger and Brooks Palermo, review of Stargirl, p. 170.

Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 1982, review of Space Station Seventh Grade, pp. 1196-1197; April 1, 2002, review of Loser, p. 499; March 15, 2003, review of My Daddy and Me, p. 479; August 1, 2003, review of Milkweed, p. 1024.

Kliatt, January, 2004, Sally Tibbets, review of Milkweed (audiobook), p. 49.

New York Times Book Review, April 21, 1991, Alison Teal, review of Maniac Magee, p. 33; November 16, 1997, Benjamin Cheever, "Pigeon English," p. 52; September 17, 2000, Betsy Groban, review of Stargirl, p. 33.

Publishers Weekly, March 25, 1996, review of Crash, p. 84; February 10, 1997, review of The Library Card, p. 84; April 6, 1998, review of Knots in My Yo-Yo String: The Autobiography of a Kid, p. 79; July 17, 2000, Jennifer M. Brown, "Homer on George Street" (interview), p. 168; June 26, 2000, review of Stargirl, p. 76; February, 11, 2002, review of Loser, p. 188; February 17, 2003, review of My Daddy and Me, p. 73; September 1, 2003, review of Milkweed, p. 90.

Reading Teacher, November, 1991, pp. 174-176.

School Library Journal, June, 1990, p. 138; July, 1995, Eldon Younce, review of Tooter Pepperday, p. 82; June, 1996, Connie Tyrrell Burns, review of Crash, pp. 125-126; March, 1997, Steven Engelfried, review of The Library Card, p. 192; September, 1997, Tim Rausch, review of Wringer, p. 226; June, 1998, Kate Kohlbeck, review of Knots in My Yo-Yo String, p. 170; August, 2000, Sharon Grover, review of Stargirl, p. 190; January, 2002, Tina Hudak, review of Stargirl (audiobook), p. 78; May, 2002, Edward Sullivan, review of Loser, p. 160; November, 2003, Ginny Gustin, review of Milkweed, p. 149.

Voice of Youth Advocates, April, 1983, James J. McPeak, review of Space Station Seventh Grade, p. 42; February, 1998, Suzanne Manczuk, review of Wringer, pp. 366-367.

Washington Post Book World, January 13, 1985, Deborah Churchman, "Tales of the Awkward Age," p. 8; August 11, 1991, Claudia Logan, review of Fourth Grade Rats, p. 11.

ONLINE

Jerry Spinelli Web site, http://www.jerryspinelli.com (March 7, 2005).*

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about 2 years ago

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