Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Annotation: Milkweed is a fictional story of a young orphan boy surviving on the streets of Warsaw, Poland at the start of World War Two. The boy develops a unique identity against the backdrop of the Holocaust and the story is both devastating and endearing because the reader sees atrocious historical events play out through the naïve and innocent perspective of a child who, through the course of the story, comes of age and learns about the possibilities of who he can become.
Review: Jerry Spinelli is best known for writing Maniac Magee, and in Milkweed he once again tells a captivating story through the eyes and mind of a young boy on the run. In the case of Milkweed, we learn from the start that the protagonist has very little in terms of a personal identity. As he subsists on the streets of Warsaw, Poland in 1939, the boy, in fact, does not even have a name; he knows only the names like "stopthief" that he is called by the people from whom he steals food to survive. Throughout the story the boy cultivates a variety of different identities based on his experiences and the people who influence him. Early on, he decides he is a gypsy and eventually, when he takes up with a Jewish family who are evicted from their home and forced to move to an oppressive ghetto, he chooses to identify as a Jew. Through the boy’s changing identity, readers can begin to really understand how trivial it is to judge others based on things like religion and ethnicity, and it makes the horrors of the Holocaust that the characters in Milkweed, and their real life counterparts at that time in history, endured feel that much more outrageously horrific.
Fans of history will not be disappointed with Milkweed, as the plot unfolds amidst historically accurate events, places and people. What makes Milkweed so exceptional though, and sets it apart from other historical fiction about World War Two and the Holocaust, is the perspective of all that history through the eyes of a young boy who often doesn’t understand, or have context for what is happening around him. As a reader, it can be unsettling and rather upsetting when, for example, initially the boy admires the Nazi officers for their handsome uniforms. It may be difficult to believe, but there are actually even moments in Milkweed that are truly funny because of just how disconnected some of the boy’s responses are to what is going on around him. Tension builds throughout Milkweed because most readers will already be familiar with what ultimately happened to the Jews of Poland in the 1940s, but the boy does not. This feeling of discomfort, however, can help readers understand how the Jews of Poland felt at the time; disbelief or incapable of imagining what would unfold over the course of the war. At times, it may feel difficult to read on through Milkweed, but understanding what the experience of the Holocaust was like for those who actually lived it is valuable for anyone interested in this period of history and especially what it might have been like for a young child.

  • 2004 ALA Best Books for Young Adults
  • 2004 Golden Kite Award for Fiction
  • 2004 Texas TAYSHAS High School Reading List
Spinelli, Jerry. Milkweed. New York: Knopf, 2003. Print.

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