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Title: The Book Thief
Author: Marcus Zusak

Summary: Liesel Meminger is only nine years old when she is taken to live with the Hubermanns, a foster family, on Himmel Street in Molching, Germany, in the late 1930s. She arrives with few possessions, but among them is The Grave Digger’s Handbook, a book that she stole from her brother’s burial place. During the years that Liesel lives with the Hubermanns, Hitler becomes more powerful, life on Himmel Street becomes more fearful, and Liesel becomes a fullfledged book thief. She rescues books from Nazi book-burnings and steals from the library of the mayor. Liesel is illiterate when she steals her fi rst book, but Hans Hubermann uses her prized books to teach her to read. This is a story of courage, friendship, love, survival, death, and grief. This is Liesel’s life on Himmel Street, told from Death’s point of view. Reading Group Guides

THEMES: World War II, the Holocaust, power of words to destroy and to create; relationships lasting amidst the ashes and evils of war; strong emotions evoked by fear; death; guilt and shame; courage. Readers of this book, which is narrated by Death, begin to sense that Death is almost afraid of humans-- it seems as though he must tell Liesel' s story in order to affirm some of the goodness and purpose of humanity's existence.

1. Death narrates this story. When did you first realize this, and how did you feel about it? How does it affect its telling?

2. How does Death feel about each victim? About the story's characters?

3. Death says, "I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race... rarely do 1 ever simply estimate it." Of Liesel, at the end of the book, he wanted to ask, "how the same thing can be so ugly and glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant." What is ugly and beautiful/glorious about Liesel, Rosa & Hans Hubermann, Max Vandenburg, Rudy Steiner, Mrs. Hermann? Why is death haunted by humans?

4. Liesel first steals a book at a cemetery. What book is it and why do you think she took it? She hides it-- why? How does Hans react when he finds it? Why does she become obsessed with stealing books? (What's the irony in this?) How does stealing a book make her a friend of the Mayor's wife? How does writing a book save Liesel's life?

5. Liesel believes Hans Hubermann has kind eyes. (Death, incidentally, says Hans is "worth a lot.") She feels closer to him than to Rosa. How did this trust come about? What about the Hubermann's own children-- is Liesel a substitute for them? What is the relationship between Liesel and Rosa, at the beginning and at the end-- how did it change?

6. Discuss the issue of abandonment in this novel-- both abandonment by circumstance and of the heart. Does Liesel experience both?

7. Why is Hans driven to save Max Vandenburg from the Nazis? Guilt seems to be a force moving Hans to help others-- his life having been spared during WWI while others died (including Max's father). Max thinks, "Living was living. The price was guilt and shame." How do you feel about that?

8. How does the friendship between Liesel and Max develop? What is important about the story, "The Standover Man," that Max gives to Liesel for her birthday?

9. Death said that Liesel was a girl "with a mountain to climb." What mountain? With whom is she climbing? Obstacles? When does she reach the summit, and how goes her descent (including what she discovers at the foot of the mountain)?

10. Courage is another theme. Max's son, Max Jr., is a Nazi soldier and calls his father a coward because he won't support Hitler. There isn't a single "coward" in Max's household-- how are they courageous?

11. What about Liesel's friendship with Rudy-- how does it grow and change throughout the book? Death notes that Rudy doesn't offer his friendship "for free"-- what does Rudy want from Liesel? Why is it difficult for Liesel to love Rudy? Why does she tell Mr. Steiner that she kissed Rudy's dead body? What is the significance of Rudy's hero worship of Jesse Owens?

12. How does Zusak foreshadow much of what will happen, pulling the reader into the story?

13. Liesel lives to be an old woman. Death says he would like to tell her about beauty and brutality but she already lived them. How does her life represent both beauty and brutality?

14. How does Zusak's poetic writing style enhance the beauty of Liesel's story? What is the significance of the colors in the story?

Related Information:
Marcus Zusak was born in 1975 in Sidney, Australia, youngest child of Austrian and German immigrant parents. He began writing as a teenager, completing what he admits was a "not very good" book at 16. It wasn't until 2002 that his first novel, The Underdog, was published in the USA. It became the first of a trilogy that also included Fighting Ruben Wolfe (winner of the YALSA Best Book of 2002) and Getting the Girl. His highly lauded I Am the Messenger won the Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year award and was a Michael L. Printz Honor Book in 2006. The Book Thief, published in 2006, was supposed to be a short book (100 pages max) but, instead, it took him three years and over 500 pages to write. It was also supposed to be Zusak's debut "adult" book but Random House chose to categorize it as young adult.

