• Milkweed
  • Milkweed


4.5 323
by Jerry Spinelli

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He's a boy called Jew. Gypsy. Stopthief. Runt. Happy. Fast. Filthy son of Abraham.

He's a boy who lives in the streets of Warsaw. He's a boy who steals food for himself and the other orphans. He's a boy who believes in bread, and mothers, and angels. He's a boy who wants to be a Nazi some day, with tall shiny jackboots and a gleaming Eagle hat of his own. Until

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He's a boy called Jew. Gypsy. Stopthief. Runt. Happy. Fast. Filthy son of Abraham.

He's a boy who lives in the streets of Warsaw. He's a boy who steals food for himself and the other orphans. He's a boy who believes in bread, and mothers, and angels. He's a boy who wants to be a Nazi some day, with tall shiny jackboots and a gleaming Eagle hat of his own. Until the day that suddenly makes him change his mind. And when the trains come to empty the Jews from the ghetto of the damned, he's a boy who realizes it's safest of all to be nobody.

Newbery Medalist Jerry Spinelli takes us to one of the most devastating settings imaginable -- Nazi-occupied Warsaw of World War II -- and tells a tale of heartbreak, hope, and survival through the bright eyes of a young orphan.

Author Biography: Jerry Spinelli has won the most prestigious awards in the industry, including the Newbery Medal for Maniac Magee and a Newbery Honor Award for Wringer.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Conveying a sometimes-astonishing na vet in light of the brutality seen through the eyes of an orphan boy, Rifkin breathes emotion into Spinelli's novel, which is set in Poland during the Holocaust. In 1939 Warsaw, a runty, ragged street thief who doesn't even know his name or if he ever had a family finds himself taken under the wing of a sharp, slightly older boy named Uri. The younger boy, now called Misha, learns a new, even more wretched way of life under Nazi occupation. He witnesses murder, torture and hatred firsthand, as taken out on the Jews by the cruel soldiers he knows as Jackboots. He further hones his scrappy survival skills, becomes part of a Jewish family in the ghetto and, miraculously, continues to muster hope as the months and years pass. Via Rifkin's cool yet compelling delivery, listeners discover-right along with an always wide-eyed Misha-some of the horrors that many innocent people suffered during this dark era of history. Though some listeners may be puzzled by Misha's detached air and consistent lack of awareness, Rifkin succeeds in making the audio experience an ultimately enlightening one. Ages 10-up. (Sept. 2003) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature
Newbery-winning author Jerry Spinelli's Milkweed is different than any other books. Its success is achieved primarily through the main character whom Spinelli has described as "a little kid with a big heart...who finds himself trapped in a walled-in nightmare." At the beginning of the book, this young boy has no background, no name, and only one memory. "I am running. That's the first thing I remember. Running...Someone is chasing me. "Stop! Thief!" The boy refers to himself as "Stopthief" when he meets a bunch of homeless boys on the streets of pre-Nazi Warsaw. Uri, the leader of the group, gives him the name Misha Pilsudski and an invented background. When Misha describes the arrival of the Nazis, we begin to see how this character with no real history sees in a way that is strange, dispassionate, and chillingly beautiful. "They were magnificent. There were men attached to them, but it was as if the boots were wearing the men.... A thousand of them swinging up as one, falling like the footstep of a single, thousand-footed giant." Spinelli's brilliant perspective continues as Misha, searches for a home and follows a wealthy beautiful young Jew, Janina Milgrom, into the Warsaw Ghetto. Now Misha is part of a parade that was "different from the grand parade of the Jackboots! The thump of a thousand Jackboots was now the shuffle of ragged shoes; instead of the roar of tanks, the crickety click of cart wheels." Twice more Misha describes parades as Janus Korczak's orphans are led out of the ghetto singing and an endless parade seen in the yellow light of trains bound for the extermination camps. There is a beauty and a sensory strength that forms a contrast with the stark ugliness we knowMisha faces. Spinelli's genius is that he stays firmly rooted in his viewpoint character who is uncomprehending, innocent and impersonally recounts the horrors he sees. 2003, Knopf, Ages 11 up.
— Susie Wilde
When readers first meet the orphan narrator, he is running. "Stop!" and Thief!" are words so familiar to him that he takes them as his name. Stopthief is one of a band of boys living on the streets and in the stables of Warsaw before the Nazi occupation. This devastating narrative follows his journey from the streets into the Ghetto and through the end of the war. Stopthief is renamed Misha by Uri, the leader of the orphan band, and told that he is a Russian gypsy, not a Jew. Misha is awestruck by the "Jackboots" who take over the city. After he is herded into the Jewish Ghetto, he steals food for his adopted family and the local orphanage. As conditions in the ghetto worsen, his ability to smuggle in and out of its walls turns him from thief to savior. Spinelli's works features more than one irrepressible hero who rises above the social confines of his or her day. In placing such a character in one of history's darkest hours, he challenges readers to see the Holocaust anew, to experience it in the moment. Misha is both insider and outsider, without history and without knowledge, and through his eyes the reader knows the disorientation, the confusion, and the mounting horror of a people who, unlike the modern reader, do not know what is to come. It is too simple to call him an archetype. His daring, part courage and part naïveté, comes at a cost, and only in the book's final chapters does one come to understand the price of his dissociation. Neither oppressor or oppressed, he is a tragic figure, ultimately alone despite his loyalty to Uri and to his adopted sister Janina. Spinelli creates a masterful achievement, a war story to be put alongside J. G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun and aliterary accompaniment to Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful. VOYA CODES: 5Q 4P J S (Hard to imagine it being any better written; Broad general YA appeal; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2003, Knopf, 208p., Ages 12 to 18.
