|Genre||Young adult, Historical novel|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback|
Milkweed is a 2003 young adult historical fiction novel by American author Jerry Spinelli. The book is about a boy in Warsaw, Poland in the years of World War II during the Holocaust. Over time he is taken in by a Jewish group of orphans and he must avoid the German troops (or "Jackboots") while living on the streets with other orphans. The story narrator is the boy in the future living in America recalling his past experiences. Despite being a historical fiction novel, Doctor Korczak, a minor character in the story is based on a real person named Janusz Korczak.
Milkweed is the tale of a boy with no identity at a time when one's identity meant the difference between life and death. Published in 2003, the novel became a popular young adult work used by English teachers to facilitate a discussion of the Holocaust. Readers are immersed in the experiences of a child who does not fully comprehend what is happening around him in the Warsaw ghetto.
Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli is set in Warsaw, Poland, during World War II. The main character is an unnamed boy who acquires multiple names throughout the plot—is introduced to a band of thieves when he meets Uri, a fellow thief who acts as his guardian, and bestows upon him his new name, Misha Pilsudski. Peter D. Sieruta noted, “Misha’s early days with Uri are almost carefree”. While out stealing with Uri, Misha witnesses German invaders “Jackboots” capture Poland. He describes the Jackboots as “magnificent” and later states that he wants to become a Jackboot. Shortly after Poland is captured, Uri decides to create a false identity for Misha, “which Misha gratefully adopts to fill the void that is his past”. This fabricated background states that Misha is a Gypsy born in Russia to a large and old family. His mother was a talented fortune teller, he had “seven brothers and five sisters,” and a beloved “speckled mare” named Greta. In this story bombs and hateful, Polish farmers separate Misha’s family until he winds up as an orphan in Warsaw. While Misha is smuggling, he ends up in a garden where he meets a girl named Janina. Misha describes Janina as a “little girl,” who reveals she is also Jewish. Janina invites Misha to her seventh birthday party and without knowing what birthday cakes are, Misha panics- thinking that they were trying to “burn down the cake”- and blows out the candles and runs away with a part of the birthday cake. With Jackboot control over Warsaw tightening, a curfew is established and “stupid” Misha ends up getting his earlobe shot off from being out past curfew. City conditions worsen with low food supplies, people losing their houses including Janina and her family, loss of electricity, and Jews are being harshly prosecuted. Eventually all Jewish people in Warsaw including Misha, Janina, and the gang of boys are moved into the ghetto. Janina's uncle Shepsel describes their new living conditions as if living in a "closet".
News goes out that Himmler, a prominent Jackboot, is coming. One day, a parade of Jackboots passes, and Misha tries to catch the attention of the ugly, unresponsive man who he thinks is Himmler, but instead is knocked to the ground by Buffo, a man who enjoys killing Jewish children. Once Uri reassures Misha that the man he saw was in fact Himmler, Misha decides that he no longer wants to be a Jackboot. Each night Misha steals by slipping through a hole in the wall that is “two bricks wide”. His friend Janina wants to mimic him, so she begins following him on his stealing expeditions.
As time passes, the conditions of the ghetto worsen. One day as Misha is “walking along,” Uri appears. Uri, who has been gone for a long time, warns Misha that deportations are coming, and that all of the people will be cleared out of the ghetto. Some time later, an old man appears advising the people that there is no resettlement, and instead the Jews are going to be taken away and killed. That night, Janina’s father Mr. Milgrom tells Misha that when he and Janina go out to steal, they need to run away. Janina and Misha stay in Poland though because Janina refuses to leave and kicks Misha when he tries to take her away. Janina drags Misha to the Ghetto only to find the room where they had lived deserted. Janina runs in desperation to find her father, and Misha loses sight of her in the crowd of people. Following, he sees her thrown into a boxcar by a Jackboot. Misha is hit with a club, and kicked before Uri, who appears to be a Jackboot, shoots him.
Misha awakens near the train tracks in a state of confusion. A farmer finds him and takes him to a farm where Misha stays for three years working and sleeping in a barn with the animals and eventually runs away.
Not knowing what to do next, he rides on trains and ends up back in Warsaw where “there is rubble and he then removes his armband leaving it on the sidewalk. Jack (Misha changes his name when moving to America) talks wildly about his past in the streets for years. Most people try to ignore him, except for a woman named Vivian who stops to listen to his stories. She marries him but leaves after five months; pregnant. Many years pass, and we find Jack working in a Bag ‘n Go market. Jack still thinks of Janina, although he will tell nobody, and he digs up the milkweed plant and plants it in his own back yard.
Misha Pilsudski/Milgrom, “a little child of indeterminate age and background” is a small, cute, short orphan boy who survives by using his size and quickness to steal food and escape danger. Through most of the novel Misha has no recollection of a past and “much less an understanding of the world around him.” He spends time with his friend Janina and a group of homeless boys.
Uri is a “scrappy, slightly older boy” who acts as a ringleader for Misha and the other smugglers. Described as ”fearless on the streets,” Uri often helps Misha escape danger. One critic compared Uri to the infamous Fagan, a character in the novel Oliver Twist. Unlike Misha and the other orphans, Uri does not live in the ghetto but is found at the blue camel, the place where Jackboots live.
Janina Milgrom is a small young girl who gets frustrated, upset, and pushy frequently throughout the novel. She is “[a] fiery young friend” of Misha and frequently mimics him. Misha later gives his granddaughter the middle name Janina in memory of his sister.
