Milkweed by acclaimed author Jerry Spinelli is the endearing tale of a boy with no identity at a time when one's identity meant the difference between life and death. Published in 2003, the novel has quickly become one of the most popular young adult works used by English teachers to facilitate a discussion of the Holocaust. Most impressive is Spinelli's ability to maintain the protagonist's innocence throughout the story: readers truly feel immersed in the experiences of a child who does not fully comprehend what is happening around him in the Warsaw ghetto.
Orphaned at an early age, the protagonist eventually assumes an identity that his friend, Uri, bestows upon him. Unsure whether he is a Jew, a Gypsy, or simply a boy named "Stopthief," the protagonist suddenly becomes Misha Pilsudski. While trying to steal food, Misha befriends a young girl named Janina Milgrom. When her family is forced into the Warsaw ghetto, he happily travels with them, unaware of the grave danger. Misha forges important relationships in the Warsaw ghetto against the backdrop of the Holocaust. Readers cannot help but root for Misha and Janina as they become close friends during one of the world's darkest hours. When Misha realizes that the people in the ghetto are not being "resettled" as promised, he must make important choices that will determine whether he lives or dies.
The novel's title is intriguing when one considers that milkweed is a plant that hosts monarch butterflies: beautiful but transient. Ultimately, the plant's seeds are carried off by the wind and soon forgotten. As the story comes to a close, readers are left to determine Spinelli's intentions and to whom he is referring by titling the novel Milkweed.
The novel's main theme, identity, is a touchstone for young adults who are trying to define an identity as they navigate adolescence. Much of what Misha feels about not knowing who he is will also resonate with readers of all ages.