The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

book thiefBibliographic Information:

Zusak, M. (2006). The book thief. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. (978-0375842207)

Plot Summary:

Liesel Meminger is learning to live with a new foster family in a small town in Germany during World War II. In many ways, Liesel is a typical child; she fights with boys, she makes friends, struggles with loss and how to understand a world going mad around her.

She is also a book thief. After her stepfather, Hans Hubermann notices the first book she stole, The Grave Digger’s Handbook, he decides to teach her how to read and write thus cementing the growing bond between the pair and helping Liesel feel like she belongs. Books continue to help Liesel relate to her community and her neighbours through the ensuring years.

When the son of a Jewish friend, Max Vandenburg, needs a place to hide, the Hubermanns  bring him to live in their basement. Liesel soon befriends the confused and frightened young man. Their friendship is tested when the Hubermanns decide to send him away when a kind act performed by Hans brings them to the notice of the Nazis.

Critical Evaluation:

The lyrical quality of Zusak’s writing immediately captivated me. The mood of this sophisticated story is wistful and intriguing; much like how the narrator feels about the humans he walks among. Zusak’s use of language is beautiful and absolutely necessary for a book that is, fundamentally, about the power of words. Death as the narrator is a convention that is used very successfully in The Book Thief. One could write a paper just on the character of Death. Using Death as a narrator does allow the author a certain latitude with the timeline.

To begin with, Death is relating this as a story already lived. As a result, there is a lot of foreshadowing since Death already knows the outcome. The fluid nature of time also fits very well with the episodic nature of the story. Because the plot covers a number of years, it is necessary to have a natural reason to skip to the important episodes or events. Death’s visiting of this town and checking in on Liesel provides an excellent reason for the pacing of the novel. Another interesting result of having Death as a narrator is that the reader is able to see at a macro level, the scope of the War, and at the micro level of individual lives in a small town in Germany. So, although the Holocaust is in the backdrop of the story, The Book Thief is not a Holocaust story.

The Book Thief is also a book about books. Most of Liesel’s relationships can be described through the stealing, reading, and creation of books.

Reader’s Annotation:

The Book Thief is the story about the power of words to bring death and hope to the residents of a small town in Germany during World War II.

Information About the Author:

Markus Zusak was born in Australia on 23 June 1975 but his roots actually go back to the Germany of his mother’s childhood. In his Printz Award Honor speech Zusak (2007) said that his childhood was different than his friends because his parents’ stories were of the War they lived through in Austria and Germany. He praises his parents for their ability to tell their stories “in a beautiful, meaningful, and compelling way (p. 17).  

Markus started writing when he was sixteen years old, which he also credits his parents for. He says that his parents felt it was important that he could read in English and filled their house with books. Before he became an author, Zusak was a high school English teacher after attending the University of Sydney.

For more information on Markus Zusak, please see his biography.

Genre:

  • Historical fiction

Curriculum Ties:

  • World War II
  • Holocaust
  • Point of view

Booktalking Idea:

  • Start with book burning activity
  • Feature a reading of Death’s description of War
  • Book trailer by ExpandedBooks

Reading Level/Interest Age:

  • Ages 12 and up
  • Reading level 5.1

Challenge Issues:

  • N/A

Why did you include this resource in the titles you selected?:

I read The Book Thief after I read the review in Kirkus and fell in love with the language.

Awards:

  • 2006 – Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (South East Asia & South Pacific)
  • 2006 – Horn Book Fanfare
  • 2006 – Kirkus Reviews Editor Choice  Award
  • 2006 – School Library Journal Best  Book of the Year
  • 2006 – Publishers Weekly Best Children Book of the Year
  • 2006 – Booklist Children Editors’ Choice
  • 2007 – ALA Best Books for Young Adults
  • 2007 – Michael L. Printz Honor Book
  • 2009 – Pacific Northwest Young Readers Choice Master List

References

Markus Zusak. (2009) Contemporary Authors Online. Gale.

Markus Zusak. (2009). Retrieved from http://www.randomhouse.com/features/
markuszusak/author.html

Zusak, M. (2007). Printz Award Honor Speech. Young Adult Library Services,
6(1), 16-17.

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