Milkweed

9781843624851_0

Milkweed

by Jerry Spinelli

Ages: 11+

Interests: history, Jewish history, WWII, war, Holocaust, racism, homelessness

Laurel/Random House: 2003

208 pages

Also by this author: Maniac Magee, Stargirl, Crash, Wringer, Loser

Other books about WWII and the Holocaust: Number the Stars, The Book Thief, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl

In wartime Warsaw a child with no memory of his origins survives by stealing. He doesn’t know his name, he figures it must be “Stopthief” because that’s what everyone yells at him. He falls in with other homeless boys and for a time they live pretty well. One of the older boys gives Stopthief a name – Misha – and an invented Gypsy past. Then Misha befriends a young Jewish girl, and when the Jews of the city are rounded up, he follows her family into the walled Warsaw Ghetto. He helps them stay alive by sneaking out of the ghetto every evening to steal food and they accept him as a new member of their family. Life in the ghetto becomes more and more dreadful, and the children live with the daily sight of death, violence, and misery. Then one day the trains come to take them away, supposedly to a new home in the country. Misha is warned by a friend that this is a lie, the true destination are the death camps. Try as he might, Misha cannot keep Janina safe, he cannot convince her to run away with him. Believing the rumours, she escapes his grip and pushes her way through the crowd onto the train. This destroys Misha, who runs away in a daze of despair. Despite everything, Misha survives the war and eventually finds himself in America, but his memories of the ghetto and Janina continue to haunt him.

This is a really phenomenal novel, told in the first person by a wide-eyed, simple child, a child who has lived so long by stealth and cunning that he knows no other life. In fact, when asked if he’s ever been happy, Misha doesn’t know what that word means. The stark realities of life in the Warsaw Ghetto are related simply and without much emotion by Misha, which is really the only way to make this story bearable for young readers. As it is, this is a disturbing tale of the lowest depths of cruelty that humans can inflict on each other. In a violent, amoral world Misha ponders death, angels, and if oranges really exist.
Tragic events in the ghetto are tempered with the children’s flights of fancy, but this is still a pretty sad story about a terrible time.

The reading level is probably accessible to eight year olds, but the harsh content makes this book appropriate for older readers – age eleven and up.

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.