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Discussion Module

The Book Thief
by
Markus Zusak

Publishing Information: Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2006
ISBN: 0375831992 / 0375842209 (PB) / 073931007 (Audio) / 0786290218 (LPeD)
Pages
: 552 p.
Ages: 15 & Up

Summary:
Death tells the story of Liesel, whose book-stealing and story-telling talents sustain her German family and the Jewish man they are hiding during the horrors of World War II.

Book Talk:
Part 1: DEATH AND CHOCOLATE
"First the colors.
Then the humans.
That's usually how I see things.
Or at least, how I try.

***HERE IS A SMALL FACT ***
You are going to die.

I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that's only the A's. Just don't ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.

***Reaction to the ***
AFOREMENTIONED fact
Does this worry you?
I urge you--don't be afraid.
I'm nothing if not fair.

--Of course, an introduction.

A beginning.

Where are my manners?

I could introduce myself properly, but it's not really necessary. You will know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables. It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms. A color will be perched on my shoulder. I will carry you gently away."

Death serves as knowing narrator for this tale, which is framed much like a lengthy flashback. The storytelling aspects of the book and   foreshadowing about what eventually happens to the various lead characters embraces the heart of things here-the rather small and ordinary saga of 10-year-old Liesel Meminger, who has been given over to a foster family following her mother's branding as a "Kommunist" and the death of her younger brother. Under her foster parents' care, she learns how to read, how to keep terrifying secrets and how to hone her skills as a book thief, a practice that keeps her sane and feeds her newfound love of words. This is a tale of Germans and Jews under unfathomable duress and the ripple effect such circumstances have on their lives.
Subject Headings & Major Themes:

Anti-Semitism
Coming of Age Stories
Death (Fictitious character)
Genocide
Holocaust
Prejudice & Racism
World War II

Awards & Reviews:
Book Sense Book of the Year, 2007
Booklist Children's Editors' Choice, 2006
Bulletin Blue Ribbon Book, 2006
Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (South East Asia & South Pacific) - Nominee, 2006
Horn Book Fanfare, 2006
Kirkus Reviews Editor Choice Award, 2006
Michael L. Printz Honor Book, 2007
Parent's Choice Award for Best Children's Fiction (Gold Award), 2006
Parent's Choice Award for Best Young Adult Fiction (Gold Award), 2006
Publishers Weekly Best Children's Book of the Year, 2006
School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, 2006
Sydney Taylor Book Award, 2007
YALSA Best Books for Young Adults, 2007

Gr. 10-12. Death is the narrator of this lengthy, powerful story of a town in Nazi Germany. He is a kindly, caring Death, overwhelmed by the souls he has to collect from people in the gas chambers, from soldiers on the battlefields, and from civilians killed in bombings. Death focuses on a young orphan, Liesl; her loving foster parents; the Jewish fugitive they are hiding; and a wild but gentle teen neighbor, Rudy, who defies the Hitler Youth and convinces Liesl to steal for fun. After Liesl learns to read, she steals books from everywhere. When she reads a book in the bomb shelter, even a Nazi woman is enthralled. Then the book thief writes her own story. There's too much commentary at the outset, and too much switching from past to present time, but as in Zusak's enthralling I Am the Messenger (2004), the astonishing characters, drawn without sentimentality, will grab readers. More than the overt message about the power of words, it's Liesl's confrontation with horrifying cruelty and her discovery of kindness in unexpected places that tell the heartbreaking truth. Hazel Rochman
Booklist
, May 1, 2005, p. 1586 (Starred Review)

Death itself narrates this deeply affecting tale of "a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter, and quite a lot of thievery." It is 1939 when nine year- old Liesel, on her way to a foster home in Molching, Germany, steals a book -- the first she's ever owned -- from a graveyard. From then through 1943, her life is chronicled in books stolen (from Nazi book burnings; from the mayor's wife), books given (by her foster parents, irascible Rosa and kindly Hans Hubermann; by Max Vandenburg, the Jew hiding in their basement), and books written (her own story, finished in that basement during a devastating air raid). As her relationships and beliefs deepen, Liesel grows into a tough, earnest heroine, convincingly ordinary yet with an extraordinary capacity for caring. The small, poor town of Molching proves an effective microcosm for exploring the double-edged dangers faced by everyday Germans, and Zusak's gift for detail brings its streets and citizens richly to life. As a narrator, Death is startlingly, wrenchingly compassionate, struggling to turn away from the survivors left behind to live with "punctured hearts" and "beaten lungs" yet immeasurably moved by the tenderness they wring from despair -- Liesel building a snowman in the basement with Max; her best friend Rudy placing a teddy bear on the chest of a dying Allied pilot. Exquisitely written and memorably populated, Zusak's poignant tribute to words, survival, and their curiously inevitable entwinement is a tour de force to be not just read but inhabited.
The Horn Book Magazine, March/April 2006

