If Death Could Speak, What Stories Would He Tell You?

Markus Zusak. The Book Thief. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005

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"Here is a small fact...You are going to die."

Imagine being a ten year old German girl in Nazi Germany. Now imagine you have just lost everyone you love in one, single train ride. The only thing left to remind you of your loved ones is a book, The Grave Digger's Handbook. You stole this book from your brother's grave site and it is going to save your life one day. Liesel Meminger is given up to foster parents by her mother when she is ten years old. Her possessions include the clothes on her back, and her newly acquired book.

"A small piece of truth...I do not carry a sickle or scythe. I only wear a hooded black robe when it's cold. And I don't have those skull-like facial features you seem to enjoy pinning on me from a distance. You want to know what I truly look like? I'll help you out. Find yourself a mirror while I continue."
This story is narrated by Death himself while he observes "The Book Thief," Liesel Meminger, during World War II. Her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, take Liesel in for pay, but eventually come to love her as a daughter. Hans becomes the first father-figure in Liesel's life. Not only does he teach her the precious art of reading during this time, but he also subtly educates her about many life things such as, compassion, self-sacrifice, friendship, humor, and most of all, a father's love. Rosa's approach is much more stiff, and at times abrasive, as she frequently calls Liesel Saumensch, which essentially means "pig girl". Rosa's heart is in the right place, though, and despite her hardened exterior, she truly cares about Liesel, and the seemingly insulting name becomes a humorous form of endearment.

"The only thing worse than a boy who hates you...A boy who loves you." In her new town, Molching, Liesel lives a pretty normal life (as normal as can be expected for a German girl living in Nazi Germany). She goes to school, helps Mama with the laundry business, and becomes friends with the boy next door, Rudy. Rudy is struck by love at first sight when Liesel moves into 33 Himmel Street. They quickly become as thick as thieves, literally and figuratively. See, Rudy is the one who gives Liesel her nickname, The Book Thief, after she steals yet another book from the Mayor's mansion, with his help, of course. This love of books Liesel has is what ends up saving her life at the end. That, and the unique friendship she strikes up with the mayor's wife, Ilsa Hermann.

"Question one...Hans Hubermann? Question two...Do you still play the accordion?" The arrival of Max Vandenburg, a Jew, fleeing from Nazi persecution, also plays a significant role in Liesel's life. Staying with the Hubermann's as a favor from Hans, who served with Max's father in World War I, he becomes very involved with the Hubermann's lives, and most importantly, Liesel's. Over time, their mutual hardships and tribulations serve as a bonding agent, and they develop a strong kinship. Liesel shows great kindness and compassion to Max, and Max likewise encourages and deeply appreciates Liesel. They become very attached during his stay, hidden in the basement. Even when unexpected events tear them apart, they do not fail to keep each other close at heart.

"I've seen so many young men over the years who think they're running at other young men. They are not. They're running at me." Death plays an interesting narrator in this book as he tells a tale about a German girl from Himmel Street who loves to steal books. He adds his input at various points in the story that gives the reader a glimpse of what is happening in other parts of Europe during WWII. He gives the story a bit of humor, a bit of sorrow, a bit of history, and a lot of intrigue.

Recommendations for Teachers
There are many different ways you could use The Book Thief in the classroom. Teachers could begin by using the book to teach students about the Holocaust and the history of the time period in which the book takes place. Since The Book Thief is written showing how life was for Germans during the war students could discuss how it affected both Jews and Germans. Students could even read another book about the Holocaust, such as Maus, that shows how life was for Jewish people and compare it to The Book Thief. Students could also look at the discrimination that Max and the other Jews face and use it as a lesson to discuss acceptance and compassion for those who are different from them. Other discussion questions could be about the effect of using Death as a narrator, the power of words (Max's stories and the power his words have to help him stay strong as he faces a very difficult time in his life or the power that books have over Liesel), or the way the Hubermans and Liesel interact as a family. Discuss the differences in the way Liesel's foster parents show her love for her. Students could even write letters or journal entries in the voices of Hans, Rosa or Liesel recounting the day Liesel came to live with her foster parents. Zusak also relies on the use of color in the book. Students could discuss the use and importance of the different colors, perhaps even researching the meaning behind each color and notice how they support the mood of the scene.

About Markus Zusak
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Markus Zusak is an award-winning Australian Author. Including The Book Thief, he has written six novels. His novel, The Messenger, has won the Michael L. Printz Honor Book Award for excellence in young adult literature from the American Library Association and was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

His parents were of Austrian and German descent, and their stories about Nazi Germany would later inspire The Book Thief. It took Zusak three years to complete the novel. Over those three years, he spent time researching in Germany and changed narrators three times. According to the reader's guide after the novel, one of Zusak's reasons for writing the book thief was to show readers a different side of Nazi Germany. He wanted readers to see the stories of brave resistance to the Nazi Government.

He also cites The Old Man and the Sea and What's Eating Gilbert Grape as works that inspired him to begin writing. He currently lives in Sydney, Australia and enjoys surfing in his free time.

Zusak's other novels include: //The Underdog// , //Fighting Ruben Wolfe// ,//I Am The Messenger// , //When Dogs Cry// , and //Book of Clay// .

Multimedia (Video or Audio)

This video clip is an interview with the author Markus Zusak.

This video clip is the 2006 Teen Book Video Award Winner. It acts as a sort of Trailer for the book.

The Book Thief Podcast - Nick Assaf, Maureen Barnaby, Alicia Smith, Kristen Rakowicz, Nicole Baniukaitis

Additional Resources:

Related WWII and Holocaust Titles to Explore:
  • Milkweed: A Teacher's Guide - Newspaper In Education (NIE) Teacher's Guide to Milkweed; Complete with chapter questions, response activities, and additional resources
  • Jerry Spinelli Home Page - Check out the artist's official site where you can contact him directly, check out the FAQs, or find out if he will be coming to your city on a scheduled tour!

--Written by: Maureen Barnaby, Nicole Baniukaitis, Alicia Smith, Kristen Rakowicz, and Nick Assaf.