Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli is set in Warsaw, Poland, during World War II. The main character is an unnamed boy who acquires multiple names throughout the plot—is introduced to a band of thieves when he meets Uri, a fellow thief who acts as his guardian, and bestows upon him his new name, Misha Pilsudski. Peter D. Sieruta noted, “Misha’s early days with Uri are almost carefree”. While out stealing with Uri, Misha witnesses German invaders “Jackboots” capture Poland. He describes the Jackboots as “magnificent” and later states that he wants to become a Jackboot. Shortly after Poland is captured, Uri decides to create a false identity for Misha, “which Misha gratefully adopts to fill the void that is his past”. This fabricated background states that Misha is a Gypsy born in Russia to a large and old family. His mother was a talented fortune teller, he had “seven brothers and five sisters,” and a beloved “speckled mare” named Greta. In this story bombs and hateful, Polish farmers separate Misha’s family until he winds up as an orphan in Warsaw. While Misha is smuggling, he ends up in a garden where he meets a girl named Janina. Misha describes Janina as a “little girl,” who reveals she is also Jewish. Janina invites Misha to her seventh birthday party and without knowing what birthday cakes are, Misha panics- thinking that they were trying to “burn down the cake”- and blows out the candles and runs away with a part of the birthday cake. With Jackboot control over Warsaw tightening, a curfew is established and “stupid” Misha ends up getting his earlobe shot off from being out past curfew. City conditions worsen with low food supplies, people losing their houses including Janina and her family, loss of electricity, and Jews are being harshly prosecuted. Eventually all Jewish people in Warsaw including Misha, Janina, and the gang of boys are moved into the ghetto. Janina's uncle Shepsel describes their new living conditions as if living in a "closet".
News goes out that Himmler, a prominent Jackboot, is coming. One day, a parade of Jackboots passes, and Misha tries to catch the attention of the ugly, unresponsive man who he thinks is Himmler, but instead is knocked to the ground by Buffo, a man who enjoys killing Jewish children. Once Uri reassures Misha that the man he saw was in fact Himmler, Misha decides that he no longer wants to be a Jackboot. Each night Misha steals by slipping through a hole in the wall that is “two bricks wide”. His friend Janina wants to mimic him, so she begins following him on his stealing expeditions.
As time passes, the conditions of the ghetto worsen. One day as Misha is “walking along,” Uri appears. Uri, who has been gone for a long time, warns Misha that deportations are coming, and that all of the people will be cleared out of the ghetto. Some time later, an old man appears advising the people that there is no resettlement, and instead the Jews are going to be taken away and killed. That night, Janina’s father Mr. Milgrom tells Misha that when he and Janina go out to steal, they need to run away. Janina and Misha stay in Poland though because Janina refuses to leave and kicks Misha when he tries to take her away. Janina drags Misha to the Ghetto only to find the room where they had lived deserted. Janina runs in desperation to find her father, and Misha loses sight of her in the crowd of people. Following, he sees her thrown into a boxcar by a Jackboot. Misha is hit with a club, and kicked before Uri, who appears to be a Jackboot, shoots him.
Misha awakens near the train tracks in a state of confusion. A farmer finds him and takes him to a farm where Misha stays for three years working and sleeping in a barn with the animals and eventually runs away.
Not knowing what to do next, he rides on trains and ends up back in Warsaw where “there is rubble and he then removes his armband leaving it on the sidewalk. Jack (Misha changes his name when moving to America) talks wildly about his past in the streets for years. Most people try to ignore him, except for a woman named Vivian who stops to listen to his stories. She marries him but leaves after five months; pregnant. Many years pass, and we find Jack working in a Bag ‘n Go market when his daughter and granddaughter walk in. Jack still thinks of Janina, although he will tell nobody, and he digs up the milkweed plant and plants it in his own back yard.