When Death tells a story, you pay attention. Liesel Meminger is a young girl growing up outside of Munich in Nazi Germany, and Death tells her story as "an attempt -- a flying jump of an attempt -- to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it." When her foster father helps her learn to read and she discovers the power of words, Liesel begins stealing books from Nazi book burnings and the mayor's wife's library. As she becomes a better reader, she becomes a writer, writing a book about her life in such a miserable time. Liesel's experiences move Death to say, "I am haunted by humans." How could the human race be "so ugly and so glorious" at the same time? This big, expansive novel is a leisurely working out of fate, of seemingly chance encounters and events that ultimately touch, like dominoes as they collide. The writing is elegant, philosophical and moving. Even at its length, it's a work to read slowly and savor. Beautiful and important.
Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 2006 (Starred Review)

This hefty volume is an achievement, a challenging book in both length and subject, and best suited to sophisticated older readers. The narrator is Death himself, a companionable if sarcastic fellow, who travels the globe "handing souls to their conveyor belt of eternity." Death keeps plenty busy during the course of this WWII tale, even though Zusak (I Am the Messenger) works in miniature, focusing on the lives of ordinary Germans in a small town outside Munich. Liesel Meminger, the book thief, is nine when she pockets The Gravedigger's Handbook, found in a snowy cemetary after her little brother's funeral. Liesel's father, a "Kommunist," is already missing when her mother hands her into the care of the Hubermanns. Rosa Hubermann has a sharp tongue, but Hans has eyes "made of kindness." He helps Liesel overcome her nightmares by teaching her to read late at night. Hans is haunted himself, but hte Jewish soldier who saved his life during WWI. His promise to repay that debt comes due when the man's son, Max, shows up on his doorstep. This "small story," as Death calls it, threads together gem-like scenes of the fates of families in this tight community, and is punctuated by Max's affecting, primitive artwork rendered on painted-over pages from Mein Kampf. Death also directly addresses readers in frequent asides; Zusak's playfulness with language leavens the horror and makes the them eve more resonent ... words can save your life. As a storyteller, Death has a bad habit of forecasting ("I'm spoiling the ending," he admits halfway through his tale). It's a measure of how successfully Zusak has humanized these characters that even though we know they are doomed, it's no less devastating when Death finally reaches them. Ages 12-up. --Staff
Publishers Weekly, January 30, 2006, p70 (Starred Review)

Grade 9 Up -- Zusak has created a work that deserves the attention of sophisticated teen and adult readers. Death himself narrates the World War II-era story of Liesel Meminger from the time she is taken, at age nine, to live in Molching, Germany, with a foster family in a working-class neighborhood of tough kids, acid-tongued mothers, and loving fathers who earn their living by the work of their hands. The child arrives having just stolen her first book -- although she has not yet learned how to read - and her foster father uses it, The Gravediggers Handbook, to lull her to sleep when shes roused by regular nightmares about her younger brothers death. Across the ensuing years of the late 1930s and into the 1940s, Liesel collects more stolen books as well as a peculiar set of friends: the boy Rudy, the Jewish refugee Max, the mayors reclusive wife (who has a whole library from which she allows Liesel to steal), and especially her foster parents. Zusak not only creates a mesmerizing and original story but also writes with poetic syntax, causing readers to deliberate over phrases and lines, even as the action impels them forward. Death is not a sentimental storyteller, but he does attend to an array of satisfying details, giving Liesels story all the nuances of chance, folly, and fulfilled expectation that it deserves. An extraordinary narrative. -Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley Public Library, CA
School Library Journal, May 2005 p. 120 (Starred Review)

Discussion Questions and Ideas:

  1. What is the effect of having Death serve as the narrator?
  2. What is the significance of words?
  3. Why is Hans Hubermann "worth a lot" (p. 34)?
  4. What is the role of colors?
  5. What are examples of sacrifice?
  6. What is the significance of stealing?
  7. What is the role of Liesel's brother?

