The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is an award winning historical fiction novel written in 2005. The story centers on the life of Liesel Meminger, a young German orphan raised by foster parents during the rise of Hitler and the beginning of World War II. Liesel's foster parents hide a young Jewish man named Max to save him from the Nazis, and Liesel and Max strike up an unlikely friendship. The author chooses Death to be the narrator, as he is able to convey the scope of suffering of the Holocaust as well as describe the emotional story of Liesel and Max's journey.

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Student Activities for The Book Thief

Essential Questions for The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

  1. Who are the main characters and what challenges do they face?
  2. What were some allusions (references to real people, places, events, religious practices, art, literature) present in the novel? What can you learn about the people and the time period from these allusions?
  3. What are some of the themes, symbols and motifs present in the novel? How does the symbolism help you better understand the characters and their motivations?
  4. What are some of the messages the author of The Book Thief conveys to the reader about kindness and courage? Why is it so important to teach, learn about, and remember the Holocaust and World War II?

The Book Thief Summary

The Book Thief is narrated by Death. He informs the reader of his overly abundant and grim work collecting the millions of souls lost during WWII. The story is set in the late 1930s and 1940s in Nazi, Germany in the fictional town of Molching, which could be a conglomeration of the cities of Munich and Olching, both of which are not far from the concentration camp of Dachau.

While Death imparts his experiences of the surrounding suffering, the story centers on the life of a young girl named Liesel Meminger. At the outset, Liesel endures the traumatic experience of her little brother dying and her mother giving her away because she's destitute and Liesel's father is a political prisoner. Liesel is then fostered by the Hubermanns, Hans and Rosa, who treat her like a daughter. Hans is gentle and kind and Rosa is abrupt and verbally abusive, but she loves Liesel nonetheless.

Germany is on the brink of war with book burnings, compulsory Hitler Youth training, Jews being rounded up by the tens of thousands and sent to concentration camps, and the pervasive fear that if one didn't comply, they, too, would be sent to a camp or killed. Liesel, meanwhile, is desperately trying to learn to read, even stealing forbidden books so she can try to decipher their meaning. Everything changes for the Hubermanns when they take a young Jewish man, Max Vanderburg, into hiding from the Nazis.

The story weaves in the power and beauty of words from Liesel's first stolen books, her Papa Hubermann kindly and patiently teaching her to read, and Liesel and Max bonding over stories. Author Alan Gratz also emphasizes the terrible weight of words and their capacity for evil through Hitler's vile propaganda and his use of words to convince a nation to follow his murderous ideology. The Book Thief is a compelling and ingenious story that will leave readers emotionally attached to the characters and with a deeper understanding of the Holocaust and the people behind Nazi Germany.

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