|Zusak, Markus. 2006. The Book Thief Audio Book Cover. From
Zusak, Markus. 2006. THE BOOK THIEF. Narrated by Allan Corduner. ISBN 978-0739337271
- PLOT SUMMARY
1939 is a busy year for Death and a pivotal one for young Liesel Meminger. Three events that concern Liesel Meminger in 1939: She watches her six year old brother die, she goes to live with her new foster parents, and she steals her first book. Narrated from the unique perspective of war-weary Death, this book follows Liesel’s coming-of-age in the German town of Molching as she discovers the power of books and words. She is nurtured by her accordion-playing foster father, Hans Hubermann, who teaches her to read. Her education is continued by Max Vandenburg, the Jew that the Hubermann’s shelter in their basement, who teaches her the value of combining words into a story. As World War II progresses and Hitler tightens his grasp on the German people, Liesel is supported and loved by her best friend and neighbor, Rudy Steiner. Zusak masterfully crafts words to create a story that is by turns beautiful, humorous, ironic, and tragic, with evocative imagery and unforgettable characters.
- CRITICAL ANALYSIS
For this review I listened to the unabridged eleven CD audio book narrated by Allan Corduner and produced by Listening Library. This book blends genres and could be called a low historical fantasy. The setting, Germany in 1939, is historically specific, yet the story is narrated from Death’s perspective. It is this fantasy element that allows Zusak to emphasize universal themes, such as the inhumanity of the human race.
The power of words and stories is a major theme in the book. Hitler’s power comes from the words of his book, MEIN KAMPF, and the manipulating words of his speeches. But Liesel also learns that words can be used to give comfort, show compassion, love, and forgiveness. Corduner, who clearly relishes the texture and sound of each word, emphasizes this theme quite well in the audio book version. Pronunciation is crisp and clear. In the book, German words are italicized, but it was helpful to hear Corduner pronounce these words, as well as German names, such as “Pfiffikus”, “Saumensch”, and “Verzeihung.”
The organization of the book is creative and illuminating. Sections and chapters are introduced with Brecht-like headings, which tell of elements to come. Similarly, facts about characters and events are inserted throughout the narrative. These headings and facts not only alert the reader to pay attention for certain items and events, but also color the way the following text is interpreted.
Zusak uses vivid imagery to describe the world of Himmel Street from two perspectives, the book thief’s and Death. Although Liesel’s story is full of heartbreaking tragedy and loss, it is nevertheless a story filled with beauty and great love. It is this love and beauty in the face of injustice of war and politics, that makes the book thief’s story so compelling. After reading the book, it is easy to understand why Death would hold these words close to him to give him hope for the human race in the face of war and destruction.
The figurative language is evocative and visceral. For instance, Liesel and Death use words in a painterly manner to describe the weather and the color of the sky. “The sky is blue today, Max, and there is a big long cloud, and it’s stretched out, like a rope. At the end of it, the sun is like a yellow hole…” “Yes, the sky was now a devastating, home-cooked red.”
Foreshadowing is used to propel the story and the reader forward. Frequently Death will step out of the story to tell about a future incident that is a result of the current behavior, actions, or words of a particular character. At times Zusak uses this device to bring levity to a seemingly insignificant event or to provide a breather from a particularly emotionally wrenching scene.
Zusak’s characters are complex and nuanced and Corduner capably changes his voice to portray each character with great understanding and subtlety. Zusak has carefully structured the story to alternate between Death’s narrative of Liesel’s story, death thoughts on the human race, and scenes with dialogue from Liesel’s life. Corduner not only excels at bringing out the humor and irony in the text, but he is able deftly handle highly emotional scenes, most notably when Liesel deals with the aftermath of the Himmel Street bombing.
This book is best read with some knowledge of the history of Germany during World War II, Hitler’s tyranny, and the holocaust. The plot is enmeshed in historically, culturally, and regionally specific circumstances, without knowledge of historical events and figures some nuances, especially foreshadowing, could go unnoticed. The reader may find themselves fighting with their own conscience, knowing that the ideals and practices of Nazi Germany were atrocious, and yet hoping for the German citizens in this book to survive. Even as you dare to hope that Liesel’s story will be a happy one, you know heartbreak is on the horizon because this of the historical setting.
