The Book Thief Introduction
In A Nutshell
Based on its title, you might think that The Book Thief is a spy thriller or a Holmes-style detective story. But really, this is the emotional story of a young girl living in Germany during the Holocaust. Yep, a ten-year-old girl is the title's thief. And the books she's stealing aren't top-secret documents— they're just... books.
If you got caught stealing books today, you'd get in serious trouble (or at least accumulate a staggering library fine). But we love Liesel Meminger, and we root for her and her thieving ways throughout her tale. This young German girl growing up in Nazi Germany is the star of the show.
She's the chief book thief—but by no means the only book thief—in the novel. But the plot doesn't only revolve around late-night library heists: when Liesel's foster parents decide to give refuge to a young Jewish man hiding from the Nazi regime, the characters grow and change in horrible (and also beautiful) ways.
The Book Thief was first published in Australia in 2005 and in the US in 2006. It's Australian author Markus Zusak's fifth novel, and it emerged on the scene when Zusak was only thirty years old. Winning a slew of awards, mostly in the Young Adult category, and selling at least a million copies, The Book Thief has monumentally increased this author's fame (Source).
Zusak took over three years to complete the piece and even went to Munich, Germany to research some of the finer points. He tackles all sorts of dicey issues concerning one of the most difficult topics ever—the Holocaust.
This terrifying chapter of history is part of his heritage. Zusak's parents grew up in Germany during World War II and shared their stories with Zusak. According to a review in The Guardian:
Zusak […] has said that writing the book was inspired by two real-life events related to him by his German parents: the bombing of Munich, and a teenage boy offering bread to an emaciated Jew being marched through the streets, ending with both boy and Jewish prisoner being whipped by a soldier. (Source)
You'll see definite echoes of the whipping incident in several crucial points in the nove. In interviews, Zusak discusses an additional inspiration for the novel—tales of a real book thief in Zusak's hometown of Sydney, Australia (Source).
At times hilarious (believe it or not), at times heartbreaking, The Book Thief is rich and creative. It's also a heartfelt reminder of the power of words—they can destroy or heal, depending on how we use them.
Why Should I Care?
What are the characteristics of a heart-meltingly powerful and brain-tinglingly riveting story? And does The Book Thief tick all of those boxes? Let's see:
Powerful emotion? Check.
Major suspense? Check.
Dynamic characters? Check.
History lesson? Check.
Oh—we forgot one:
Narrated by Death? Check.
Now that we're sure that The Book Thief gives us everything necessary for a generally fantastic story, let's move on to what's care-worthy about this particular novel.
First, take a look at our "Why Should I Care?" on The Diary of Anne Frank for all the heavy stuff involved in reading a book about a young person living through the Holocaust. Keep these reasons-to-care in the front of your mind while you're reading, because they're at the heart of The Book Thief.
But we also want to take a second to talk about something unique to The Book Thief. Something that's so important, it made it into the title. Yep: books. We know you love them, or you wouldn't be here reading what we have to say about a book that's about a book about books. But reading isn't just a matter of loving books—we also have to be sure not to take them for granted. The Book Thief reminds us of just that.
Liesel didn't have the luxury of going to her local library and picking out whatever bestseller had hit the shelves that week. She had to steal books (and even save them from malicious Nazi bonfires) in order to read. Even today, when a lot of us can browse through entire libraries with the click of a button, there are still people who don't have access: maybe they can't afford books, or maybe they've never even learned to read.
Markus Zusak's choice to portray the excitement and influence of books in the context of the Holocaust highlights just how powerful they are. When the Nazis burned books by Jewish authors, they were in essence burning the identity of the Jewish people. It's was a terrible, frightening and grim period of human history. But Zusak shines a little light into that horror with the story of Liesel—the books that our heroine steals represents a glimmer of hope—for her, for the Jewish community, and for the post-Holocaust world.