Milkweed Summary and Study Guide

Jerry Spinelli


  • 71-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 45 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a literary scholar with a Master's degree from Columbia
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Milkweed Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 71-page guide for “Milkweed” by Jerry Spinelli includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 45 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Evolving and Ever-Changing Nature of Identity and The Physical, Emotional, and Moral Costs of Survival.

Plot Summary

Milkweed is a young adult historical fiction novel by Jerry Spinelli. Published in 2003, Milkweed won the 2004 Golden Kite Award and 2003 Carolyn W. Field Award in fiction. The novel follows a young, unnamed boy’s life in Warsaw, Poland, during the Holocaust.

Orphaned at a young age, the unnamed protagonist runs wild in the streets of Warsaw, stealing bread from unsuspecting passersby. The boy identifies himself as “Stopthief,” but he remembers almost nothing about his past and his family (9). Stopthief is described as a “runt”(11). Stopthief is taken in by a group of orphans led by an older, redheaded boy named Uri. Uri acts as Stopthief’s guardian. Uri gives the boy a place to sleep, food, and strict rules to survive on the streets. Uri also gives Stopthief a name and a story, and Stopthief is reborn as Misha Pilsudski, a gypsy boy who was separated from his large family by bombs and evil Polish farmers. Misha delightedly accepts his name and story. The boys live in the basement of an abandoned barbershop in relative luxury, with beds, an icebox, and a surplus of food.

Uri and Misha witness the Nazis, otherwise known as the Jackboots, as they initially invade Warsaw. Slowly, the boys’ lives begin to change. Food is harder to find and, eventually, the Jackboots run Uri and Misha out of their home. At one point, Misha sees two Jewish men with long beards being mocked by Jackboots. One man is forced to clean the sidewalk with his beard, while Jackboots cut the other man’s facial hair off. Despite this, Misha is enthralled by the Jackboots and their clean, pressed uniforms, and wants to become a Jackboot. Misha meets a little Jewish girl named Janina who shares food with him and invites him to her birthday party. When Misha visits Janina’s home the next day, he steals her birthday cake. When Uri explains to Misha what birthday cakes and candles are, Misha steals the nicest cake he can and leaves it on Janina’s doorstep.

From that day on, Misha leaves food on Janina’s doorstep in exchange for small trinkets. One day, however, he notices that there are not gifts waiting for him in return. Misha sees an older boy stealing the bread off of Janina’s front step. He tries to get his food back but only gets beaten up. The next night, and despite Uri’s warning about the curfew, Misha sneaks out to place food on Janina’s doorstep. While the food is not stolen this time, a Jackboot sees Misha and shoots his earlobe off.

Jackboot control over Warsaw continues to tighten and with time all the Jews in city, including Misha, the other boys, and Janina’s family are forced into the ghetto. Janina’s family includes Mr. Milgrom, Mrs. Milgrom, and Uncle Shepsel. The family lives in a small room that Uncle Shepsel calls a “closet” (60). Jackboots build a wall around the ghetto and attempt to starve out the people within. Smuggling becomes commonplace in the city and Misha begins sneaking out of a “two bricks wide” hole in the wall to steal food (73). He then smuggles food for both the Milgroms and Doctor Korczak’s orphans. Misha is now considered an honorary member of the Milgrom family and Janina views him as an older brother. Soon, Janina begins to smuggle food, too.

As time passes, food becomes more difficult to find and deaths are a daily occurrence. Mrs. Milgrom passes away, as do Misha’s friends, Olek and Jon. One day, Misha passes Uri on the street. Uri has been gone for a while, secretly working at a Jackboot hotel. Uri warns Misha that the Jackboots have begun deportations and tells him to leave the ghetto and Warsaw before the trains come. Misha tells this to the boys and to the Milgroms but they do not believe him. Later, people begin believing that they are slotted for “resettlement” and that there are villages in the East waiting for them (137). An old man escapes the concentration camps and tries to warn people, but to no avail.

Mr. Milgrom and Misha, however, are convinced by the old man. Though Mr. Milgrom tries to get Misha and Janina to run away from the ghetto, Janina refuses to leave her father. One night, however, the children have no way to return to the ghetto. When they manage to sneak back into the ghetto through Stawki Station, they find the room empty and Mr. Milgrom and Uncle Shepsel gone. Janina and Misha race back to the station; Misha loses Janina in the fray. A Jackboot throws Janina into a boxcar and the door slams shut behind her. Misha is unable to get to Janina in time. Uri, undercover as a Jackboot, throws Misha against the wall and shoots off his ear.

When Misha wakes the next morning, everyone is gone. Misha follows the train tracks and eventually finds a farmer. The farmer takes Misha back to his farm and cares for his wounds. The farmer and his wife convince Misha to stay, in order to keep him from going to the concentration camps or as Misha calls it, “the ovens” (150). Three years later, the farmer’s wife tells Misha that the war is over and to run. Misha wanders through Poland, trying to find Janina, before he finally returns to Warsaw. There, Misha discovers that a revolt has taken place against the Jackboots. Misha smiles at the realization that Uri undoubtedly assisted in the revolt. Misha also confronts Buffo, a Jewish guard who helped the Jackboots, and who was known for smothering children to death against his fat belly. Buffo ignores him and shuffles away.

Misha begins to sell wares that he has stolen and earns enough to get a steamship ticket to America. There, an immigration officer renames him Jack Milgrom. After failing to become a successful salesman, Jack finds comfort in speaking and telling stories on street corners. He meets his wife, Vivian, but the relationship only lasts five months. Years pass, and Misha continues to tell his stories until one day, near City Hall in Philadelphia, two women in their seventies stop to listen to him. One of the women cups his missing ear, smiles, and tells him, “we hear you. It’s enough. It’s over”(158). Misha does not feel the urge to shout his story on street corners anymore.

Misha is stocking shelves in a grocery store when his daughter finds him. Katherine Milgrom has dark brown hair and is twenty-five years old. Katherine wants Jack to give her daughter, Wendy, a middle name. Jack does not hesitate and names her Janina. Later, Katherine asks if Jack will ever tell her why he named her Janina. Jack promises that he will someday. Wendy Janina calls out to Jack excitedly, calling him “Poppynoodle” (162). Jack thinks of all the names he’s had throughout his life and is happy that he is, finally, Poppynoodle.

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Chapters 1-3