World War II is raging across Europe and Hitler has the country of Poland in his sights. Shortages abound across Europe. Many young children wander the streets and countryside looking for food and shelter. Antisemitism grows as the Nazis invade Poland.
Jerry Spinelli, author of Maniac Magee one of Mrs. Carter’s all-time favorite books, explores what life might have been like for one of Warsaw’s orphans in Milkweed, a novel featuring the Warsaw ghetto.
Spinelli’s protagonist is young and has no memory of his name, his parents, or his life before he became a thief and a child of the streets. When he is taken in by a group of older orphan boys, he even tells them his name is “Stopthief.” As time passes, the leader of the group gives our young thief a name, a history, and a place to stay. When the Nazis invade, the boy now calling himself Misha, is still desperate to belong. As the Nazis gather the Jews of Warsaw together and force them into the walled ghetto in the city, Misha goes with along with some of his friends, though he is most probably of Gypsy descent.
Misha utilizes his small size and his criminal skills to smuggle food into the ghetto to the orphans and a Jewish family that semi-adopts him. As conditions in the ghetto deteriorate, Misha struggles to provide for his friends and as he still searches for acceptance, attention, and love.
Spinelli once again proves he is a master of his craft, and this novel is beautifully written. However, while the book is not technically difficult and the vocabulary is accessible to younger readers, the subject matter makes the book extremely difficult to read. Spinelli made the decision to write the story in first person from Misha’s viewpoint, so even though the subject matter is horrific, it is approached with great sensitively. Yet, even through Misha’s naivety, Spinelli refuses to sugar-coat or avoid the horrors of the war or the Holocaust, and man’s cruelty to his fellow man is explicitly revealed. Therefore, while I was held captive by the story and I do highly recommend Milkweed, I do so only for our most mature fifth and sixth graders, New Hope alumni, and adult staff.