The Ideal Young Adult Holocaust Novel-- The "Just Right" Between Anne Frank and Adult Holocaust Fiction

Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief. New York, NY: Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2006.


"First the colors.

Then the humans.

That's usually how I see things.

Or at least, how I try.


You are going to die."

(The Book Thief, page 3)

In a genre as well populated as Holocaust literature, The Book Thief, presents itself as an excellent and dynamic learning tool. Presenting itself from two viewpoints, one being Death itself, the other a young girl named Liesel Meminger, the story intertwines their narratives into a single, smooth, flowing portrait. It follows the life of the aforementioned Liesel, living a new life with her foster parents after her birth parents give her up out of concern for her safety. While in transit to her new home, tragedy strikes as her brother dies. The result is that his image will haunt her for the rest of the novel. With her new home comes new relationships, experiences, and adventures that keep the reader turning pages from beginning to end.

The reoccurring themes of the novel, such as the importance of friendship, and a good book, connect the reader to the text and make the characters human. Many young readers today cannot fathom the terror of an air raid, yet Zusak's rich description and the relationships the reader forms with the characters, the raids seem more real than just words on a page. Air raids, alongside other aspects of life in Nazi Germany are easier to understand on an emotional level than from reading a textbook. The Book Thief is highly recommended for young adult readers, high school history and English classrooms, and adult readers alike.

Recommendations for Teachers
This novel would definitely be recommended for a high school English and, or, history class focusing on World War II in the context of the Holocaust. The Book Thief is written in a manner that is applicable to a classroom setting for a variety of reasons. On a formatting note, its short chapters allow for easy reading assignments, both inside, and outside the classroom. The content also allows for clear breaking points for classroom assignments, discussions, and activities.

In the beginning of the novel, the main character, Liesel Meminger, who cannot read nor write has an attachment to a book solely because of its personal meaning to her. This can transcend into a number of different lesson plans. For example, teachers could have students bring in inanimate objects that are meaningful to them as a playoff on "show and tell" and have them justify why these objects are so significant. Then the discussion could be brought back to the text for the fact that people have things that they hold close for a variety of reasons-- an object's significance depends on the experience of the reader.

Zusak uses book titles in the text to help create an atmosphere. They are nowhere near random in nature, but very purposefully placed. For example, Faust the Dog represents selling your soul as dogs could be compared to hell hounds that chase you once your soul has been sold. Its significance in the novel comes from the fact that Hans eventually applies for the Nazi party, giving up his beliefs to protect his family's safety--equivalent to selling your soul during that time period. Students could take these titles and research their relevance and significance to the setting, plot, and tone of the book.

In terms of writing projects, there are a few options that could be used. The idea of perspective could be utilized by having students change the perspective for a scene. As Death is personified and narrates the novel, the story may be different if seen through another character's eyes. Students will learn how perspective can make a piece more or less enticing, and also can see how different characters have different aspects of the story that mean more to them than others. Additionally, Zusak's unique style could offer an opportunity on how style can make or break a text, and its importance in shaping how the novel is perceived by its readers.

This novel could be used as a complementary, side-by-side text to The Diary of Anne Frank. Both texts are centered around the same historical time period, yet the differences in perspective and context for each text invoke two completely separate ideas. The Book Thief is from the perspective of the Germans whereas The Diary of Anne Frank is the diary of a Jewish girl. These opposite sides create a difference in perspective; however, both have relatable experiences because the main characters are both young girls going through various stresses surrounding their traumatic experiences whilst still dealing with various adolescent themes. Such themes could be related to students and incorporated throughout various activities in the classroom.

The historical context of the novel makes it a prime candidate for a traditional classroom or for teachers needing differential instruction to best serve their myriad of students. It's ease of reading keeps students engaged in the text and there is enough "meat" that students can have meaningful discussions surrounding the book at a basic, surface level, or by diving into the story, the class can use it for a jumping off point for deeper issues and content. The setting of the novel, primarily in Germany during World War II and during the course of the Holocaust, provides a parallel to both literary references and historical ones alike. Therefore, the book is a prime candidate for blended learning or team taught classrooms to better serve the students learning both disciplines.

About Markus Zusak

"Where do you get your ideas from?"
"I used to lie about this, but now I actually know--
I started writing when I was sixteen. I'm thirty now. I get my ideas from fourteen years of thinking about it."

Markus Zusak has come along way from his childhood aspirations of following in his father's footsteps and becoming a house painter. Inspired by The Old Man and the Sea and What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, the Australian author began writing as a teenager, publishing his first book The Underdog in 1999. Zusak followed up his first novel in 2002, when The Messenger (I am the Messenger in the United States) was published.

His latest work is based on the stories he heard growing up from his mother who witnessed the events of the Holocaust from her small German town. These stories became the basis of The Book Thief, growing from an originally planned small, one hundred page book, to a much larger version that the Zusak states "means much more to [him] than he could have imagined."

When he is not working or is suffering from writer's block, Zusak spends his time surfing on Sidney's beaches and watching movies-- usually the same ones over and over again.

(Biographical information and photograph taken from Random House's Writers Page)

Multimedia (Video or Audio)

The following two clips below are interviews with The Book Thief author Markus Zusak, while the later is the movie trailer for the upcoming motion picture based on the book. A podcast book trailer is included following the video clips. Finally, a Google Map of Munich, Germany is also included as it is a primary setting for the book. Students can type in locations that come up in the book and find them on the map.

The Book Thief Podcast

Additional Resources:
These links provide extra information for your gifted learners, those students interested in learning more about the Holocaust, and teacher's guide for use in the classroom.
  • English/German Dictionary - An excellent resource for students wanting to dive deeper into the German language of the text.
  • United States Holocaust Museum Site - The museum, based out of Washington D.C. has a variety of resources on their website, including facts, a brief introduction, and an encyclopedia filled with articles and information relating to the topic.
  • Holocaust Facts - The page includes facts about the holocaust in a succinct and quick summary.
  • Discussion Questions for The Book Thief - A great source for teachers looking to shape discussion topics surrounding The Book Thief. This site may also serve as a good resource for teachers looking for essay questions.
  • Teacher Vision Resource for Teachers- A standard teacher assistant site with general ideas surrounding lesson plans, activities, and more.
  • Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust- A bit more specific than the above, this website is dedicated to assisting teachers who need help planning a Holocaust specific unit.
  • The Book Thief Lesson Plans- Sample lesson plans for teachers who need a jumping off point. While we do not recommend using these in their entirety, or current form, these provide a good base of ideas at your disposal in order to build your own classroom activities.
  • Markus Zusak talks about writing The Book Thief - A transcript from the book's author, Markus Zusak, that give us more insight into how and why he wrote the novel.
  • Holocaust Survivor Stories- One of our favorite sites that we came across, "Survivor Stories" puts real people to the faceless experiences that students usually read about. There are six individuals on the site's main page. This is an excellent resource if you decide to use perspective as a literary importance of the novel.

--Elizabeth Edwards
--Cameron Kuiper
--Samantha Slankard