“"Jeffrey Lionel Magee's parents were in a trolley when its drunk driver crashed and sunk the trolley into the Schuylkill River in Bridgeport, PA, orphaning him at age three. After living with his Aunt Dot and Uncle Dan in another town and enduring their mutual hatred and silence, he runs away during a school musical performance. One year (The Lost Year) and 200 miles later, Jeffrey finds himself across the river from Bridgeport in Two Mills, PA, where Hector Street sharply divides black East Enders from white West Enders.
He meets Amanda Beale, an East Ender who carries her library of random books in a suitcase, and he borrows a book before continuing his dash through town. Along the way, he intercepts a football pass made to local football star James "Hands" Down, infuriates gigantic little-leaguer John McNab by hitting home runs off his fastball, and saves an unlucky child from Finsterwald’s back yard. The Finsterwald house is a house dreaded by everyone and has a bad reputation. Because of these acts, he earned the nickname "Maniac" and started a local legend.
When bully East Ender "Mars Bar" Thompson corners Maniac and rips a page from Amanda's book, Maniac is rescued by Amanda herself, who takes him home to her chaotic but loving household. Maniac finds a temporary home there, helping Mr. and Mrs. Beale with the chores and pacifying their youngest children, Hester and Lester. Soon though, a few East End residents make it clear that they don't want him in the East End anymore by writing racist graffiti on the Beale's garage door. His final effort to gain acceptance is by untying the famous Cobble’s Knot (a huge, grimy ball of string with a year's supply of pizza waiting for its vanquisher.) After finishing the task he is praised by everyone as confetti is thrown into the air. Amanda Beale realizes, too late, that the confetti was made from the pages of her favorite book. Maniac runs away again so he won't hurt the Beales anymore. He takes shelter in the buffalo pen at the zoo and occasionally eats with the Pickwells—West Enders who provide spaghetti dinners for anyone who shows up at their dinner table.
At the zoo, Maniac meets Earl Grayson, a washed up minor-league baseball pitcher who works as a groundskeeper, who hasn't ever learned to read, and who insists he has no stories. For a few months Jeffrey has a home again with Grayson, helping at work, celebrating holidays, and teaching Grayson to read. When Grayson dies in his sleep, Maniac wanders off aimlessly.
On the verge of frozen starvation he encounters Piper and Russell, child-ruffians who are running away to Mexico, and who turn out to be John McNab's brothers. Maniac leads them back home, bribing them with free pizza, and stays at their cockroach-infested, decrepit house. Here, Maniac finds the worst that the West End has to offer as he learns that the McNabs are making a bunker because they believe the East End is planning a rebellion. He endures the coarseness and squalor of the McNab home in hopes of keeping Piper and Russell in school and under control, but eventually gives up.
After beating Mars Bar in a foot race (running backward) and goading him into crashing a birthday party at the McNabs', Maniac is homeless again. He moves back into the buffalo pen, and runs for miles every morning before Two Mills wakes up. Before long, Mars Bar starts running with him as if by coincidence, and the two never say a word to each other. One day they come across a hysterical Piper McNab, who frantically leads them to Russell, stuck on the trolley trestle where Jeffrey's parents died. Maniac walks away silently, nearly unconscious and stunned by fear, while Mars Bar rescues Russell, becoming a hero in the child’s eyes. Maniac retreats to the buffalo pen, where Mars Bar leads Amanda Beale to persuade Maniac once and for all to come live with her family again."