Monday, September 26, 2011

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

It is Banned Books Week and I thought I would start things off with a look at The Book Thief. This is not because it is a banned book, quite the contrary, it has been on the New York Times Best Seller Children’s Paperback List for 209 weeks now, often bouncing in and out of 1st place(See Below.)  I begin with The Book Thief because it is about a young girl who loves books but living in a country and at a time when books were not only banned but they were also burned.

In this story narrated by Death, 9 year old Liesel Meminger is traveling to Molching, a fictional town near Munich, with her mother and 8 year old brother. The children are going to live with foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. On the way, Liesel’s brother dies and at his graveside, she steals her first book, The Grave Digger’s Handbook.

Liesel doesn’t adjust to her new home very quickly, and she is haunted by nightmares about her brother. Hans Hubermann, a kind painter/accordion player, sits up with her after the nightmares and eventually begins to teach Liesel how to read. She also makes friends with the neighborhood kids, especially Rudy Steiner, who is quite in love with her.

Liesel eventually adjusts to life in Moching, attending school, and helping Rosa Hubermann pick up and deliver the washing she does for wealthy customers. Unfortunately, she continues to experience nightmares, but her reading also improves with the help of Hans.

At a fire fueled mainly by books to honor the Hitler’s birthday, Liesel realizes for the first time that she is in foster care because her parents were communists. And it is from the bonfire that Liesel steals her second book, The Shoulder Shrug. But this time she is recognized by the mayor’s wife, Ilsa Hermann, one of Rosa Hubermann’s customers. The theft results in an invitation come over to the mayor’s home and read in his vast collection of books. This library is the scene of Liesel’s third act of book thievery, carried out in anger after the mayor claims they should no long have their washing and ironing done by Rosa when so many other people are suffering.

As Jews are being sent to concentration camps in greater and greater numbers, Hans agrees to hide 24 year old Max Vandenburg, son of an old Jewish Army friend from World War I, who saved his life. Max and Liesel become good friends, but when Hans offers a piece of bread to a Jew being marched to Dachau, Max is forced to leave because of fear the Gestapo with come search the Hubermann house. Much later, Liesel sees Max being marched with other Jews to Dachau. Liesel is whipped by a Nazi guard for approaching Max in the crowd of Jews.

In despair, Liesel breaks into the mayor’s library and destroys a book: Soon, there is nothing but scraps of words littered all around her. Words, she realizes, have been used so wrongly to empower the Führer:
The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Führer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or wordly tricks to make up feel better. What good were the words? (pg 521)
Ironically, it is the mayor’s depressed wife who convinces Liesel to begin writing, to change the words and make them right again. In the basement where she learned to read, Liesel begins to write a story called The Book Thief.

The novel follows Liesel from a 9 year old who can’t read a single word to a 14 year old who realizes the true power of words. It is a cleverly constructed book in so many ways. For example, in the beginning, Death introduces the reader to Liesel Meminger through the use of color – representing the three times he saw her “in the flesh.” White for the snow on the ground the day her brother was buried. Then, black for the smoke from an allied plane that has crashed near Molching, and the death of the pilot witnessed by Rudy and Liesel. Lastly, red for the burning sky resulting from the bombing of Munich and surrounding areas, including Molching. Association through color - White, Black and Red – the colors of the Nazi flag place her squarely in Nazi Germany during the Second World War.

The Book Thief is a well-written book with well-developed characters. Death as the narrator is neither omniscient nor grim, and though he can often be both cynical and compassionate, he sums up mankind’s contradictory behavior quite simply: "So much good, so much evil," Death says of human nature. "Just add water." (pg 160)

I liked that the novel ultimately became its own irony. It is divided into 10 chapters, plus a prologue and an epilogue. Each chapter is named after a book that Liesel owned. When Liesel wrote her own version of The Book Thief, it was given the same form. Incidentally, the content of each of the chapter is also listed under its title. I think this is done so that we focus on why things are happening, not on what is happening. 

This book is recommended for readers 12 and up.
This book was purchased for my personal library.

The Book Thief has been given the following well deserved honors:
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 Daniel Elliott Peace Award
2006 Publishers Weekly Best Children Book of the Year
2006 Booklist ChildrenEditors' Choice
2006 Bulletin Blue Ribbon Book
2007 Boeke Prize
2007 ALA Best Books for Young Adults
2007 Michael L. Printz Honor Book]
2007 Book Sense Book of the Year
2009 Pacific Northwest Young Readers Choice Master List

The Australian publisher Picador offers a very useful note for reading groups for The Book Thief
Scholastic also offers a teacher resource for The Book Thief

The Book Thief
Markus Zusak
Alfred A. Knopf
552 Pages

NYT Children's Best Seller Sunday, September 25, 2011


  1. Hi,

    I found your blog on Book Blogs and knew I had to check out your blog when I saw the link to this book! I absolutely loved reading this book! Such a beautiful and original concept for an otherwise widely used topic.

    Your blog is great and I am now following it.

    I'd love it if you could also check mine out at Storybook Love Affair -


  2. I love this unusual take on a Banned Book Week selection. I also think I'd like the book!

  3. This is a great post! Like Megan, I found your link through Bookblogs. After reading the whole blog entry, I'm already thinking of getting myself a copy of this book.

    I'm now following you. I hope you could drop by my blog, too. (


  4. Hi Alex,

    Just letting you know that I answered your question about my fascination with New York underneath the comment you left on my blog. I'm not sure if it gives you an alert or anything so thought I'd let you know via here.



  5. I read this in 2006 and later bought my own copy. I was struck by how, in the early stages of the story, Death seemed sinister but later I realized that Death has heart. Sometimes he comes in compassion.

    But I forget many of the particulars of the story and am grateful for the reminders. Must be time to reread!

  6. Thanks for stopping by, everyone.

    Megan, I responded to you on your blog.

    Joy, I also thought this would be an interesting take on Banned Books Week. The book is great and I think you might like it.

    Nancy, I think you might like this book, I actually haven't met many readers who didn't like it.

    Joyce, I also forget the particulars of stories, which is why a blog is good for remembering. I found Death to be at times funny, compassionate, snarky but all at the right time.

  7. I have had this book on my virtual book shelf for almost a year. I know I'm going to love it and I know I have to read it.

    Another wonderful post Alex.

  8. Another fine review. And a fine book. I think I have mentioned it before on your blog as a book that I read and admired greatly before I ever knew it was thought of as a book for young adults. I think it is extremely powerful and would move readers of any age.

  9. I think you will really appreciate this book, Zohar. It is the kind of book you would like.

    Yes, Dorothy, you did mention this to me before. And I agree it is a very powerful book and resonates so much in today's world.

  10. This is one of my all-time favorites! I've linked to this review (and your others, of course) on War Through the Generations.