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The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

02 Mar

2007, Alfred A. Knopf, ISBN 978-0375842207

Plot Summary: Set in Nazi Germany, The Book Thief is narrated by Death and follows young Liesel Meminger as she moves in with a foster family after her mother, a Communist sympathizer, goes on the run from the Nazis. Liesel’s younger brother dies on the trip, and she takes a book, The Grave Digger’s Apprentice, drops in the snow. Although unable to read, Liesel keeps the book.

The story deals with the day-to-day lives and struggles of the Hubermann/Meminger family and their neighbors during the Nazi regime. Hans, a house painter, is a gentle man who teaches Liesel to read and write and showing her affection. A Nazi party outsider, he finds work harder to come by and has earned the disgust of his older son, a staunch Nazi sympathizer. A World War I veteran, he keeps a promise to a Jewish soldier who saved his life during the war by hiding his son, Max, in his basement for two years. Rosa, a crude, verbally and sometimes physically abusive woman, is a laundress who sends Liesel to collect laundry as a way to garner pity from her customers. Liesel befriends a neighborhood boy, Rudy, and the two become neighborhood thieves. This helps feed Liesel’s growing addiction to books.

Critical Evaluation: The Book Thief is a book with many layers, many stories, under one cover. Narrated by Death, the reader has a bird’s eye view of all the players, but learns a bit about the Narrator himself. He is not portrayed as a cold, cruel being but is objective, doing what he must and taking no pleasure in it. He is sympathetic, carrying children and concentration camp victims as gently as he can when he comes for them. He takes soldiers in his hands, but he understands innocence and slaughter. His confession to Liesel at the end – that he is haunted by humans – is the most revealing thing about Death and about humanity that the reader can take away from this book.

The narrative can be dense and the subject matter is not light, but the author’s gift for description is undeniable – the reader can smell the burning city of Molching; can feel Max’s hunger and pain as he struggles to stay alive, and will ache with Liesel’s grief.

Reviews: School Library Journal: (Starred Review) “An extraordinary narrative.”

USA Today: “The Book Thief deserves a place on the same shelf with The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel’s Night. It seems poised to become a classic.”

Awards: Horn Book Fanfare (2006); Kirkus Reviews Editor Choice Award (2006); School Library Journal Best Book of the Year (2006); Publisher’s Weekly Best Children’s Book of the Year (2006); Booklist Children Editors’ Choice (2006); American Library Association (ALA) Best Books for Young Adults (2007); Michael L. Printz Honor Book (2007); Book Sense Book of the Year (2007)

Reader’s Annotation: Would you be surprised to learn that Death is as unsettled by humans as we are by Death?

Author Information: Australian author Markus Zusak’s Random House webpage offers links to excerpts from both The Book Thief and  I Am The Messenger; readers can also find discussion questions and download a reading guide on The Book Thief, and a discussion board allows readers to discuss Zusak’s books together in a moderated forum.

Genre: Historical fiction; World War II/Holocaust; subgenres include family, relationships, war, Nazis.

Booktalking Ideas: Liesel loses both her mother and brother at the age of 9, when her brother dies as he and she are being transported to a foster home by their mother, who is on the run. Left with a family she doesn’t know, she has to recreate a new life for herself as Hitler is coming to power. Would you be able to start all over again? Would you understand why your mother had to leave you with strangers, or would you feel abandoned?

Reading Level/Interest Age: Ages 14-18+

Challenge Issues/Defense: War, violence, child abuse. Defense – The author bases his story on true events from World War II Germany, including the bombings which caused numerous casualties and marching concentration camp prisoners through towns. None of the violence or abuse is glorified; rather, it’s meant to paint a gruesome portrait of life in Hitler’s Germany.

Why did you include this book in you’re the titles you selected?

This has been on my reading list for years. It’s a strong entry in World War II fiction, and the reviews have been amazing. It brings the horror of war to a child’s eye view, told by Death – it was too interesting to not want to explore.

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