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On Sale: September 09, 2003
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-375-89037-6
Published by : Knopf Books for Young Readers RH Childrens Books

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A stunning novel of the Holocaust from a Newbery Medalist

He's a boy called Jew. Gypsy. Stopthief. Filthy son of Abraham.

He's a boy who lives in the streets of Warsaw. He's a boy who steals food for himself, and the other orphans. He's a boy who believes in bread, and mothers, and angels.

He's a boy who wants to be a Nazi, with tall, shiny jackboots of his own-until the day that suddenly makes him change his mind.

And when the trains come to empty the Jews from the ghetto of the damned, he's a boy who realizes it's safest of all to be nobody.

Newbery Medalist Jerry Spinelli takes us to one of the most devastating settings imaginable-Nazi-occupied Warsaw during World War II-and tells a tale of heartbreak, hope, and survival through the bright eyes of a young Holocaust orphan.




I am running.

That’s the first thing I remember. Running. I carry something, my arm curled around it, hugging it to my chest. Bread, of course. Someone is chasing me. “Stop! Thief!” I run. People. Shoulders. Shoes. “Stop! Thief!”

Sometimes it is a dream. Sometimes it is a memory in the middle of the day as I stir iced tea or wait for soup to heat. I never see who is chasing and calling me. I never stop long enough to eat the bread. When I awaken from dream or memory, my legs are tingling.



He was dragging me, running. He was much bigger. My feet skimmed over the ground. Sirens were screaming. His hair was red. We flew through streets and alleyways. There we thumping noises, like distant thunder. The people we bounced off didn’t seem to notice us. The sirens were screaming like babies. At last we plunged into a dark hole.

“You’re lucky,” he said. “Soon it won’t be ladies chasing you. It will be Jackboots.”

“Jackboots?” I said.

“You’ll see.”

I wondered who the Jackboots were. Were unfooted boots running along the streets?

“Okay,” he said, “hand it over.”

“Hand what over?” I said.

He reached into my shirt and pulled out the loaf of bread. He broke it in half. He shoved one half at me and began to eat the other.

“You’re lucky I didn’t kill you,” he said. “That lady you took this from, I was just getting ready to snatch it for myself.”

“I’m lucky,” I said.

He burped. “You’re quick. You took it before I even knew what happened. That lady was rich. Did you see the way she was dressed? She’ll just buy ten more.”

I ate my bread.

More thumping sounds in the distance. “What is that?” I asked him.

“Jackboot artillery,” he said.

“What’s artillery?”

“Big guns. Boom boom. They’re shelling the city.” He stared at me. “Who are you?”

I didn’t understand the question.

“I’m Uri,” he said. “What’s your name.

I gave him my name. “Stopthief.”


He took me to meet the others. We were in a stable. The horses were there. Usually they would be out on the streets, but they were home now because the Jackboots were boom-booming the city and it was too dangerous for horses. We sat in a stall near the legs of a sad-faced gray. The horse pooped. Two of the kids got up and went to the next stall, another horse. A moment later came the sound of water splashing on straw. The two came back. One of them said, “I’ll take the poop.”

“Where did you find him?” said a boy smoking a cigarette.

“Down by the river,” said Uri. “He snatched a loaf from a rich lady coming out of the Bread Box.”

Another boy said, “Why didn’t you snatch it from him?” This one was smoking a cigar as long as his face.

Uri looked at me. “I don’t know.”

“He’s a runt,” someone said. “Look at him.”

“Stand up,” said someone else.

I looked at Uri. Uri flicked his finger. I stood.

“Go there,” someone said. I felt a foot on my back, pushing me toward the horse.

“See,” said the cigar smoker, “he doesn’t even come halfway up to the horse’s dumper.”

A voice behind me squawked, “The horse could dump a new hat on him!”

Everyone, even Uri, howled with laughter. Explosions went off beyond the walls.

The boys who were not smoking were eating. In the corner of the stable was a pile as tall as me. There was bread in all shapes and sausages of all lengths and colors and fruits and candies. But only half of it was food. All sorts of other things glittered in the pile. I saw watches and combs and ladies’ lipsticks and eyeglasses. I saw the thin flat face of a fox peering out.

“What’s his name?” said someone.

Uri nodded at me. “Tell them your name.”

“Stopthief,” I said.

Someone crowed, “It speaks!”

Smoke burst from mouths as the boys laughed.

One boy did not laugh. He carried a cigarette behind each ear. “I think he’s cuckoo.”

Another boy got up and came over to me. He leaned down. He sniffed. He pinched his nose. “He smells.” He blew smoke into my face.

“Look,” someone called, even the smoke can’t stand him. It’s turning green!”

They laughed.

The smoke blower backed off. “So, Stopthief, are you a smelly cuckoo?”

I didn’t know what to say.

“He’s stupid,” said the unlaughing boy. “He’ll get us in trouble.”

“He’s quick,” said Uri. “And he’s little.”

“He’s a runt.”

“Runt is good,” said Uri.

“Are you a Jew?” said the boy in my face.

“I don’t know,” I said.

He kicked my foot. “How can you not know? You’re a Jew or you’re not a Jew.”

I shrugged.

“I told you, he’s stupid,” said the unlaugher.

“He’s young,” said Uri. “He’s just a little kid.”

“How old are you?” said the smoke blower.

“I don’t know,” I said.

The smoke blower threw up his hands. “Don’t you know anything?”

“He’s stupid.”

“He’s a stupid Jew.”

“A smelly stupid Jew.”

“A tiny smelly stupid Jew!”

More laughter. Each time they laughed, they threw food at each other and at the horse.