—Angelina Benedetti
Little Misha is known by many names throughout his life, names both given him by his adopted people and his cruel oppressors. Naturally searching for identity and acceptance, he gets swept up in humanity's greatest atrocity. Misha is an uneducated orphan in Warsaw, Poland. Adopted by smugglers and Jews, he learns to use his speed, wits, and small size to survive. He and his friends steal from the fortunate to keep alive, and through this, they create hope for themselves by embracing adventure, challenge, and charity. The story is told from Misha's naive point of view, making the story a perfect introduction to the events of the Holocaust for young adults. When the Jews begin to be subjected to terrible things, Misha doesn't understand. He sees the world with a child's eyes and has no way to process what is happening to him. Milkweed is heartbreaking, not only for its honest look at an abhorrent series of events, but also for its realistic portrayal of the toll these events take on a boy, his adopted family, and his misfit friends. The book successfully captures these people in all their frail humanity, their joy and follies, their triumphs and tragedies. 2003, Alfred A. Knopf, 224 pp. Ages young adult. Reviewer: Steve Rasmussen
To quote the review of the audiobook in KLIATT, January 2004: "In a world gone crazy, "Gypsy," "Runt," or eventually "Misha" is the narrator, a small boy of unknown origins, confused and overwhelmed by the war-torn world around him. Warsaw, during WW II, has become a place of devastation and horror and there is nowhere to hide. As Misha runs with the other orphans, he learns to survive against all odds. He tells his story in a matter-of-fact tone, which makes the tragedy of his world all the more poignant." (An ALA Best Book for YAs; a National Jewish Book Award Finalist.) KLIATT Codes: J*--Exceptional book, recommended for junior high school students. 2003, Random House, 208p., Ages 12 to 15.
—Sally Tibbetts
School Library Journal
Gr 5 Up-In Warsaw in 1939, a boy wanders the streets and survives by stealing what food he can. He knows nothing of his background: Is he a Jew? A Gypsy? Was he ever called something other than Stopthief? Befriended by a band of orphaned Jewish boys, he begins to share their sleeping quarters. He understands very little of what is happening. When the Nazi "Jackboots" march into the town, he greets them happily, admires their shiny boots and tanks, and hopes he can join their ranks someday. He eventually adopts a name, Misha, and a family, that of his friend Janina Milgrom, a girl he meets while stealing food in her comfortable neighborhood. When the Milgroms are forced to move into the newly created ghetto, Misha cheerfully accompanies them. There, he is one of the few small enough to slip through holes in the wall to smuggle in food. By the time trains come to take the ghetto's residents away, Misha realizes what many adults do not-that the passengers won't be going to the resettlement villages at the journey's end. Reading this unusual, fresh view of the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of a child who struggles to understand the world around him is like viewing a poignant collage of Misha's impressions. He shares certain qualities with Spinelli's Maniac Magee, especially his intense loyalty to those he cares about and his hopeful, resilient spirit. This historical novel can be appreciated both by readers with previous knowledge of the Holocaust and by those who share Misha's innocence and will discover the horrors of this period in history along with him.-Ginny Gustin, Sonoma County Library System, Santa Rosa, CA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
When the reader first meets the narrator of this tale, he knows himself only as "Stopthief." He is a Warsaw street orphan, without morals, without culture, without community-until Uri takes him in to join his pack of fellow orphans, all Jews. Life is good for the newly renamed Misha, until the Jackboots arrive and force him and his fellow orphans into the ghetto, where life becomes increasingly more desperate and community-both that of the orphans and of Janina, a little girl whose family he adopts-increasingly necessary. Spinelli's choice of narrator is a masterstroke. Because Misha has no sense of anything except his own immediate needs and desires, he has no urge to explain the bizarre and fundamentally irrational events that befall him. He simply reports graphically, almost clinically, on the slow devastation of the Jews of Warsaw and on the changes in his own relationships, to friends and world, brought about by the experience. His own psychological and social growth is almost lost on the reader until a coda, that still makes no attempt to explain, finally finds him at peace. Stunning. (Fiction. 9-14)
From the Publisher
"An extremely powerful book. Readers will be gripped by this story of a young orphan in Warsaw." — Boston Herald