Doctor Korczak, a bald man with a goatee and mustache, takes care of orphans. He is kind hearted and caring.
Vivian is a “normal, sensible person” who enjoys Misha’s mad sounding talk of his past. Later she marries Misha and lives with him for five months before she leaves, pregnant with his child.
Katherine is a friendly “young woman . . . [with] dark brown hair” who is Misha’s daughter. She is twenty-five years old with a daughter of her own named Wendy. Misha “wasn’t sure” about Katherine when Vivian walked out, until she finds him years later.
Wendy is four years old and is Misha’s granddaughter. She calls Misha “Poppynoodle.”
Mr. Milgrom is Janina’s father. He is a pharmacist who makes medicine, but he stops working a formal job after restrictions are put on Jews.
Uncle Shepsel is Janina’s Uncle who decides that he will convert to Lutheranism so he will no longer be treated as a Jew.
Mrs. Milgrom is Janina’s mother who is sick and dies on her mattress.
Kuba is a boy who Misha calls “the clown.” Has a big obsession with cats
Enos is a “grim-faced” boy.
Olek is a boy who has one arm. He says a train ran over his arm. He was hung for stealing food.
Jon is a boy who doesn’t speak. Misha sees him as “gray.” He was thrown into the cart of dead bodies and taken away.
Herr Himmler is a head Jackboot who has “half a little black mustache . . . [and] a scrawny neck . . . [and] looks like a chicken...“.
Buffo is a slow, fat man who uses his belly to suffocate children. He chews mint leaves, so his breath always smells minty.
Milkweed was influenced by Jerry Spinelli’s "obsession to understand" the Holocaust growing up and personal accounts Spinelli read before publishing the novel. In an interview Jerry Spinelli says he feels one of his earliest memories are of looking at pictures of the Holocaust. Milkweed pods a major theme in the novel seems to have also come from Spinelli's childhood where he use to blow milkweed pods near his home. In his interview with Nadine Epstein, Spinelli explains his hesitance to write a novel based on the Holocaust on feeling "unqualified" since he had no personal connections with the Holocaust other than caring about it. Once he decided to proceed in writing a novel concentrated on the Holocaust, personal accounts like Elie Wiesel gave Spinelli insight.
Orchard Books acquired the United Kingdom publishing rights for Milkweed. They previously had sales of 15,000 for Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl.
Awards and Nominations
Symbolism and major themes
Examples of symbolism in Milkweed are angels and milkweed pods. In The Horn Book Magazine Peter D. noted that “[the] angel statue and [the] milkweed plant that somehow grows in the ghetto,” were a few of the novel’s motifs. Likewise, Suzanne Manczuk explained “Two things come to symbolize hope . . . statues of angels . . . and the unlovely but enduring milkweed pods.” 
Milkweed addresses the themes of survival, caring for others, and existence itself. Anna Rich wrote “Misha . . . survives the Warsaw ghetto, where hangings, beatings, and murders are daily occurrences”. In The Houston Chronicle Marvin Hoffman described how “Misha contributes a portion of the meager booty from his forays under the wall to the ‘outside’-sometimes no more than a single potato-to Dr. K’s [Korczak’s] children.” This is an example of Misha caring for others. In The Bookseller, Wendy Cooling said the novel was “about people, about caring and about life itself”.
An audio version of Milkweed was read by Ron Rifkin in 2003. One critic said "Rifkin breathes emotion” in his reading of Milkweed and delivers an “ultimately enlightening” narrative.
- Milkweed: A Story of Poland During World War 2 — Student Essay
- Kidsreads review of Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli
- Sieruta, Peter (2003). "Milkweed". Horn Book Magazine (Media Source Inc) 79 (6): 1.
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- Hoffman, Marvin (2003). "Holocaust narrative takes dizzying leaps". The Houston Chronicle (Texas): 19.
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- Spinelli, p. 168
- "Milkweed (Book)" 251 (2). Publishers Weekly. 2004. p. 25.
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- Spinelli, p. 111
- Epstein, Nadine (2009). "Jerry Spinelli: award-winning author of Milkweed, Maniac Magee, Stargirl and other children's books". p. 51. Retrieved 13 March 2012.
- Horn, Caroline (2003). "N.b.children.". Nielsen Business Media, Inc. (5086): 29.
- "Golden Kite Award Recipients". Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators. Retrieved 20 May 2012.
- "Carolyn W. Field Award". Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Retrieved 20 May 2012.
- Sieruta, Peter (November–December 2003). "Jerry Spinelli Milkweed". The Horn Book Magazine (Plain City, Ohio: The Horn Book, Inc.) 79.6: 756. Retrieved 17 March 2012.
- Manczuk, Suzanne (February 2004). "Milkweed (Book)". Library Media Connection (ABC-Clio – Library Media Connection) 22 (5): 70–71. Retrieved 14 March 2012.
- Rich, Anna (January 1–15, 2004). "Milkweed (Book)" 100 (9/10). Chicago, Illinois: American Library Association / Booklist Publications. pp. 894–896. Retrieved March 13, 2012.
- Wendy, Cooling (Aug 15, 2003). "Winter warmers: the Booksellers' Choice panelists make their selection of the best titles for November". The Bookseller (London, United Kingdom: The Bookseller Media Group (Bookseller Media Ltd.)). .5090: S21. Retrieved 17 March 2012.