Young Adult Lit/Crit

May 4, 2008

Book Thief Steals My Heart

Filed under: THE BOOK THIEF — Mandy @ 12:32 pm

I finished The Book Thief last night at 6:22 am and no, I did not read through the night, but I woke up around 4 and was unable to get back to sleep. Only after finishing the book and crying for 15 minutes, was I able to fall back asleep. I really, really loved this book. I was reading Zusak’s comments at the end of the book and I could definitely relate to when he describes how he misses his characters. I read this book in a short amount of time, but nonetheless, I looked forward to returning to it and it was bittersweet to reach the end.


 It took me a while to figure out who the narrator was. My instinct’s told me it was Death, but I still resisted that idea for whatever reason. Zusak’s presents Death with a very interesting persona and whenever I think of death, I never imagine it has a personality. This was very clever. Many times throughout the story I didn’t fear or hate Death as I normally do when I think about dying, especially in the ways in which many characters died in this story. Rather, I pitied death, because he/she didn’t want to be taking innocent lives anymore than readers wanted to have to witness the devastating deaths in this story. Further, the last line of the book is especially powerful, as it reveals the empathetic side of death. I normally classify death as the haunter, not the haunted, so this last revelation made Death…almost human?…which is ironic, given the fact that many human during this time were inhumane…


 It’s a challenge to decide which relationships are the most important and powerful in this story, and therefore which ones should be discussed. Rudy and Leisel definitely had a friendship that will transcend death. But we also have to talk about the Hubermanns, who saved Leisel’s life, both literally and symbolically. And of course, there is Max. I think Leisel’s relationship with Max revealed the most about her character, as she was fearless, loving and compassionate in the midst of a cruel world, one that had been cruel to her in many ways. Yet she never focused on her own suffering, yet constantly tries to alleviate the pain of others, like Frau Holtzapfel and Isla Hermann, which makes her so admirable, especially given how young she is in this story.  

 There was so much tragedy in this story, yet so much joy at the same time, and I think this represent a universal truth about life. Like Leisel epitomizes, it is how we choose to deal with these events that unfold before us that is important. She is such a loveable character, and even more so for me because of her obsession with words. Throughout the good times and the bad, she always has her books. And when she no longer has her books, she still has her words.






  1. Mandy, “throughout the good times and the bad, she always has her books. And when she no longer has her books, she still has her words.” –Like Mattie KES

    Comment by sunyprof — May 4, 2008 @ 2:59 pm

  2. Mandy,

    I just finished THE STANDOVER MAN, and I had to read it out loud a second time. I am incredibly interested in how Max painted over MEIN KAMPF, and in places you can see through to this text beneath. It is pentimento at its finest, as the pages beneath are ever present… saving and killing Max at once. Amazing images, and very well done. It was important for Zusak to include this visual because I think the illustrations (and his words) alone would have too easily covered this knowledge up without the original work peaking through. As is, it is impossible to ignore just exactly what has happened here. And again, the book changes hands- this time with Max’s story clearly written on it for the next owner.

    And aren’t we all scaffolding like this, but on Zusak’s work, in a way?

    More to come.


    Comment by Joyce — May 4, 2008 @ 4:34 pm

  3. Joyce,
    I have also just finished reading THE STANDOVER MAN, and I am glad you brought it up for discussion. After reading it, I stopped and reflected on the beauty of painting over Hitler’s words and creating a new story of a German girl and a Jewish man being united in hardship. I thought it was incredibly powerful and incredibly human. This will stick with me in the future, I think. Throughout the year, we have discussed censorship, but we have not discussed propaghanda, which is essentially the same thing. Here, I see an excellent form of alternative expression: changing hate into love.

    As Joyce noted, it is important to let the original message show through. In this case, we must never completely paint over Hitler’s words. We must never paint over the holocaust. We must never cover up violence and atrocities. Why? So we can learn from them. The solution is not to forget about these events. The solution is to overcome and overwhelm with messages of love, freedom, and peace, as Max does in his gift to Leisel.

