The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

book-thief-2

I never thought I would read a book that was narrated by Death.  And when I finally got around to it, I really didn’t think I’d like it.  But I did.  One of the English teachers has been after me for a year to read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.  I put my name on the waiting list in the school library, but I never heard back last year, and by this year, to tell you the truth, I forgot. So she tracked me down.  I’m glad she did.

The Book Thief takes place in Nazi Germany.  Its main character is Liesel Meminger, whose mother left her with a foster family after her father, a Communist, was taken away.  Liesel’s brother dies in the opening of the book, and she steals The Gravedigger’s Handbook at his funeral.  She can’t read, but she steals anyway, sensing somehow that words have power.

I was captivated by the characters in this novel as I watched  Liesel grow up, changing from a shy little thing to a girl who actually leaves a note identifying herself after she steals.  She becomes the girl who hugs a Jew as Jews are marched through her town on the way to Dachau.  Along the way, she is loved by Hans and Rosa Hubermann ( her foster parents), Rudy Steiner, her friend and partner in crime, and Max, the Jew who hides in her basement.

Zusak’s  story is a strange one, with Death as his narrator, and his word choices add to the strangeness, but you never have the feeling that his descriptions are imprecise.  For instance, at one point, Death says,”For the book thief, everything was going nicely. For me, the sky was the color of Jews.”  Do you see what I mean?  That’s a strange description, but it’s easy to understand.

Being a former English teacher, I do believe that words have power.  As Liesel points out, Hitler’s words certainly did.  But beyond having the power to destroy, words have the power to heal.  They have the power to tell the truth.  They have the power to save.  And it’s that power, I think, that makes this book worth reading.  Zusak’s story points out that even during something as horrific as the Holocaust, people can be noble.

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6 Responses to “The Book Thief by Markus Zusak”


  1. 1 writeathome April 7, 2009 at 9:51 pm

    Sounds like an interesting book. We’ve done a little reading on WW2 and the Holocaust lately. I just finished reading Night by Elie Wiesel outloud to my son. My husband had my daughter read The Bielski Brothers and write a report on it. She is not very fond of reading, but she did like the book. You are so right about words having power too. That’s why I’m so thankful to be able to read the Bible, a God inspired book of life changing words.

  2. 2 Becky April 8, 2009 at 5:39 am

    I used to teach NIGHT. There’s a lot of power in that little book, isn’t there? It made me sad to hear that Elie Wiesel and his foundation were victims of Bernie Madoff.

    Thanks for the tip about THE BIELSKI BROTHERS. I have not heard of it before.

    You’re right about those life-changing words in the Bible, too. It’s the best book I’ve ever read! 🙂

  3. 3 Luke May 3, 2009 at 3:45 am

    As an English teacher, I need your help. Would “The Book Thief” be an appropriate text to teach to a bright class of 14-15 year-olds? Added to the problem of profanity is that I teach at a Christian school. Your thoughts would be appreciated.

    • 4 Becky May 3, 2009 at 6:33 am

      Luke, I think Christian schools differ in what they will allow. I don’t know that you can teach a book about the Holocaust and be totally appropriate because it sure wasn’t! There is a little profanity in the book, and it’s a coming-of-age novel, but I think the biggest problem in a Christian school would be that death is the narrator and, as Christians, we don’t elevate death to any position since Jesus conquered it. To me, death–in this book–seems more like an angel since he is just an observer and takes people’s souls away.

      The biggest problem I think you would face would be the length of the book. It has 560 pages, but it’s a quick read. I have an LD student who is reading it and “gets” it (he’s reading it for AR points), but it is taking him the full 9 weeks.

      Hope this helps!

  4. 5 Sasha July 16, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    Im 13,i loved this book and managed to read it withen a day.It may be easier then you think to encourage an english class to read it.as becky said though the christian thing may be a problem.

  5. 6 JK May 10, 2010 at 12:09 am

    As a teacher and parent, I think it would be a great book for a classroom read; the mild (and in most places even “affectionate”) language should not get in the way of the great story and important lessons. I think looking at Death as an angel-type being is a good angle, he/it never “elevates” himself above anything else.
    Nice blog!


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