"Jerry Spinelli has fashioned a novel of beauty out of the ugliness of the Holocaust. It is a superb book, one of the best you will read." — BookPage

"Stunning." — Kirkus Reviews, Starred 

"Spinelli creates a masterful achievement, a war story to be put alongside J. G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun and a literary accompaniement to Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful." — VOYA

"An unforgettable novel."—Library Media Connection, Starred

"Part survival adventure, part Holocaust history, [this] novel tells the story through the eyes of a Polish orphan on the run from the Nazis."—Booklist, Starred review

"This is a superb addition to the canon of young adult literature."—Jewish Book World

"Unforgettable. . . a powerful story about one small boy's courage during a horrifying period of history. A heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful story." — The Midwest Book Review 

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Product Details

Random House Children's Books
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.70(d)
510L (what's this?)
Age Range:
10 - 14 Years

Read an Excerpt



I am running.

That's the first thing I remember. Running. I carry something, my arm curled around it, hugging it to my chest. Bread, of course. Someone is chasing me. “Stop! Thief!” I run. People. Shoulders. Shoes. “Stop! Thief!”

Sometimes it is a dream. Sometimes it is a memory in the middle of the day as I stir iced tea or wait for soup to heat. I never see who is chasing and calling me. I never stop long enough to eat the bread. When I awaken from dream or memory, my legs are tingling.



He was dragging me, running. He was much bigger. My feet skimmed over the ground. Sirens were screaming. His hair was red. We flew through streets and alleyways. There we thumping noises, like distant thunder. The people we bounced off didn't seem to notice us. The sirens were screaming like babies. At last we plunged into a dark hole.

“You're lucky,” he said. “Soon it won't be ladies chasing you. It will be Jackboots.”

“Jackboots?” I said.

“You'll see.”

I wondered who the Jackboots were. Were unfooted boots running along the streets?

“Okay,” he said, “hand it over.”

“Hand what over?” I said.

He reached into my shirt and pulled out the loaf of bread. He broke it in half. He shoved one half at me and began to eat the other.

“You're lucky I didn't kill you,” he said. “That lady you took this from, I was just getting ready to snatch it for myself.”

“I'm lucky,” I said.

He burped. “You're quick. You took it before Ieven knew what happened. That lady was rich. Did you see the way she was dressed? She'll just buy ten more.”

I ate my bread.

More thumping sounds in the distance. “What is that?” I asked him.

“Jackboot artillery,” he said.

“What's artillery?”

“Big guns. Boom boom. They're shelling the city.” He stared at me. “Who are you?”

I didn't understand the question.

“I'm Uri,” he said. “What's your name.

I gave him my name. “Stopthief.”


He took me to meet the others. We were in a stable. The horses were there. Usually they would be out on the streets, but they were home now because the Jackboots were boom-booming the city and it was too dangerous for horses. We sat in a stall near the legs of a sad-faced gray. The horse pooped. Two of the kids got up and went to the next stall, another horse. A moment later came the sound of water splashing on straw. The two came back. One of them said, “I'll take the poop.”

