Warsaw 1939, a young boy, no more than 8 years old wanders the streets alone, stealing food to survive and sleeping wherever he can feel safe for the night. He knows not who he is or where he came from, and when is asked what he is called honestly replies, “Stopthief” as that is all anyone has ever called him.
When he meets a group of boys who are much like him, they hie our at night in a bombed out barber shop, stealing food by day. People ask him, “Are you a Jew? A Gypsy? A filthy son of Abraham?” He eventually is given a name by the boys he hangs out with, “Misha”. He likes it and the story they gave him as well about his family. The boys watch out for the “Jackboots.” the Nazi’s who come to town to gather up the Jews, and destroy any happiness. Misha would like to be a Jackboot with their shiny boots and big tanks. When he grows up, that’s what he wants to be.
Misha makes a friend with a little girl in town names Janina. She is 6 years old and has lovely things and Misha enjoys visiting her. When Janina and her family are forced to move into the newly created ghetto, Misha thinks it is a game and goes along. When a wall is built high around the ghetto so no one can get out, Misha finds a hole in the wall that he is the only one small enough to use, and he goes out and steels food as he pleases and brings it back in to Janina and her family. But times are changing and the bread shelves are empty, and the ladies with the fox fur who used to be easy to rob with their large boxes of sweets are no longer able to be found.
As Misha leans more about his surroundings and what is really happening, he no longer wishes to be a Jackboot. Not at all.
We chose this book for our Bookies book club read for March. Our plan was to choose a YA book to read as a group. This is the book that was nominated and I found myself thinking this is not what I was considering for YA. Yet, having never read Spinelli before I had no idea what an experience I was in for.
MILKWEED is YA like Book Thief is YA. They are written with a younger reader in mind, yet they are written on important and powerful topics. There is no paranormal activity, no witches or werewolves, or vampires in MILKWEED. Instead, there is young, dirty boy.
MILKWEED is a young orphaned boys view of the Holocaust and the innocence of not knowing what is happening, and never really fully understanding until many years later the full impact of what he had been through. Living in a world where you were shot at, called “filthy pig” and seen friends die, was the only world Misha knew.
Even as I type this I am still in awe of the power of this little book. AT 208 pages, you do not need a lot of time to read it, but I do recommend that you do read it. I will definitely be looking for more of Spinelli.
The Bookies had a good discussion over this book. It definitely left us with quite a bit of things to think about as the book focused around the Holocaust, Jewish people, hunger, and the crippling effects of having no hope. For all of us, this was our first Spinelli (speaking for myself, it will not be my last).
We discussed the value of a Holocaust book being written and marketed to 5th – 9th grade. We appreciated the value of a book to this age group on this topic but felt for the younger end they would need a follow-up with a parent to have questions answered as it does not go into much about the reason for the Holocaust or explain much about why people died. Of course this same line of discussion led to the wondering if a generation that has grown up surrounded by violence on tv, at the movies, and in video games would get the book and understand this was reality.
Overall the Bookies gave it an average rating. Some found the ending to be not to their liking. And of course, we had food… and lots of choices from the book as in the beginning Misha and the boys he hung around with stole from stores, gardens, and people’s homes, and food was plentiful.