Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Title: Milkweed
Author: Jerry Spinelli
Publisher: Laurel Leaf, 2003
Genre: Historical Fiction
Age Range: 4-6

Summary: A young boy lives on the streets in Warsaw Poland, before WWII. He remembers nothing of a family or even his name. He is adopted into a group of young thieves, where a boy named Uri takes him under his wing. They live in lavish conditions for a short amount of time, but are soon forced onto the streets after the Jack boots begin taking over. The little boy is given the name Misha by Uri, and a whole story about his upbringing. It is known that the little boy is a Gypsy, and all the other boys are Jews. Misha becomes fascinated by the Jackboots, claiming he wants to be one, and also with the lives of the Jews. He becomes friends with a young girl named Janina, and they often leave presents for each other on her back porch. Soon the Jews are forced into the Ghetto, and Misha follows Janina's family there, which they do not approve of. When the wall is built around it, there is a hole where Misha is able to travel back and forth. Soon he and all the other boys are put in the ghetto, with the exception of Uri. Misha begins smuggling in goods at night through the small hole in the wall. Janina begins following him on these adventures, and her father adopts Misha into their family, even giving him a Jewish armband. Death and starvation follow, as many are killed, even one of their friends who got caught smuggling. Soon it is time for the trains to take the Jewish people to different camps. Janina's father tells Misha that they should go through the hole and run away; however, Janina is fascinated by the trains, and gets caught up in the masses. Uri actually attempts to shoot Misha, it seems he has been hiding his identity and pretended to be a Jackboot, but misses, and Misha is spared from the trains. He wants to find Janina, but a farmer spots him and takes him home so he can heal. Soon, he has the boy working as a slave for him, but after the war is over, young Misha takes a ticket to America. He lives his life trying to tell his story on the streets. He gets married, but his wife soon realizes he is too much for her. In the end, his daughter and granddaughter find him and he is able to spend the rest of his life with them.

Response: Milkweed was not what I was expecting at all. For a children’s book I found it to be very deep, detailed, and a little dark. It speaks of the Holocaust, and there is no positive or bright side to focus on, but the little bits of humor used did help. The young boy, later named Mischa, is just a complete mystery to the read. Since the story is written through his perspective, and he really knows nothing, neither does the reader. You really have to infer and figure it out on your own. Without the background knowledge of WWII, one would probably be a bit lost. But it is great that the perspective is that of a young, innocent child because it really adds to the atmosphere of the story. It simplifies the actions that were being taken on the Jewish people during that time, but also adds a great deal to it because you see just how inhumane it really was. I never knew about the smuggling and things that went on in the ghetto until now, and young Mischa lives for this. In history class, I learned a lot about the disease and death that swept through these ghettos because that was what the Germans wanted, to kill the Jews naturally, as to say it was not their fault.

Mischa and the other orphan boys show great strength and courage to live and survive alone. Uri plays a fatherly role to Mischa, even at the end, when he pretends to shoot him so that he is not taken to the concentration camps with the others. He is abusive and very tough on the little boy at times, but the things he does to him are nothing compared to what is being done to the other 6 million Jews around Europe. Mischa is a gypsy, from what is said in the story, and that made him just as much of a target as the Jews. He never really knows this because no on tells him. He often says, “I’m glad I’m not a Jew,” and people look at him like he is crazy because he, too is considered inferior. When he becomes obsessed with the merry-go-round, it really shows how young and innocent he is. Sure he steals to eat, and live on the streets, but he is still a young child at heart. He is truly happy when he is accepted into Janina’s family, and given a Jewish armband to ear. He works so hard to help bring food for her family, and only her and her father are accepting of the boy. His relationship with the orphanage is strange because I would think they might take him in; however, he is not Jewish like the other children. They do give him a bath one night and fresh clothes. He brings them food as well.

There are several disturbing and eye-opening scenes described in the book. When a horse’s leg is cut off at the merry-go-round, a Jewish man is blamed for it. They strip his clothes down, tying him up so he does not move. Then, they proceed to spray freezing cold water on the man, in the dead of winter, until his body is completely blue. This is the first time that Mischa sees death, but he really does not understand it or take it in. Death becomes a part of everyday life while he is in the ghetto. His friend Gray John dies, after suffering a long time, probably from starvation. When people died in the ghetto, they were covered up with newspaper, and people would steal their socks and shoes. Another friend is hung because he is caught smuggling. Mischa is exposed to more in his life than anyone deserves to be.

Janina, a young girl Mischa becomes friends with, and then lives with in the ghetto, is an interesting character. She seems very innocent and sweet at first, and Mischa really loves her. But living in the ghetto really takes its toll on her, especially when her mother dies. She begins smuggling with Mischa, and he gets very annoyed with her greedy and selfish ways. Her father takes the time to celebrate Hanukkah with the family for the two years they live there. He goes through all the motions and all the things that would normally be done. Even when the menorah is stolen, he continues. He even buys Mischa and Janina combs as presents. This is a small glimmer of hope in a dark and desperate time. Her father holds on to his beliefs as a dedicated Jew, even though he is suffering, and eventually will be killed. While, the mother is sick, Janina is not interested in doing it, and the uncle that lives with them claims he is now a Lutheran. It is amazing to me how someone could still hold strong to their faith when everything has been taken from them.

The milkweed is a great symbol for the entire novel. It is found in the ghetto one day, and Janina blows the pods open, spreading their seeds. It is a small little weed growing in a terrible and barren ghetto. I think that Mischa is much like the milkweed in the story. Sure he is a little weed, not something spectacular. However, he does bring a little bit of happiness and hope to those he is around. He provides people with food, and his forever positive attitude really does seem to take its effect on people.

The story follows Mischa’s life. It takes him until the last days of his life. This is important because it not only talks about the war, and the time he was involved with it. But it shows that the things he went through during this time impacted the rest of his life.

Teaching Ideas: This book is a great addition to a unit on the Holocaust and WWII. Students will really be able to relate to Mischa or Janina as they read.

I think I would have students to write or even discuss a reaction to the book because it is so dark at times.

Having them to go online, there are great resources about the Holocaust.

Teaching the Holocaust provides great lesson plans. It is mentioned that they are probably to be used in grade 5 or higher, but if necessary, can be adapted.

1 comment:

Dr. Frye said...

You make an excellent point about not Knowing what Mischa doesn't know...excellent point on perspective. And yes, this book more accurately and graphically details some of the atrocities of the Holocaust, but to do otherwise would not do justice to those who suffered.