“Where did you find him?” said a boy smoking a cigarette.

“Down by the river,” said Uri. “He snatched a loaf from a rich lady coming out of the Bread Box.”

Another boy said, “Why didn't you snatch it from him?” This one was smoking a cigar as long as his face.

Uri looked at me. “I don't know.”

“He's a runt,” someone said. “Look at him.”

“Stand up,” said someone else.

I looked at Uri. Uri flicked his finger. I stood.

“Go there,” someone said. I felt a foot on my back, pushing me toward the horse.

“See,” said the cigar smoker, “he doesn't even come halfway up to the horse's dumper.”

A voice behind me squawked, “The horse could dump a new hat on him!”

Everyone, even Uri, howled with laughter. Explosions went off beyond the walls.

The boys who were not smoking were eating. In the corner of the stable was a pile as tall as me. There was bread in all shapes and sausages of all lengths and colors and fruits and candies. But only half of it was food. All sorts of other things glittered in the pile. I saw watches and combs and ladies' lipsticks and eyeglasses. I saw the thin flat face of a fox peering out.

“What's his name?” said someone.

Uri nodded at me. “Tell them your name.”

“Stopthief,” I said.

Someone crowed, “It speaks!”

Smoke burst from mouths as the boys laughed.

One boy did not laugh. He carried a cigarette behind each ear. “I think he's cuckoo.”

Another boy got up and came over to me. He leaned down. He sniffed. He pinched his nose. “He smells.” He blew smoke into my face.

“Look,” someone called, even the smoke can't stand him. It's turning green!”

They laughed.

The smoke blower backed off. “So, Stopthief, are you a smelly cuckoo?”

I didn't know what to say.

“He's stupid,” said the unlaughing boy. “He'll get us in trouble.”

“He's quick,” said Uri. “And he's little.”

“He's a runt.”

“Runt is good,” said Uri.

“Are you a Jew?” said the boy in my face.

“I don't know,” I said.

He kicked my foot. “How can you not know? You're a Jew or you're not a Jew.”

I shrugged.

“I told you, he's stupid,” said the unlaugher.

“He's young,” said Uri. “He's just a little kid.”

“How old are you?” said the smoke blower.

“I don't know,” I said.

The smoke blower threw up his hands. “Don't you know anything?”

“He's stupid.”

“He's a stupid Jew.”

“A smelly stupid Jew.”

“A tiny smelly stupid Jew!”

More laughter. Each time they laughed, they threw food at each other and at the horse.

The smoke blower pressed my nose with the tip of his finger. “Can you do this?” He leaned back until he was facing the ceiling. He puffed on the cigarette until his cheeks, even his eyes, were bulging. His face looked like a balloon. It was grinning. I was sure he was going to destroy me with his faceful of smoke, but he didn't. He turned to the horse, lifted its tail, and blew a stream of silvery smoke at the horse's behind. The horse nickered.

Everyone howled. Even the unlaugher. Even me.

The pounding in the distance was like my heartbeat after running.

“He must be a Jew,” someone said.

“What's a Jew?” I said.

“Answer the runt,” someone said. “Tell him what a Jew is.”

The unlaugher kicked ground straw at a boy who hadn't spoken. The boy had only one arm. “That's a Jew.” He pointed to himself. “This is a Jew.” He pointed to the others. “That's a Jew. That's a Jew. That's a Jew.” He pointed to the horse. “That's a Jew.” He fell to his knees and scrabbled in the straw near the horse flop. He found something. He held it out to me. It was a small brown insect. “This is a Jew. Look. Look!” He startled me. “A Jew is an animal. A Jew is a bug. A Jew is less than a bug.” He threw the insect into the flop. “A Jew is that.”

Others cheered and clapped.

“Yeah! Yeah!”

“I'm a horse turd!”

“I'm a goose turd!”

A boy pointed at me. “He's a Jew all right. Look at him. He's a Jew if I ever saw one.”

“Yeah, he's in for it all right.”

I looked at the boy who spoke. He was munching on a sausage. “What am I in for?” I said.

He snorted. “Strawberry babka.”

“We're all in for it,” said someone else. “We're in for it good.”

From the Hardcover edition.

Copyright© 2003 by Jerry Spinelli

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