Literary Criticism and Significance
Jerry Spinelli's Milkweed has received tremendous critical acclaim.Milkweed is the winner of the Golden Kite Award for fiction, the Carolyn W. Field Award, and the ALA Best Books for Young Adults Award, and many others. Although the novel's subject matter, the Holocaust, is extremely difficult for young adults to grasp, Spinelli addresses it in such a way that the horrors of the Holocaust are not overt. Instead, readers who have the background to paint their own mental images are able to do so while those who are less knowledgeable can focus on the story and the characters.
There are few young adult novels that address the Holocaust effectively and realistically. While Milkweed is purely fictional, it depicts a historically accurate setting and creates characters who might really have existed (with the exception of Dr. Korczak, who was a real person). Although the novel does not go into detail when describing the horrific scenes of dead bodies and Nazi atrocities, readers experience these events vicariously through Misha; thus, the perspective is one of innocence. One can almost imagine Misha and Anne Frank meeting one another and discussing the inherent good in people and what they might do once the war is over.
Despite the devastation of his surroundings, somehow Misha finds hope in even the darkest of hours. This is indicative of what some Holocaust survivors have written and spoken about: the need to focus on possibility amid destruction and devastation.
It is remarkable when readers consider how little the events Misha experiences affect him; his character does not change at all over the course of the novel. Ironically, it is as if the events of the Holocaust gave Misha life whereas they represented death for so many others. Before he met Uri and Janina, Misha had neither an identity nor a family. The desperate situation precipitated by the Nazi occupation strangely gave Misha both of these. Misha is like the "milkweed plant...growing by a heap of rubble." In spite of everything, Misha survives.
Published in 2003, Milkweed has become a seminal work in language arts and English curricula at both the middle and high school levels.