Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Book Thief: The Power of Books

So many people raved about this book by Markus Zusak that I had to get a copy of it for myself. However, once I did, I put The Book Thief on a shelf under some other books. I wasn't sure I was in the mood to read a book for young adults. However, when I started reading it, I wondered if it really was intended for children. The book's major themes are rather adult in nature: the power of books and reading, love and compassion, brutality, the Holocaust, war, and death. In fact, the narrator of the story is Death, although not a mean and conniving death, but a gentle and sometimes even humorous presence, a "reluctant collector of souls". I've since learned that The Book Thief, published in 2005, was originally published in Australia as a book for adults.

The Book Thief
is the story of a young German girl, Liesel Meminger. While traveling to Molching, a small town outside of Munich in Nazi Germany, Liesel's baby brother suddenly dies. In a snowy graveyard Liesel steals her first book, The Gravedigger’s Handbook. At this point, Death, the narrator, becomes intrigued by the girl and starts to tell her story. She's given to foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, for reasons that she does not yet comprehend (her biological mother has been labeled a Kommunist and is taken away). Despite Rosa's obstreperous and frequent swearing, Liesel feels secure and loved by her foster parents. She develops a special bond with her foster father, a gentle soul with silver eyes who patiently helps her learn how to read. Throughout the story her love of reading grows and becomes more significant, and she "picks up" a few more books. Liesel becomes best friends with a boy named Rudy ("with hair the color of lemons"), goes to school, and life is pretty good, although she's still haunted by her brother's death. But soon everything changes for the worse. As Germany prepares for WWII, Jews are threatened and taken away, and the Hubermanns, who oppose this senseless brutality, hide a Jew named Max Vandenburg in their basement. Germany's brutality toward Jewish people, and to those helpful to Jews, is a dominant theme in this book.
Throughout the book, Liesel is drawn in by the power of words and books and reads at every opportunity, sometimes aloud to others. She learns the significance of words--words in her books that help her escape from a bleak life, as well as words which hold the country under the hideous control of Hitler and the Nazi party. Hitler's autobiography and book of political ideology, Mein Kampf, is important in several ways in The Book Thief.
Let me stop now--before I give away too much of this book. The Book Thief is quite original, touching, and beautifully written. It brought to mind two other books I've read about the horrors of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi, and The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. In 2007, The Book Thief won the Michael L. Printz Honor Book Award and the Boeke Prize, and in 2009 it became a bestseller on the NY Times' list of children's books. I cannot recommend it highly enough, especially to adults.
If you've read The Book Thief or have a related thought, please leave a comment. For another review of this book, please visit The Reading Life.


  1. I bought this book not too long ago and look forward to reading it, especially after your great review.

  2. This was published in Australia as adult, but we've marketed it as YA here, the same as Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. It's strange to see what is marketed in which category in different countries.

    I was actually really underwhelmed by this book when I read it in April. It seemed mildly gimicky. Maybe it was just because I had really high hopes going into it. In the end, I thought Number the Stars by Lois Lowry was a far superior book about the Holocaust from a child's pov.

  3. Your review is wonderful. This book has been on my radar for quite awhile. I keep trying to convince my book club to read it. I think I may give up and just read it on my own!! :-)

  4. Thank you all for your comments. I LOVED The Book Thief!

    * * * I FOUND THIS BOOK * * *
    quirky, original,and absorbing

    Amanda, I read Lois Lowry's The Giver and may well read Number the Stars.

    More comments welcomed, as always.

  5. I've been coveting this book for a long time, but the "holocaust" thing kinda put me off, just because I feel like I have read and watched numerous books and movies with related theme and I got a bit tired. I admit I didn't read your summary because I want to know as little as possible before I read the book (only the first and last paragraph). Hopefully I will soon! :)

  6. Suko-I am so glad you liked the book-I also really liked "Number the Stars" and learned a lot about Denmark in WWII from it. I did a review of it on my blog also. I have The Giver in my read very soon shelf, probably in September. I really do not see why book stores have it only in the young adult section-I liked "I Am the Messenger" by Zusak a lot also.

    I also think Book Thief is not best seen as from a child's point of view, dont forget who the narrator is Death.

    Very good review, Suko, I hope you also like "Goodbye Tsugumi"

    If I can here is a book I found really intelligent

    Raising Confident Girls: 100 Tips for Parents and Teachers by Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer
    -simple things you can do every day

  7. Have you read I Am the Messenger? I read that a few years ago, and it became one of my favorites.

  8. Actually i have been wanting t read this one for quite sometime! That was a great review!

  9. I really enjoyed 'The Book Thief' myself but as someone who taught children's literature for many years both to young children and at post and under-graduate level, I wasn't sure about the audience. Certainly, here in the UK it was published initially as a children's book and I know that as a teacher I would have wanted to think very carefully about which children I offered it to.

  10. I've heard so much about this book as well and am almost afraid to read it because I feel like it won't live up to my expectations! Thanks for the review.

  11. ditto to what S. Krishna said. Based on the description I don't think I would have picked this one up but with all the great reviews I can't NOT read it, lol

    Thanks for another great review :)

  12. When I read this book last year, I also wondered if The Book Thief was really intended for adults. There are so many great themes in this book and the narration is intriguing.

    I'm happy you enjoyed it.

  13. Thanks to everyone for taking the time to comment. I'm now interested in Zusak's other books, such as I Am the Messenger.

  14. Wow, I need to add this to my TBR pile then. It sounds very good. I like when the characters in a book enjoy reading too.

  15. Naida, it took me several pages before this book "hooked" me, but then once it did, I enjoyed it very much.

  16. Great review! I loved the book. I read it a couple years ago, but still haven't bought it. Horrible, I know. It's one of the best young adult books I've read. Very well written (:

  17. I loved, loved, loved this book as well and plan on rereading it at some point. I also plan on reading his other novel I Am The Messenger but I haven't had the chance to pick it up yet.

  18. Yeah I keep reading how this book is rather mature to be labeled YA (though personally, I don't necessarily see YA books to be any less serious). I'd love to read this book. Maybe next year.

  19. Faith and Samantha, thanks very much for your comments!

  20. I loved this book and count it among my all-time favorites. I recently read Floating in My Mother's Palm by Ursula Hegi and can't wait to read Stones From the River.

    Would it be okay to link to your review on War Through the Generations?

    Diary of an Eccentric

  21. Absolutely, Anna! Please do.

    I think you will LOVE Stones From the River.

  22. Anna, thanks for the link. Please feel free to link to my post on The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, too, if you'd like.


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