Excerpted from Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli. Copyright © 2003 by Jerry Spinelli. Excerpted by permission of Ember, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q: How was writing Milkweed—your first historical novel—different from writing your other novels?
A: Research is what made it different from my other books. I usually do little research, but there was no avoiding it here. I made my bookseller happy by buying a load of books. I read parts of all of them for the next four or five months, then started writing.
Q: Would you mind telling us about the two people you named in your Milkweed dedication?
A:Bill Bryzgornia, a lifelong friend of mine, died shortly before the book came out. He was of Polish descent. He is mentioned briefly in my autobiography, Knots in My Yo-yo String.
Masha Bruskina is the name of a young woman who was publicly hanged by the Nazis as a warning and an example to partisan opponents of the occupying forces. I had seen the picture of her execution in a number of books over the years.
Q: How much of Misha’s character and situation is based on history, on reality? What about the other characters?
A:Many of the events and details of the story are true. For the most part, I made up the characters. There were, in fact, orphans who had no memory of mother or father and who, it seemed, simply materialized on the streets of war-torn Europe.
Q: Why did you decide to show the reader what happens to Misha when he grows up rather than ending Milkweedwith him still a child?
A: Because I wasn’t telling the story of the war; I was telling the story of Misha.
Q: How did you decide on the names of the characters?
A: As always, I chose them because they sounded right for the story, the time, the place. In a few cases, I actually changed names on the advice of a few helpful prepublication readers who knew 1940s Poland better than I.
Q: Do you have any favorite historical novels?
A: Johnny Tremain.
Q: When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
A: Eleventh grade, around the time a poem of mine about a football game was published in the local newspaper. I guess it was largely a matter of timing. I was sixteen. My dream of becoming a major-league baseball player was fading. The imperative to find my course in life was upon me. I was shopping around for who I wanted to be. And here this writing thing seemed to reach down and pluck me out of the crowd. I mean, it wasn’t forced, it wasn’t planned. Nobody assigned me to write a poem after the game. I didn’t try to get it published. I didn’t seek the resulting notoriety. All this pretty much just happened to me. What I did was just apply a little common sense: I like to write, I seem to be pretty good at it, people seem to like what I write (admittedly a lot to conclude from a single poem)—ergo, I’ll be a writer. Simple!
Q: If you could have dinner with anyone in the world, whom would you choose, and why?
A: Tie: Loren Eiseley, the anthropologist and poet/essayist, and Sonny Liston, former heavyweight champ.
Loren Eiseley because he’s often the answer when I’m asked, “Who is your favorite writer?” It’s incredible that he wrote so well, considering that he was a scientist. I love his insights and perspectives on humankind and the universe. . . .
On the way home to St. Louis after winning the heavyweight title, Sonny Liston looked forward to a hero’s welcome, looked forward to receiving affection from the people who had regarded him as a hoodlum and a monster. When he stepped off the plane, not a soul was there to greet him. It broke his heart. I’d like to ask him about that day. I’d like to dump a teacup of confetti on his head.
Q: What do you consider the most rewarding part of writing books for young people?
A: Feedback from readers. The most common kind, of course, is fan mail. I’m proud to say that one particularly nice letter was submitted by the reader/writer to a fan mail contest run by the Library of Congress, and it won. It was about Crash. Some of the most heartwarming reports I get are from teachers and librarians whom I meet personally at conferences and book signings. When a teacher with tears in her eyes tells how a book “saved” a student of hers, I know I’m in the right business. I remember a letter from a teacher in Georgia. She told me the kids in her class had a choice one day: they could go eat lunch, or they could continue to listen to my book. Every one stayed for the book.
Q: Do you ever use suggestions from readers in new books?
A:I tell readers that if I use an idea of theirs in a book, I’ll give them credit in the acknowledgments. This paid off for one student, who gave me the idea for one of the School Daze books: Who Ran My Underwear Up the Flagpole?
Q: What advice do you have for young writers?
A: For me, there are many little rules, all superseded by one Golden Rule: Write what you care about.
From the Paperback edition.
