Milkweed by Jerry Spinellimilkweed.jpg

Imagine that you have no memory of your past, of your family, or even of your name. In Milkweed, Spinelli creates the story of a young boy, Misha, who witnesses The Holocaust as a striving young boy with complete innocence, and tries to establish himself while coping with the effects of The Holocaust. Throughout the story we learn that Misha is a Gypsy boy with a journey through the city of Warsaw, Poland and into the Jewish Ghettos, or is he? You will watch Misha grow from a boy to a man who is trapped in the horror of the past. Be prepared to follow Misha everywhere and experience his adventures that are his life in a war-torn world.

In Warsaw, Poland in 1939, Misha's only survival skill is to steal food to stay alive. As he joins a gang of other Jewish boys like him, he builds a circle of friends with them since he is without any foundation of support. Uri, with his fiery red hair that appears to tell his mood, helps Misha find his identity and leads the way for many adventures. Uri envelopes the reader in his magnetic personality, and identity. Is he a Jew? What about the other boys? Perhaps the group mentality at its finest. Meet all of the engaging characters that live alongside Uri and Misha. Will Big Jenryk ever wear shoes? Who was forever labeled a smuggler? A colorful group awaits you in a world that was colored in shades of gray. When Misha feels he is living the high life by swimming in piles of food, having the greatest of friends, and having the city people at the control of his fingertips, the Nazi "Jackboots" arrive. As naive as one can be, he hopes to join them someday in order to wear shiny boots and drive fierce tanks as they do.

As time prevails and the actions of the Germans pick up, Misha befriends a young girl named Janina Milgrom through his only mastered tactic of stealing. He learns about emotions and secretly strives to meet her, first occasionally, then daily as the story progresses. Follow her closely and see how a life of confinement takes its toll on a young girl. A life that was once so simple becomes so complicated. Also watch the relationship that unfolds between Misha and Janina. How does Janina impact Misha's life right up to his last days, even seconds?

As Misha learns about Jewish history, his own roots, and becomes apart of Janina's family, he is eventually forced to move into the ghetto. Trains slowly begin to arrive, and people pack up their entire belongings into carts and wheelbarrows to trudge to a fate they have no control over. As the trains take other Jews day after day, Misha realizes that he is in danger of an unfair destiny and must make quick decisions before he, too, is taken away on a train to a concentration camp.
"In my mind I saw the man in black scrubbing the sidewalk with his beard. And the other man and the laughing soldiers with the scissors - snip, snip - and the hair falling to the sidewalk, black hair falling...
My eyes popped open, though in the blackness there was nothing to see. 'They're Jews!' I blurted. Uri snorted, 'Who says you're stupid?'" -
(Spinelli 24).

Milkweed is perfect for those with extensive knowledge of The Holocaust or young readers with the same level of innocence that Misha has. A historic moment such as The Holocaust can develop personal insight thoroughly this book as readers learn to connect with Misha, and experience his struggles as a Jewish child during World War II.
"It was thrilling just to see a plant, a spot of green in the ghetto desert. The bird-shaped pods had burst and the puffs were spilling out, flying off. I cracked a pod from the step and blew into the silk-lined hollow, sending the remaining puffs sailing, a snowy shower rising, vanishing into the clouds" - (Spinelli 143).

About The Authorspinelli_jerry_lg.jpg

Born in 1941 in Norristown, Pennsylvania, Jerry Spinelli discovered his calling in 1957 when his high school football team won a big game. The town celebrated, his fellow students raced through the streets, but Jerry sneaked back home and marked the occasion in his own way. He wrote a poem. Later the town newspaper published it. "And," he reports, "I've been a writer ever since." Married to Eileen Spinelli, who is also a writer, Jerry was for many years an editor for the Chilton Company. Now a full-time writer, he lives in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.
When he began his professional writing career, Spinelli attempted to write four books for adults, rather than for children. These books were never published. The publishers he sent the books to rejected them. Spinelli's writing direction changed one night when one of his six children ate some fried chicken that he had been saving for the next day. Spinelli wrote about this event. Eventually, what he wrote turned into his first published novel, Space Station Seventh Grade. Spinelli originally intended Space Station Seventh Grade to be an adult novel as well, but since the protagonist is 13 years old, adult publishers rejected it and it became a children's book.


A Letter to YOU! - courtesy of Random House Publishing Company

Dear Readers,

OK, let's stop right there...
You are a reader, aren't you? Maybe you don't think of that as a big deal. (“Yo—I'm a Reader!”) Well, let me tell you, it is a big deal, at least as far as I'm concerned, because when I was a kid you couldn't use the word “Reader” to describe me.
Except for schoolwork, about the only thing things I read were sports pages and the backs of cereal boxes. I regret that now. I wish I could go back and change it, but I can't. The best I can do is have one of my characters (Maniac Magee) carry a book everywhere he goes. It's the closest I can come to going back in time and doing it right. But it's not too late for you. Be proud, Dear Reader.
And speaking of reading, let me put in a plug here for my new novel Milkweed. Unlike most of my stories, it takes place during another time (1939–1942) and far away (Warsaw, Poland). It's the story of a little kid with a big heart. A kid who finds himself trapped in a walled-in nightmare. A kid whose only allies are his own size and speed and a little girl named Janina. A kid whose life can be summed up in three words: Steal or starve.
I hope you like it. Even more, I hope you don't stop reading.

Jerry Spinelli


Listen to Jerry Spinelli's opinion on the writing process, Milkweed, and Maniac Magee.




Additional Resources:

Excerpt from Milkweed - Check out chapters 1-3 for free!
Interview with Jerry Spinelli - Forty question interview with the author about his writing process, his favorite place to write, and advice for other writers.
Jerry Spinelli Home Page - Check out the artist's official site where you can contact him directly, check out the FAQs, or find out if he will be coming to your city on a scheduled tour!
Message Against Hate - Jerry Spinelli speaks out on hate to 8th graders.
Milkweed: A Teacher's Guide - Newspaper In Education (NIE) Teacher's Guide to Milkweed; Complete with chapter questions, response activities, and additional resources
Purchase This Book - Get your own copy of Milkweed.
The Literary Link - This website is everything YA, loaded with links of information, discussion boards, and other YA texts
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum - Official website of the USHMM; learn about the largest ongoing history of The Holocaust, find out facts in the Holocaust Encyclopedia, learn to understand antisemitism, or get more info on the museum itself, located in Washington, DC!
What Is The Holocaust? - Basic answer from a valid source.
Wikipedia: Jerry Spinelli - Includes complete list of works.

by Ashley Stein and Kathryn Gorlewski

Ashley Stein's other reviews: Maus by Art Spiegelman and Deliver Us From Evil by Daniel Reed