The Jerry Spinelli Factor

The beloved Norristown children’s author made an impact on this local writer and many others.

​There are times when my fingers move over the keyboard like Mozart’s did across the piano keys, words spilling out as if from a broken spigot. Other times, I stare at the screen and type a string of lowercase Hs.

What made me think I was a writer?

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It had to have happened when I was young, as puberty wasn’t kind. In fourth grade, like so many kids from this part of Pennsylvania, I read Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli. The foil Newbery Medal stamp on the cover meant Spinelli was one of the best at what he did. His kind eyes gazed back at me from the page. He looked like someone I’d see on trips to Genuardi’s with my mom. According to his bio, he was from Norristown. 

I’m in Norristown!” I thought. 

Spinelli’s story of an orphan boy looking for a home in Two Mills—a town just like mine—made me realize that so many things around me could be sources of inspiration. My teacher told us to keep an eye out for local landmarks in the book. I dutifully circled all the many things that reminded me of my hometown. 

Aside from the Rowlings and Kings of the world, authors don’t have groupies or paparazzi following them around. So when I eventually ran into Spinelli at a Norristown sandwich shop, he was by himself. I recognized his eyes from the author’s bio.

I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from crying, silently reassuring myself, “Don’t freak out. Be calm. Say something. He’s not Springsteen. You’re not going to pass out.” 

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In my fantasy, Spinelli adopts me—a married woman in her mid-30s, mind you—and pores over everything I write, offering his feedback. His wife, who is also an author, serves as another pair of eyes, and on the weekends, we all attend writing workshops together.

I’ve stayed in contact with Spinelli since that day in the deli, but it isn’t his mastery of the writing process or his feedback I value the most. Spinelli has more than 30 books and a slew of awards. He loves his wife and family, and he doesn’t sugarcoat the fact that writing is hard work. 

Before Maniac Magee, all the books I loved had stories that happened in a land or galaxy far, far away. Now I know that not all great tales originate from places deep within the imagination. They can come from just about anywhere—even a neon-pink bedroom with New Kids on the Block posters on the walls.


King of Prussia’s Katie Bambi-Kohler recommends that kids and adults stay up well past their bedtimes to read. Visit her website at     

Illustration by Dewey Saunders

Our Best of the Main Line & Western Suburbs Party is July 25!