Milkweed, penned by Newbery Medal winner Jerry Spinelli, tells the story of a young boy with no identity. The setting for this young adult novel is the Warsaw ghetto, and the time is the onset of the Holocaust in 1939.
The novel opens with a dream or a memory; the narrator is not sure which. He is running, having stolen a loaf of bread, and is being chased. "Stop, thief!" someone yells. Exhausted, he collapses and is pulled into an alley by a stranger who warns him that he should be careful because soon he will be chased by "Jackboots" instead of old women. Suddenly, the city is under attack and they must find cover. The stranger introduces himself as Uri and asks the narrator for his name; the narrator says he is called "Stopthief."
Uri leads him to a stable where several other boys are hiding. They ask him if he is a Jew; he shrugs his shoulders, unsure. He asks the boys what a Jew is and they tell him, "A Jew is an animal. A Jew is a bug. A Jew is less than a bug." The boys do not really believe this; they are merely spouting back the latest rhetoric. After all, they are Jews themselves. The group presses him further, suggesting that he is a Gypsy. Unsure what else to say, he assents. One of the boys suggests that they send him away because "next to Jews, they hate Gypsies the most." The boys proceed to joke around about why Jews are being targeted; they know that people think Jews drink people's blood and eat babies. They find these accusations utterly absurd since they are beyond what even fiction writers could conjure up. As the bombings worsen, the boys run for better shelter. They lead their new group member to an abandoned barbershop where they find safety for the night. It becomes evident that Uri is the group's de facto leader and has assumed the role of guardian. Uri procures a mattress for the boy and then gives him a bath and cuts his hair to delouse him.
Later that fall, the bombings become more frequent and food becomes more scarce. For the first time, the boy comes face to face with the Jackboots. He is mesmerized by their uniforms and the sheer number of them. He finds their marching to be a grand spectacle and cannot understand why no one else is delighted by their arrival. A few days later, however, he begins to understand. There are drastic changes in the town. He sees an elderly man washing the street with his long beard. Next, he sees the soldiers cutting off another man's beard. At first, he tells Uri that he wants to be a Jackboot. Uri becomes angry and tells him "you are what you are," meaning that he will never be a Jackboot. Uri seems to know that the boy has no idea what is really going on and as a result, he tries to shield the boy from their reality.
Uri decides that the boy needs a name and so Uri names him Misha Pilsudski. Uri also crafts an identity for him. Misha Pilsudski is a Gypsy of Russian descent. His father was a horse trader (his favorite was named Greta). Misha has seven brothers and five sisters. They ended up in Poland where he was separated from the rest of his family after a Jackboot bombing. Misha found his way to Warsaw and learned how to steal food as a means of survival. Misha is so thrilled to have an identity that he repeats his new name over and over to himself. As the story progresses, Misha begins to truly embrace his identity. Each time he hears a horse, he looks to see if it is Greta, his favorite horse. When he learns that Uri and the other boys are orphans, he does not believe that he fits into that category since he has parents and twelve siblings.
Misha witnesses the destruction of Jewish homes and businesses in Warsaw. He thinks to himself, "I'm glad I'm not a Jew." Prophetically, Uri tells him not to be too glad....
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Jerry Spinelli's Milkweed has received tremendous critical acclaim.Milkweed is the winner of the Golden Kite Award for fiction, the Carolyn W. Field Award, and the ALA Best Books for Young Adults Award, and many others. Although the novel's subject matter, the Holocaust, is extremely difficult for young adults to grasp, Spinelli addresses it in such a way that the horrors of the Holocaust are not overt. Instead, readers who have the background to paint their own mental images are able to do so while those who are less knowledgeable can focus on the story and the characters.
There are few young adult novels that address the Holocaust effectively and realistically. While Milkweed is purely fictional, it depicts a historically accurate setting and creates characters who might really have existed (with the exception of Dr. Korczak, who was a real person). Although the novel does not go into detail when describing the horrific scenes of dead bodies and Nazi atrocities, readers experience these events vicariously through Misha; thus, the perspective is one of innocence. One can almost imagine Misha and Anne Frank meeting one another and discussing the inherent good in people and what they might do once the war is over.
Despite the devastation of his surroundings, somehow Misha finds hope in even the darkest of hours. This is indicative of what some Holocaust survivors have written and spoken about: the need to focus on possibility amid destruction and devastation.
It is remarkable when readers consider how little the events Misha experiences affect him; his character does not change at all over the course of the novel. Ironically, it is as if the events of the Holocaust gave Misha life whereas they represented death for so many others. Before he met Uri and Janina, Misha had neither an identity nor a family. The desperate situation precipitated by the Nazi occupation strangely gave Misha both of these. Misha is like the "milkweed plant...growing by a heap of rubble." In spite of everything, Misha survives.
Published in 2003, Milkweed has become a seminal work in language arts and English curricula at both the middle and high school levels.