The Book Thief

Book review by
Davis Ryan Cook, Common Sense Media
The Book Thief Book Poster Image
Parents recommendPopular with kids
Powerful, moving tale of book-loving girl in Nazi Germany.

Parents say

age 13+
Based on 30 reviews

Kids say

age 12+
Based on 209 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Readers will get a sense of what life was like in Nazi Germany before and during World War II. Shows what it was like to be in the Hitler Youth, episodes of book burning, and the suspense of a German man hiding a Jewish young man in his basement, in an effort to keep him safe from the Nazis.  

Positive Messages

People face difficult choices in difficult times. Heroes risk their lives to do what's right. People are more than meets the eye, and what might come out as rudeness in people might actually be intense sadness. In the face of such moral tribulation and drama, it's possible to both maintain your own dignity and peacefully accept and incorporate the fact that people are often far more complex than brief interactions with them might imply.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The characters portray the essence of personal sacrifice, heroism, friendship, and courage. Readers will sympathize with Liesel and be struck by her strength as she moves from reader to writer. Her kind foster father, Hans, bravely hides a Jewish man in the basement to save him from the Nazis. One White character reveres African American track and field Olympian Jesse Owens. At one point that character covers himself in mud in crude blackface in an attempt to feel like his hero while running. 


In addition to the violence of the war, which causes the deaths of many major beloved characters, there are also beatings, whippings, fights, and a suicide. 


Some swearing, both in English and German, including "s--t" and various religiously themed curses, such as "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph." Characters also make antisemitic comments and racist remarks about African Americans.  

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults and children smoke and drink champagne. There are detailed descriptions of one character rolling his own cigarettes.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Markus Zusak's The Book Thief is a powerful portrayal of life in Nazi Germany before and during World War II, especially as it was experienced by German kids. Main character Leisel is taken in by foster parents in a small town after her younger brother dies. Death serves as both a character and the narrator, and figures in the plot. Characters suffer cruel fates but also are great examples of the power of personal sacrifice, heroism, friendship, and courage. This is a tough story told about a horrendous time, so there's plenty of grief and sadness, as well as violence and cruelty. But ultimately the book is a portrait of the triumph of spirit and humanity, with all of humanity's complexities and contradictions deeply explored. In addition to the violence of the war, which causes the deaths of many major beloved characters, there are also beatings, whippings, fights, and a suicide. Adults and children smoke and drink champagne.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written by[email protected] May 14, 2009

Stunning, will be a classic.

At age 63 I am no doubt older than the average reader of this book. Having spent time listening to older family members describe what they saw in WWII Germany,... Continue reading
Adult Written byswimgirl1995 February 17, 2009

i cried and laughed throughout this exciting book

i really loved this book and hope that all parents will let their 10 year old read it.Sure there are a few curse words,but its still amazing and there isn'... Continue reading
Teen, 15 years old Written bybookkeeper September 3, 2010

Beautiful and sad

Markus Zusak has a way with words, and it shines in The Book Thief. At once hopeful and devastating, it's an observation of humanity from an outsider who s... Continue reading
Teen, 13 years old Written bymoviefanatic88 March 24, 2014

Boring start but fabulous end!

(This will sound awful) But the book was a little slow the first couple hundred pages. It didn't really reach its full potential till the last 100 pages (I... Continue reading

What's the story?

Death himself narrates the story of Liesel, a German girl left with foster parents just before the outbreak of World War II. Along the way to her new home with her younger brother, he dies; after the funeral, Liesel steals The Gravedigger's Handbook, though she cannot yet read. It's only the first of what will become a series of book thefts. As she settles in with her harsh but caring foster mother, Rosa, and kind foster father, Hans, Liesel gets to know her under-resourced neighborhood and learns to read. Her obsession with books grows as the war closes in, rationing is put in place, air raids begin, and Hans hides a Jewish man in the basement. Through it all, Death travels the Earth, taking in more and more souls every day alongside his own internal trials and hardships.

Is it any good?

This is a devastatingly powerful book that bears several rereadings, and should become a staple of literature discussion groups for sophisticated teen and adult readers. The Book Thief has won many awards, including the ALA Best Books for Young Adults, Michael L. Printz Honor Book, and the School Library Journal and Publishers Weekly Best Children's Book of the Year. It will educate readers about living under Nazi rule and inspire them to think about human nature and why some heroic people are able to put their lives on the line to do what they know is right. Set against the brutality of the Nazis, the book's violence is critical to the story's emotional impact.

The participation of Death as a character and narrator is presented matter-of-factly from the start, and Death continues to figure in the plot. Death changes emotionally over the course of the novel, haunted by the humans who have died. And there's a powerful payoff in the Shakespearean ending, when author Markus Zusak wallops you again and again with the fates of these people, good and bad, whom you've come to care about. These are deeply mined characters acting in response to deeply dramatic circumstances. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about what makes The Book Thief a young adult title, even though it's also very popular with adult readers. What separates a young adult novel from being either a children's book or an adult novel?

  • Liesel steals books that the Nazis have banned or tried to burn. Why were the Nazis concerned about book content? Is it ever appropriate to ban a book?

  • Death is a character in the novel. Why do you think the author made that choice to tell a story about life suring wartime?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love history and World War II stories

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