Friday, January 14, 2011

Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli

I know, I know... this is a kid's book.  But I read this earlier this week for the school library and have found myself thinking about it every since, and I thought that I would see what you all thought too.

The book centers around two children growing up in Nazi-occupied Warsaw.  One is an unnamed orphan, with no memory of any family, who survives by stealing.  "Stopthief", later known as Misha, is a naive, happy-go-lucky young boy who has never known any kind of life other than the one he is living now - living on the streets, taking risks for the thrill of it, stealing what you need and making up your identity as you go along.  Janina is a slightly younger Jewish girl who knew the privilege of security and a loving family with all the good things in life.  Increased persecution, a move into the ghettos of Warsaw, starvation, sickness and eventual deportation change Janina.  Misha and Janina form an unlikely friendship that allows them to weather the storms of this new life. When Janina's family is loaded onto the trains heading towards the concentration camps, Janina and Misha are separated, and Misha manages to escape to the country where he is protected from the Nazis by a kindly couple.

So far so good....
The story ends on what is supposed to be a "hopeful" note - Misha suffers from extreme Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder... he survives by stealing and reselling things, moves to America, meets and marries a woman who only sticks around for 5 months.  In the end, Misha meets the grown up (and apparently unmarried) daughter that he fathered but did not raise, and her young daughter, Wendy.  "Stopthief" finally finds his true identity as "Poppynoodle" (grandpa).

The book is well-written, and engaging.  What has preoccupied me, however, is not the story line so much as the topic.  Spinelli is very graphic about the hardships of the time period - he does not shy away from the ugly realities.  This book is sometimes rated ages 10+, sometimes simply "young adult" and I also saw it used for grade 3 literature circles.  It also has won several children's book awards.
And so I am left wondering...  what's the right age?  Maybe I'm a bit too much of a sheltering Mom, but is my 8 year old (or 10 year old) really ready to deal with the not just the facts of the Holocaust, but the emotional realities of it?  Is she (or he) mature enough to read about beatings, hangings, cruelty, starvation and death in such a personalized way - becoming sensitive to these issues without being traumatized by them?   I'm pretty sure I read The Diary of Anne Frank in high school and I vividly remember being haunted by it for a long time afterwards... as a matter of fact, I still find it painful reading today.

Is the Holocaust, in general, an developmentally appropriate topic for elementary schoolers?

I'd love to know what you think....

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