1. Identity is a key theme in Milkweed. Discuss what Misha Pilsudski means when he says, “And so, thanks to Uri, in a cellar beneath a barbershop somewhere in Warsaw, Poland, in autumn of the year nineteen thirty-nine, I was born, you might say” (p. 31). How does the made-up story of Misha’s life become so important to him? How does his identity change throughout the novel? What gives him a true identity at the end of the book? Discuss Uncle Shepsel’s efforts to renounce his identity as a Jew. How are these efforts related to survival?
2. Uri is described as “fearless on the streets” (p. 80). What does he teach Misha about fear? Janina has led a privileged life and has not had to deal with fear before her family is moved to the ghetto. Discuss how Misha helps her cope with her new life. How does fear eventually kill Mrs. Milgrom? At what point in the novel does Misha display the most fear? How does he deal with it?
3. Uri advises Misha and the other homeless boys that one important survival skill is remaining invisible. Why does Misha have a difficult time remaining invisible? What other survival skills do the boys employ? What does Misha teach the Milgroms about survival? What poses the greatest threat to the survival of the Jews in the ghetto?
4. How does Misha’s relationship with the Milgroms change throughout the novel? At what point does Mr. Milgrom invite him to become a part of the family? Why are Uncle Shepsel and Mrs. Milgrom so reluctant to accept Misha? Discuss how Misha’s desire for family comes full circle by the end of the book.
5. In this novel about the horror and destruction of the Holocaust, Jerry Spinelli includes a number of recurring images of innocence and childhood. He also creates a main character who is young and naïve. What is the effect of this blending of the horrific and the innocent? What is the importance of the carousel horses, the angels, and Janina’s shiny black shoes? Why does Misha say, “We couldn’t eat merry-go-round horses and stone angels” (p. 138)? How do Misha’s childlike feelings and ideas about the Jackboots, their “parades,” and the war change?
6. Although they are hungry and grieving, the Milgroms still celebrate Hanukkah—even after their silver menorah has been stolen. What is the importance of their faith and hope in the midst of devastation? How does Misha feel when he is included in the celebration? The first time Misha hears the word “happy” is when Mr. Milgrom uses it to describe Hanukkah and being proud of their Jewish heritage (p. 157)—why is this important? Why does Misha give up the idea that he is a Gypsy in favor of being a Jew?
7. Discuss the qualities of true friendship. Talk about the friendship that develops between Misha and Janina. Why is Misha such a good friend to the orphans? Why does Dr. Korczak, the head of the orphanage, call Misha a “foolish, good-hearted boy” (p. 64)?
8. When Misha comes to the United States, he shares on the street corner his memories of his life in Poland. He says that running is his first memory (p. 1). What might he say is his last memory? Misha doesn’t tell his family about Janina, but he pays tribute to her memory by naming his granddaughter for her. Discuss why he wants to keep the memory of Janina to himself.
9. On page 196, Misha says, “Somewhere along the way I heard the story of Hansel and Gretel, and I knew that the end was not true, that the witch did not die in the oven.” When he is older and moves to America, Misha sees a copy of Hansel and Gretel in a bookstore and “grab[s] it and rip[s] it to shreds” (p. 202). Think about the story of Hansel and Gretel. How does this story—which most people see as a simple fairy tale—emphasize the horror of the Holocaust for Misha? How are Misha and Janina like Hansel and Gretel? Do you think Misha’s wife, Vivian, understands why he rips up the book?
10. he first sentence of Milkweed is “I am running” (p. 1). Later, Uri warns Misha to run from the ghetto to escape the deportation: “‘Get out. Run. Don’t stop running’” (p. 169). On page 180, Mr. Milgrom tells Misha to take Janina to the other side of the wall and run away: “‘Do not bring back food tonight. Do not return. Run. Run.’” Running plays an important role in Milkweed. How does it shape Misha’s life and identity? Do you think Misha is able to stop running at the end of the novel?
11. Think about the title—where does milkweed appear in this novel? What does it mean to Misha and Janina when they’re in the ghetto? What does milkweed mean to Misha at the end of the novel when he plants it at the end of his yard? How does it preserve his memories of Poland?