Self-described as "non-confrontational," Markus Zusak even shies away from certain genres. "The challenge I take on is no different from any writer -- the doubt. Struggling to believe the book is working is the greatest problem, but if it wasn't there, fmishing a book wouldn't be the achievement that it is."

Zusak continues to live in his native Australia with wife and daughter, where he enjoys surfing and soccer and is at work on his next book, tentatively titled Bridge of Clay. "I'm afraid of it at the moment," he confessed to an interviewer when asked about his next project, "but that's probably a good thing."

Inspiration/Research/Writing of The Book Thief
Although Zusak traveled to Germany to research material for The Book Thief, the idea for the novel originated at home with his mother, who grew up in Germany during World War II. Two of her many stories especially affected him: the bombing of Munich. with the sky "on fire," everything red; and a day when Jews were being marched through the streets of her hometown to Dachau, the concentration camp, and a boy ran into the marchers to give an emaciated man a piece ofbread-- the man fell to his knees and kissed boy's feet. The Nazis whipped both the starving man and the boy. Zusak saw in this one moment both great kindness and extreme cruelty, a perfect example of humanity. Both of the stories are woven into the fabric of the book. The writing of this book "came to mean more to [him] than [he] could have imagined." --"No matter what anyone ever says about that book, whether good or bad, I know it was the best I could do, and I don't think a writer can ask for more than that."

In Germany, he felt that he sometimes humiliated himself with his rough German but he found it awesome to walk the streets and see the river where he'd imagined Rudy jumping in to save Liesel's book. He also discovered some impossible-to-find- elsewhere facts and trivia he felt he needed to bolster the book's authenticity, such as seasonal habits of the region's apple trees. And he felt compelled to carve Rudy and Liesel's names on a tree at the river's shore!

About Death as narrator of the book, Zusak says, "I guess there's a little bit of death in me, but it's probably true of everyone. I think I just applied the thought of how scared I am of death and reversed it. I thought, 'what if he or she or it is haunted by everything he sees humans do?' In that way, he's also like all of us, because we all have the same reactions to each other's behavior. Also, I had more empathy for Death when he was vulnerable like that."

The Writer's Process
Asked about writing process, Zusak responds that he usually knows the start and end of the story first. "Then I have other. . . check points... It's a bit like running a race, but once you've gone through each stage, you find that things will move around. You'll need to do certain parts a hundred times before you can move one. You might even find the end a little to the left or right than you originally planned... Originally, Liesel was going to be arrested for book thievery, but... it simply wasn't right."

He has two methods for settling into writing, a lazy routine and a non-lazy one. The latter finds him scribbling from 7 a.m. to near noontime, then a long break before working a few afternoon hours.; the lazy day starts about 10 a.m. but includes writing longer into the afternoon. When just starting or near the end of a book, he usually chooses to also work some evening hours.

On his web site (, in response to questions about where he gets his ideas for stories, he.comments, "I used to lie about this-- but now I actually know-- I started writing when I was 16. I'm 30 now. I get my ideas from 14 years of thinking about it." Storytelling comes naturally to him. "Stories have always told me where I was from," he's said. "Both my parents were immigrants... their hardships and struggle to live decent lives are probably the basis of everything I approach. Also, when I see friends, we laugh and carry on, and it's our stories that give us that laughter. I guess without stories we'd be empty." He likes the idea that every page in every book should contain "a gem."

The Book Thief was a finalist for the 2007 Michael L. Printz Award and was nominated for a 2006 Quill Book Award. It was shortlisted for the Australian Booksellers Book of the Year and for two Australian Book Industry Awards for Literature: Literary Fiction
Book of the Year and Book of the Year Across-All-Categories. Also, it won the Kathleen Mitchell A ward for 2006. It has earned both national and international acclaim and spent 21 weeks on the New York Times Children's Best Seller list.

Interview with Marcus Zusak

NPR Interview of Marcus Zusak

Questions and related information provided by Marilyn Day and Reading Group Guides.

This discussion guide made possible with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a State Agency. Sponsored by the Mohawk Valley Library System and participating member libraries.

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