By: Markus Zusak
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: September 2007
Reviewed by: Michelle Hutchinson
Review Date: December 2008
When I was given a review copy of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was also an upcoming selection for my monthly book club. I was even more surprised that the cover of the book was imprinted with the American Library Association’s seal for a Michael L. Printz Excellence Award in Young Adult Literature, because the member of my book club who had chosen the story was a 50+-year-old woman.
Upon getting home and opening to the first page, my surprises continued; this was a book narrated by Death! He opens the story during World War II, with 9-year-old Leisel Meminger and her 6-year-old brother, Werner, riding a train to Molching, a town outside Munich, Germany. Their mother is taking them to live with foster parents, Rosa and Hans Hubermann. Unfortunately, sickly Werner dies during the train ride, and at his burial, Leisel finds a book on the ground and steals it.
She does not yet know how to read, but nurturing and gentle Hans teaches her the words, and soon Leisel cannot get enough of them. She embarks on several book-thieving missions, often joined in these escapades by her best friend and the Hubermanns’ next-door-neighbor, Rudy Steiner who fancies himself the next Jesse Owens.
Hans’ tender nature stands in stark contrast to that of the gruff and profane Rosa, but when the Hubermanns take to hiding a Jew in their basement, we come to see that Rosa not only has courage but also a soft heart. During Leisel’s years of living with the Hubermanns, she witnesses additional deaths as well as human brutality, but she also learns that there are others in the world who encompass kindness.
And while Leisel learns to love written words, she also discovers the harm they can do, especially those of Adolf Hitler. Death, the narrator, tells us, “In all the years of Hitler’s reign, no person was able to serve the Führer as loyally as me.” Death also tells us that humans haunt him.
Quill says: Similarly, this coming-of-age story will haunt young and old alike.