Not "Just Another Holocaust Book"

Markus Zusak. The Book Thief. Australia: Picador, 2005.

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"I'm always finding humans at their best and worst.
I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder
how the same thing can be both."

Taking on a unique new spin, the prologue of The Book Thief opens up from the perspective of the narrator, “Death,” a form of the grim reaper archetype, stating, “One small fact: You are going to die.” After this dark yet oddly humorous introduction to the novel, the reader is taken to a train where a young girl, Liesel, must look into the empty eyes of her dying brother and shortly after that be abandoned by her Communist mother to an iron-fisted foster mother, and a poor yet gentle, accordion-playing foster father. Inside of the snow by her brother’s grave, LIesel discovers the book “The Grave Diggers Handbook”, the first swiped book of the illustrious career of book thievery, the one form of solace that she can find in the world. Death continues to narrate the story, full of colorful and imaginative metaphors seamed together with painfully beautiful sensory images, melding strange combinations of sounds, sights, smells and feelings.

Liesel soon learns to read and while the novel directs us through the tale of her coming-of-age into adulthood, she discovers the wealth in the power of words through each novel she reads and by sharing the spoken word with people she becomes affectionately close to. Liesel seems to grow with the words and more so as she shares them, especially with the Jewish man her foster mother and father are hiding away in the basement. She experiences the Holocaust from an outsider looking in at the heartbreaking suffering of the Jewish people, being forced to pronounce “heil Hitlers” and be educated in a “Hitler Youth Group”. Contrary to the Diary of Anne Frank, The Book Thief gets the reader to empathize with the suffering of the Jewish people from the eyes of a girl inside of the Nazi community. The novel is wrought with lessons on morality, the paradox of the human condition, empathy, and most importantly: the power of words. And although the book is so powerfully mournful to the point that one can almost hear The Hungarian Suicide Song played by Liesel's foster father resound through the final chapters; it also contains comedy, tales of love and friendship, and optimistic depictions of human goodness in times of tragedy.

With all of the countless film and literature material on World War II stealing space on library bookshelves, it is hard to find a truly rewarding book out there to tackle the strong emotional subject matter contained within such a monumental historical event as The Holocaust. Though genocide, unjust human persecution, torture and other tragic characteristics of WWII are sure to command the attention of a reader due to its horrifying nature, there is no doubt that there needs to be other context within the material for young readers. Today’s youth require relatabitlity to the material in order to empathize directly with characters and get a firm grasp on the tragedies of social injustices. Markus Zusak accomplishes that and beyond in The Book Thief.

Recommendations for Teachers
This young adult novel can be used in multiple settings within the classroom and is the perfect complement to books such as The Diary of Anne Frank and Night. It is recommended that this book be used in a high school setting simply because of its subject matter. In addition, it is rather long; therefore one must be mindful of the varying reading levels of students within the class as well as the time being allotted to allow students to effectively read and comprehend Zusak’s work.
While this book is intimidating in length, it is not extremely difficult to read. However, simply because of the magnitude of the text it would be wise to incorporate this novel in an upper-level English course because of the constraints of the school year. With this in mind, one can argue that this young adult novel would be an effective tool in the classroom. Using this work near the end of the school year and comparing it to excerpts from other texts would provide students with topics for discussion, as well as subjects for essay-writing. If one is able to work with coworkers it would be beneficial to students to introduce this text at the same time many of them are learning about World War II and the Holocaust in their history courses. This will allow them to better understand Zusak’s references to historical events, as well as provide an outlet for interesting discussion with regard to the writing of fiction based on actual history.
Overall, Zusak’s novel is a new way to introduce students to the Holocaust, as well as to historical-fiction. The raw subject matter and unique writing style will leave both the students and the teacher pondering about history, human behavior, and of course literature. As young adult authors such as Zusak continue to become more relevant, it is a wise decision for instructors to begin incorporating their works into the classroom; providing their students with something new, relatable, and engaging. Needless to say, Mark Zusak’s The Book Thief is all three.

About Author Markus Zusak
markus_photo2.jpgMarkus Zusak was born in 1975 in Sydney, Austrailia. He was the last of four children born to immigrants, his father is Austrian father and his mother is German. As a young boy, he grew up hearing his parents' encounters of World War II. Zusak tells fans on his that the inspiration from his stories comes from his personal experiences paired with the touching stories that his parents shared with him. He started writing novels when he was sixteen and had a complete book by the time he was eighteen. After taking and leaving a job as a high school teacher, and after seven rejection leters from publishers Zusak's first book was published in 1999 called The Underdog. Later in 2001 and 2002, the sequals to The Underdog known as Fighting Ruben Wolfe and When Dogs Cry were published. As years progressed, Zusak wrote and released more outstanding books such as The Messenger and The Book Thief. He has recieved many awards over the years for his young adult literature including Older Reader Honors Book of the Year, Ethel Turner Prize and the esteemed Printz Honor for The Book Thief. Now in his late thirties, he is still writing young adult novel and recently released, Bridge Of Clay in 2009. He is married with children, and according to his Random House website, Zusak loves to get away by walking on the beach or playing at the nearby park with his family and dogs. I end this short biography with words from Zusak himself, from The Book Thief, "I hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right."

Multimedia (Video or Audio)

The author of The Book Thief, Markus Zusak, talks about his inspiration for the book. He also discusses how he got ideas about the unique perspective the book was written from. Finally, he touches on some good ideas for students to keep in mind as they attempt to become authors themselves.

Additional Resources:
  • Markus Zusak Home Page - The author's official website! Complete with a bio, book list, announcements, book club and discussion board!
  • World War II Background - In need of background information to give students about World War II? This website by Scholastic provides good, introductory facts along with great classroom ideas.
  • Holocaust Encyclopedia - Take a look at the Holocaust Encyclopedia as told by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum - a good and quick source for World War II and Holocaust facts.
  • Teacher's Guide - Click to find the NOVEL-TIES teacher's guide, complete with reproducible worksheets, background information, quizzes and more!
  • Young Adult's Theater - Take a field trip to Chicago to watch a dramatic rendition of The Book Thief at the Steppenwolf Theater, a premier educational theater.
  • The Long Walk to Dachau - Listen to an audio version of the chapter 'The Long Walk to Dachau' from The Book Thief sponsored by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust!
  • BBC Book Review - Listen to the BBC's review of The Book Thief starting at time 10:30; an interesting take on the literary aspects of the book. It focuses on imagery, characters and technical aspects of the book.
  • Nazi Propaganda - Take a look at Nazi propaganda from 1933-1945! This database (hosted by Calvin College) contains posters, translated speeches, pictures and various other primary sources.
  • Nazis Burning Books - Watch original footage of Nazis burning books in 1933. Caution: this video has been flagged by Youtube as being potentially offensive or inappropriate; be sure to view it before showing a class!
  • Unofficial Trailer - Watch an award-winning unofficial trailer for The Book Thief. It could be used as a quick, fun way to get students excited about reading the book!
  • World War II Brought to the Present - See a gallery of iconic World War II pictures blended with a modern view of the same scene. It can really help to bring the locations of World War II to life!

-Tracy Radsvick
-Paul Westdale
-Kelli Andrascik
-Peter Walblay

Other Reviews: Nothing by Janne Teller