    Encouraging positive words,

    Comment by allison — May 5, 2008 @ 12:26 pm

  4. Hey guys!
    I am not quite halfway through (don’t worry I am getting there) but I must admit I had a hard time with the first 15 or so pages getting into it because of the ambiguity of the narrator. Of course I figured out that it was death for certain when Liesel’s brother passes away, but like Mandy couldn’t really talk myself into death having human characteristics-let alone a conscience!? I also had sympathy for death because he really did possess an actual personality and he had definate affection for Liesel. He is an observer but not really a participator…Zuzak did a brilliant job of portraying this aspect of the novel. Okay I must read on 🙂

    Comment by kariredmond — May 5, 2008 @ 9:30 pm

  5. OMG! The Book Thief is amazing! I need more time to sit with it all the articulate a more focused post, so let me just relate me experience: I was out of town this weekend for a family reunion in Arizona. I read The Book Thief every chance I could, and finally finished it on a tiny plane going from Philadelphia to Ithaca. Like Mandy, I was crying – I’m talking shoulder shaking, sloppy nose running down my face, air gulping, heavy duty crying – and still, when I finally closed the book, I turned to my husband (still a blubbering mess) and said, “You HAVE to read this book.” I agree with you, Mandy, when you say “it was bittersweet to reach the end.” At one point, after my crying about the events in the book subsided, I wound myself back up a little when I realized that it was over. Amazing. Amazing. Amazing. Thank you, Karen, for bringing this book into my life.

    Comment by sostrom — May 5, 2008 @ 10:41 pm

  6. Hello!
    I finished THE BOOK THIEF this weekend, and I also found it amazing. Like Kari and Mandy have said, the initial idea that Death is the narrator was hard for me to really grasp. However, as I kept reading I was amazed at how well developed Death was as a character. Normally, I don’t like when narrators address the readers, but when Death did this, it just seemed to draw me in more. I both liked and disliked the references made to the characters, specifically Rudy and Papa’s deaths. It seemed to make the Death’s message more powerful, but at the same time, I knew these deaths would be terrible for Liesel, and of course me reading it, and I wanted to rush through and get them over with. I am definitely glad that we read this book!

    Comment by katefrazer — May 6, 2008 @ 9:26 am

  7. This is by far the best book we’ve read this semester… a true work of art on every level. I was immediately pulled in by the narrator being Death, which I think provided this grim story with a light-hearted, fantastical element (the fact that Death gave me this feeling only adds to the irony coursing throughout the text, pure genius really). By using Death as a narrator, I think Zusak captured the time period in a unique way, as death consumed Europe. Often times, I was reminded of Guillermo Del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth, not so much in the sense of fantasy that permeates the film, but in the similarities between the two protagonists, Ofelia and Liesel. The two stories would work as great in conjunction with one another, as they reflect on similar themes of family, death and the triumph of the imagination/human spirit in a truly dark time (both also take place during the outbreak of WWII, for those who haven’t seen Pan, it takes place in Spain, 1939). Unfortunately, I have to go now, but I look forward to the discussion tomorrow.


    Comment by traverse02 — May 6, 2008 @ 5:03 pm

  8. Raph,

    You really nailed it with: “Death consumed Europe.” Not only is the Grim Reaper consuming as in taking-in the souls after death, but s/he/it is consumed with Liesel and her theft. And, usually I don’t think of Death as a consumer. It seems like all of us were forced to really change our mindsets.

    Perhaps one of the reasons I had a little trouble with Death’s voice was that I’ve been taught to feel very big things about dying. Fear. Grief. Uncertainty. It’s hard to trust someone (something) whose job is to usher you to a place (or not) that is so unknown that there are many (very different) accounts of it, depending upon your latitude, longitude, age, and affiliations. It’s like this narrator didn’t come with a nice blank slate like they ususally do. There was a whole lot of belief sewed right into the book binding, and I felt a little exposed.

    This is also my semester fav.
    Looking forward to discussion, too.

    Comment by Joyce — May 6, 2008 @ 9:26 pm

  9. I agree–THE BOOK THIEF is wonderful wonderful…so beautifully conceived and executed. But I will still make a claim for A NORTHERN LIGHT’s being as strong–taken on its own. Zusak has what every truly great author must have–a great theme. But Mattie’s story, written on a local stage, is no less compelling for me. I would read both of these books, along with many others we read this semester, with my h.s. students. Would you? KES

    Comment by sunyprof — May 6, 2008 @ 11:01 pm

  10. Mandy and Class,

    What an incredible book! I agree, by far in the top 3, if not the best. I have never read Death as a narrator, and being such an avoided topic, it would be a great one to use in the classroom. After THIRTEEN REASONS WHY, the Craigs’ visit, and HITLER YOUTH, Death needs to have a voice. I find the line, “Mistakes, mistakes, it seems all I am capable of at times,” particularly intriguing. It is as though Death (or God?) is responding to those who ask, “If there is a God, how can he/she let this happen?”

    Also, the style of this novel helps young readers realize the power of language. Hitler was famous for his public speaking and captivating speeches. Books and words kept Liesel afloat, informed, and passionate. How interesting: a sadistic, psychotic, sick man shared the love of words with a young, compassionate, loving girl.


    Comment by jexter1 — May 6, 2008 @ 11:33 pm

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