The smoke blower pressed my nose with the tip of his finger. “Can you do this?” He leaned back until he was facing the ceiling. He puffed on the cigarette until his cheeks, even his eyes, were bulging. His face looked like a balloon. It was grinning. I was sure he was going to destroy me with his faceful of smoke, but he didn’t. He turned to the horse, lifted its tail, and blew a stream of silvery smoke at the horse’s behind. The horse nickered.

Everyone howled. Even the unlaugher. Even me.

The pounding in the distance was like my heartbeat after running.

“He must be a Jew,” someone said.

“What’s a Jew?” I said.

“Answer the runt,” someone said. “Tell him what a Jew is.”

The unlaugher kicked ground straw at a boy who hadn’t spoken. The boy had only one arm. “That’s a Jew.” He pointed to himself. “This is a Jew.” He pointed to the others. “That’s a Jew. That’s a Jew. That’s a Jew.” He pointed to the horse. “That’s a Jew.” He fell to his knees and scrabbled in the straw near the horse flop. He found something. He held it out to me. It was a small brown insect. “This is a Jew. Look. Look!” He startled me. “A Jew is an animal. A Jew is a bug. A Jew is less than a bug.” He threw the insect into the flop. “A Jew is that.”

Others cheered and clapped.

“Yeah! Yeah!”

“I’m a horse turd!”

“I’m a goose turd!”

A boy pointed at me. “He’s a Jew all right. Look at him. He’s a Jew if I ever saw one.”

“Yeah, he’s in for it all right.”

I looked at the boy who spoke. He was munching on a sausage. “What am I in for?” I said.

He snorted. “Strawberry babka.”

“We’re all in for it,” said someone else. “We’re in for it good.”

From the Hardcover edition.
Jerry Spinelli|Author Q&A

About Jerry Spinelli

Jerry Spinelli - Milkweed
“Whom do I write for? I write for the story. Each story, it seems to me, knows best how it should be told. As I once put my ear to the railroad track, I listen now for the voice of my story.”—Jerry Spinelli

Jerry Spinelli is the author of more than a dozen books for young readers, including Maniac Magee, winner of the Newbery Medal, and Stargirl a New York Times bestseller and an ALA Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults. Spinelli made his picture book debut with My Daddy and Me, a loving tribute to fathers and sons.


Growing up, Jerry Spinelli was really serious about baseball. He played for the Green Sox Little League team in his hometown of Norristown, Pennsylvania, and dreamed of one day playing for the major leagues, preferably as shortstop for the New York Yankees.

One night during high school, Spinelli watched the football team win an exciting game against one of the best teams in the country. While everyone else rode about town tooting horns in celebration, Spinelli went home and wrote “Goal to Go,” a poem about the game’s defining moment, a goal-line stand. His father submitted the poem to the Norristown Times–Herald and it was featured in the middle of the sports page a few days later. He then traded in his baseball bat for a pencil, because he knew that he wanted to become a writer.

After graduating from Gettysburg College with an English degree, Spinelli worked full time as a magazine editor. Every day on his lunch hour, he would close his office door and craft novels on yellow magazine copy paper. He wrote four adult novels in 12 years of lunchtime writing, but none of these were accepted for publication. When he submitted a fifth novel about a 13-year-old boy, adult publishers once again rejected his work, but children’s publishers embraced it. Spinelli feels that he accidentally became an author of children’s books.

Spinelli’s hilarious books entertain both children and young adults. Readers see his life in his autobiography Knots in My Yo-Yo String, as well as in his fiction. Crash came out of his desire to include the beloved Penn Relays of his home state of Pennsylvania in a book, while Maniac Magee is set in a fictional town based on his own hometown.

When asked if he does research for his writing, Spinelli says: “The answer is yes and no. No, in the sense that I seldom plow through books at the library to gather material. Yes, in the sense that the first 15 years of my life turned out to be one big research project. I thought I was simply growing up in Norristown, Pennsylvania; looking back now I can see that I was also gathering material that would one day find its way into my books.”

On inspiration, the author says: “Ideas come from ordinary, everyday life. And from imagination. And from feelings. And from memories. Memories of dust in my sneakers and humming whitewalls down a hill called Monkey.”

Spinelli lives with his wife and fellow writer, Eileen, in West Chester, Pennsylvania. While they write in separate rooms of the house, the couple edits and celebrates one another’s work. Their six children have given Jerry Spinelli a plethora of clever material for his writing.


“Readers will devour this humorous glimpse of what jocks are made of while learning that life does not require crashing helmet-headed through it.”—Starred, School Library Journal

“Spinelli packs a powerful moral wallop, leaving it to the pitch-perfect narration to drive home his point.”—Publishers Weekly

“As Spinelli effortlessly spins the story of an ordinary Pennsylvania boy, he also documents the evolution of an exceptional author.”—Starred, Publishers Weekly

“In this warm, deeply personal memoir of the kid he was, Spinelli takes us to Norristown, Pennsylvania, in the 1950s.”—Booklist

“Newbery-winning Spinelli spins a magical and heartbreaking tale from the stuff of high school.”—Starred, Kirkus Reviews

“Part fairy godmother, part outcast, part dream-come-true, the star of Spinelli’ s latest novel possesses many of the mythical qualities as the protagonist of his Maniac Magee.”—Starred, Publishers Weekly

“Sixteen-year-old Leo recounts Stargirl’ s sojourn at Mica High in an allegorical story that is engagingly written.”—Booklist

“Tooter is a real-life, plucky, resourceful heroine who scampers through this novel for new readers.”—The Horn Book Magazine

“The characters are well-developed—Tooter is at times reminiscent of Ramona—and the story is enjoyable.” —School Library Journal

Author Q&A

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.



WINNER 2004 ALA Best Books for Young Adults
WINNER 2004 Texas TAYSHAS High School Reading List
Discussion Questions|Teachers Guide

Discussion Guides

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?

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