Related Websites:
Author's Website - http://www.markuszusak.com

1936 Olympics -   http://www.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/online/olympics/

Cybrary of the Holocaust - http://remember.org/

Hitler's Willing Executioners (Freedom Magazine) -   http://www.freedommag.org/english/spegerm/page38a.htm

Holocaust Memorial Center - http://www.holocaustcenter.org

Music of the Holocaust - http://www.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/online/music/

United States Holocaust Museum - http://www.ushmm.org/

Read-a-Likes:
Anti-Semitism                                           
Daniel, Half Human: and the Good Nazi by David Chotjewitz, 2004
Incantation by Alice Hoffman , 2006 (A 2008 RITBA Nominee)
The Inventory: A Novel by Gila Lustiger, 2001

Death (Fictitious Character)   
Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett, 1987
Keturah and Lord Death
by Martine Leavitt, 2006
Mort
by Terry Pratchett, 1987
On a Pale Horse by Pier Anthony, 1983
Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett, 1991
Soul Music: A Novel of Discworld by Terry Pratchett, 1995

Prejudice & Racism
Copper Sun by Sharon M. Draper, 2006
Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy
by Gary D. Schmidt, 2004
New Boy
by Julian Houston, 2005
To Kill a Mockingbird
byHarper Lee, 1960
Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher, 2001 (2002 RITBA Nominee)

Holocaust
Anne Frank and Me by Cherie Bennett & Jeff Gottesfeld, 2001
Bearing Witness: Stories of the Holocaust by Darlene Z. McCampbell & Hazel Rochman (eds.), 1991
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne, 2006
Briar Rose by Jane Yolen, 1992
Good Night Maman by Norma Fox Mazer, 1999
Maus: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman, 1986
Night by Ellie Wiesel, 1960
Smoke and Ashes by Francine Pascal, 1988
Children in the Holocaust and World War II: Their Secret Diaries by Laurel Holliday, 1995
We Are Witnesses: Five Diaries Of Teenagers Who Died In The Holocaust by Jacob Boas, 1995

World War II
The Eyes of the Emperor by Graham Salisbury, 2005 (A 2007 RITBA Nominee)
Left for Dead: A Young Man's Search for Justice for the USS Indianapolis by Peter Nelson, 2002 (A 2004 RITBA Nominee)
London Calling by Edward Bloor, 2006   
Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II by Robert Kurson, 2004
Stones from the River by Ursula Heigi, 1994
Traitor by Gudrun Pausewang; Translated by Rachel Ward, 2006

Genocide
Diary of Pelly D. by L. J. Adlington, 2005 (A 2007 RITBA Nominee)
Over a Thousand Hills I Walk with You by Hanna Jansen; translated by Elizabeth D. Crawford, 2006
The Telling by Ursula LeGuin, 2000
Voices by Ursula LeGuin, 2006

Other Books by the Author:
Fighting Ruben Wolfe, 2001
The Underdog, 2002
Getting the Girl, 2003
I Am the Messenger, 2005

About the Author:
At the age of 30, Zusak has already asserted himself as one of today's most innovative and poetic novelists. With the publication of The Book Thief, he is now being dubbed a 'literary phenomenon' by Australian and U.S. critics. Zusak is the award-winning author of four previous books for young adults: The Underdog, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, Getting the Girl, and I Am the Messenger, recipient of a 2006 Printz Honor for excellence in young adult literature and Children's Book Council of Australia's Book of the Year Award. He lives in Sydney, where he writes, occasionally works a real job, and plays on a soccer team that never wins.

FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

PERIODICALS

  • Advertiser (Adelaide, South Australia, Australia), August 18, 2001, "The Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards," p. L19; August 17, 2002, "The Best Children's Books," p. W11; August 16, 2003, "Children's Book of the Year Awards," p. W09.
  • Booklist, February 15, 2001, Bill Ott, review of Fighting Ruben Wolfe, p. 1129; May 15, 2003, Gillian Engberg, review of Getting the Girl, p. 1656.
  • Daily Telegraph (Surry Hills, New South Wales, Australia), August 23, 2003, Ray Chesterton, interview with Zusak, p. 30.
  • Herald Sun (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia), October 12, 2002, Denise Civelli, review of The Messenger, p. W30.
  • Horn Book, March, 2001, Peter D. Sieruta, review of Fighting Ruben Wolfe, p. 217; May-June, 2003, Peter D. Sieruta, review of Getting the Girl, p. 360.
  • Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2003, review of Getting the Girl, p. 402.
  • Publishers Weekly, February 26, 2001, review of Fighting Ruben Wolfe, p. 87.
  • School Library Journal, March, 2001, Edward Sullivan, review of Fighting Ruben Wolfe, p. 258; April, 2003, Janet Hilbun, review of Getting the Girl, p. 171.
  • Sunday Tasmanian (Hobart, Tasmania, Australia), December 15, 2002, Richard Sprent, review of The Messenger, p. T18.

ONLINE

Source:   Contemporary Authors Online , Thomson Gale, 2006.
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