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Reading Discussion Guides

Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli

About the Book

Young Misha Pilsudski lives on the streets of Warsaw, Poland and struggles with his identity. When he enters the Jewish ghetto and sees firsthand the evil acts of Hitler’s Nazi soldiers, he realizes it’s safest of all to be nobody.

Milkweed, opens in 1939 and tells the story of a homeless, nameless boy — a “nobody” — until he takes up with other street kids and embraces the identity of a gypsy named Misha Pilsudski. Misha is fascinated by the Jackboots, and spends his days stealing food for himself and the orphans. When he meets Janina Milgrom, a Jewish girl, and follows her family to the Jewish ghetto, he loses his fascination with the Nazi soldiers. He slips in and out of the cracks of the walled ghetto, getting food for the Milgroms. For the first time in his life he has a family until resettlement and deportation snatch them away. This good-hearted boy is once again a “nobody” and eventually makes his way to America, carrying only the memories of his adopted family with him.

About the Author

Jerry Spinelli won the Newbery Medal for Maniac Magee and a Newbery Honor Award for Wringer. He has written many other award-winning books for young readers, including Stargirl, Knots in My Yo-Yo String: The Autobiography of a Kid, and Crash. Spinelli has been touched by the Holocaust since his childhood. In writing Milkweed, he questioned his own credentials in writing a Holocaust book and then remembered what he has told young writers for years: “Write what you care about.”

For more information about Spinelli, check out AdLit’s Books & Authors section for a video interview with the author and other resources.

For more information about the Holocaust and lesson ideas, check out the following articles:

This guide was prepared by Pat Scales.

Pre-Reading Activity

  • Divide the class into groups and ask them to use the Jewish Virtual Library to find information about the following topics: ghettos in Poland, Himmler on the treatment of ethnic groups and Jews, identifying marks for Jews in Poland, Jewish self-help in Warsaw, and the Warsaw Ghetto. Have groups identify the five most important facts about their assigned topics and share with the class.

Discussion Questions

  • Uri advises Misha and the other homeless boys that an important survival skill is to remain invisible. How 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 is the greatest threat to the survival of the Jews in the ghetto?
  • Discuss what Misha Pilsudski means when he says, “Thanks to Uri, in a cellar beneath a barbershop somewhere in Warsaw, Poland, in autumn of the year 1939, I was born, you might say.” (p. 31) How does the made-up story of his life become so important to him? How does Misha’s identity change throughout the novel? What gives him a true identity at the end of the novel?
  • Uri is described as “fearless on the streets.” (p. 80) What does Uri teach Misha about fear? Janina has led a privileged life and doesn’t deal with fear until 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?
  • Discuss the symbolism of the milkweed. How does planting milkweed at the end of his yard preserve his memories of Poland?

Extension Activities

  • Between 1941 and 1943, many Jews in the ghettos tried to organize resistance against the Nazis. One especially strong resistance movement in Poland was a group called the Z.O.B., led by Mordecai Anielewicz. Ask students to research this group and other resistance efforts. Then have them write a short paper that compares Anielewicz’s efforts to Misha’s commitment to helping the Milgroms and the other Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto.
  • Music and art reflect history and define important social movements. Research the kind of music that came out of the Jewish ghettos and camps during the Holocaust. Bring in some music samples for the class to listen to, and discuss emotions assoicated with the songs.


Jerry Spinelli
Age Level:
Middle Grade
Historical Fiction