A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
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.
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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?
Our editors recommend
For kids who love history and World War II stories
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