BOOK DISCUSSION GUIDE
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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 (www.markuszusak.com), 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.
with Marcus Zusak
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.