With the exception of accordion music at the beginning of the first chapter and during the last chapter, the audiobook does not use sound effects or music. The haunting accordion music at the beginning of the book helps to establish an old-world atmosphere. When it is repeated at the close of the book, the sound of the accordion brings with it thoughts of Hans Hubermann and his love for his foster daughter.
The audiobook does not include an introduction and or closing comments, just a short ad for other Listening Library titles. The paperback edition includes a reader’s guide with discussion questions, a Q&A with Zusak, and suggestions for further reading. I found the Q&A to be especially intriguing because Zusak explains why he wrote the book, his favorite characters, and his writing process.
The only element that the audiobook lacks is descriptions of the black and white drawings that appear in the print version of the book. The overall plot does not suffer and any text that accompanies the sketches is included, however the subtle details and insights into Max’s mind and his relationship with Liesel are absent. Taking this visual element into account, I think this would be a great title to have students listen and follow along with the book.
- AWARDS/REVIEW EXCERPT(S)
National Jewish Book Award Winner
Book Sense Book of the Year Award Winner
Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year
Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Books of the Year
School Library Journal Best Books of the Year
Michael L. Printz Honor Book
Review in HORN BOOK: “Audiobook narrator Corduner confidingly draws listeners in before Liesel steals a single book; and each character is sharply delineated, from the deep-thinking, compassionate Death to Liesel’s hectoring foster mother. Corduner effortlessly handles the book’s distinctively expansive yet intimate nature in a tour de force performance.”
Review in BOOKLIST: “More than the overt message about the power of words, it's Liesl's confrontation with horrifying cruelty and her discovery of kindness in unexpected places that tell the heartbreaking truth.”
Review in SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: “Narrator Allan Corduner defines each character with perfect timing. With richly evocative imagery and compelling characters, Zusak depicts the day-to-day heroism of ordinary people.”
Review in BOOKLIST: “Through British actor Corduner’s moving interpretation, the impact of the Hitler era is palpable.”
*Discussion question: Why do you think Liesel thinks of herself as the Book Thief? Why doesn’t she think of herself as the Book Reader or the Foster Daughter? If you chose a name for yourself, what would it be and why?
*Writing activity: Liesel brings a daily weather report to Max while he’s living in the basement, but she doesn’t just say, “it’s sunny” or “it’s raining now.” Use figurative language to create a weather report as Liesel would for Max.
*Non-Fiction books about the holocaust and Nazi Germany:
Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. 2005. HITLER YOUTH: GROWING UP IN HITLER’S SHADOW. ISBN 9780439353793
Heck, Alfons. 2005. A CHILD OF HITLER: GERMANY IN THE DAYS WHEN GOD WORE A SWASTIKA. ISBN 978-0939650446
Zullo, Allan, & Bovsun, Mara. 2005. SUVIVORS: TRUE STORIES OF CHILDREN IN THE HOLOCAUST. ISBN 978-0439669962
*Novels and graphic novels about the holocaust and Nazi Germany for older teens:
Foer, Jonathan Safran. 2003. EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED. ISBN 978-0060529703
Spiegelman, Art. 1986. MAUS I: A SURVIVOR’S TALE: MY FATHER BLEEDS HISTORY. ISBN 978-0394747231
Spiegelman, 1992. Art. MAUS II: A SUVIVOR’S TALE: AND HERE MY TROUBLES BEGAN. ISBN 978-0679729778
*Novels about the holocaust and Nazi Germany for younger teens:
Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. 2008. THE BOY WHO DARED. ISBN 978-0439680134
Boyne, John. 2007. THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS. ISBN 978-0385751537
Lowry, Lois. 1990. NUMBER THE STARS. ISBN 978-0547577098
Spinelli, Jerry. 2003. MILKWEED. ISBN 978-0375861475
Yolen, Jane. 2000. THE DEVIL’S ARITHMETIC. ISBN 978-0590965781
*Other books by Markus Zusak:
2001. WHEN DOGS CRY. ISBN 978-0330363099
2002. FIGHTING RUBEN WOLFE. ISBN 978-0439241878
2004. GETTING THE GIRL. ISBN 978-0439389501
2006. I AM THE MESSANGER. ISBN 978-0375836671
2011. UNDERDOGS. ISBN 978-0545354424