Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 951
Born: June 23, 1975
Birthplace: Sydney, Australia
The Underdog (1999)
Fighting Ruben Wolfe (2001)
The Messenger (2002; I Am the Messenger, 2005)
Getting the Girl (2003)
The Book Thief (2006)
Bridge of Clay (2011)
Markus Zusak is an Australian author best known for his novel The Book Thief (2006). The book, based on the experiences of Zusak's German-born parents, is about two teenagers living outside of Munich during World War II. The Book Thief was marketed for adults in Australia, but was labeled a young adult novel in the United States. It became a best seller in both genres and was made into a movie starring Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson in 2013. “A loved book is a loved book, no matter where it comes from or the category it is placed in,” Zusak told Victoria Burrows for the South China Morning Post. “You just have to trust readers and hope that the book finds its way into the right hands.” In 2014, Zusak received the lifetime achievement Margaret A. Edwards Award for his contributions to young adult literature.
Zusak was born in Sydney, Australia, on June 23, 1975. His mother, Lisa, was six years old and in foster care in Munich, Germany, when it was bombed by the British during the war. She then lived for a time in Dachau, Germany, near the notorious concentration camp. Zusak's father, Helmut, was a member of the Hitler Youth in Austria. Their stories intrigued Zusak growing up, and he did not consider writing them down until later. Zusak's parents spoke no English when they came to Australia but were determined their children would be proficient in the language. Zusak learned to read at an early age, but when he was sixteen something changed, and he began reading books for enjoyment. “I had that feeling of turning pages and you don't even notice, you are just so caught up in it—that's one of the best feelings you can have,” he told Rod Moran for the Perth West Australian. “I thought, ‘That's what I want to do with my life.’”
Zusak was twenty-three when he published his first novel, The Underdog, in 1999. The book is narrated by the character Cameron Wolfe, who serves as the protagonist of Zusak's next two books, Fighting Ruben Wolfe (2001) and Getting the Girl (2003), which won the Queensland Premier's Literary Award. The Wolfe trilogy was published as a collection titled Underdogs in the United States in 2011. The personalities of the protagonists in the story, two working-class brothers, Cameron and Ruben, are based on Zusak and his own brother. In the second book in the trilogy, Cameron and Ruben begin boxing in order to earn money, and in the third book, Getting the Girl, Cameron pursues his brother's ex-girlfriend. Like The Book Thief, the Wolfe trilogy is about survival and “fighting, both physical and metaphorical,” Susan Carpenter wrote for the Los Angeles Times. “It's the hardscrabble life of the working class, for which there's little joy or hope of escape, yet Cameron's voice offers glimmers of redemption.”
Zusak, his wife, Dominika, and their daughter live in Sydney.
Zusak's novel The Messenger (2002) won the New South Wales Premier's Literary Award. It was published as I Am the Messenger in the United States in 2005 and received a Michael L. Printz Honor the same year. The book centers around an underage cabdriver turned vigilante and was Zusak's first commercial success, but his most celebrated novel remains The Book Thief, a book about war, survival, and the power of stories. Set in a small town outside of Nazi-occupied Munich in 1939, the story is narrated by Death, who is “telling this story to prove to himself that humans are actually worth it,” Zusak told Moran. Liesel Meminger—a feisty schoolgirl who acts out by stealing books after the death of her family—is taken in by Rosa and Hans Hubermann. The Hubermanns are a kind couple who later take in a Jewish teenager named Max Vandenburg and hide him in their basement. The book finds whimsy and even beauty in a horrific chapter of history. Some reviewers criticized the book as overstuffed, but even its critics agree that Zusak captures moments of sharp truth. Janet Maslin for the New York Times wrote, “At its most effective, the book's tone can be terrifyingly matter of fact. ‘For the book thief, everything was going nicely,’ Death observes, as the extermination camps flourish in the summer of 1942. ‘For me, the sky was the color of Jews.’”
The Book Thief spent over four years on the New York Times Best Seller list, and in 2013 it was made into a successful film. The score, composed by veteran composer John Williams, was nominated for an Academy Award.
- Carpenter, Susan. “Not Just for Kids: ‘UnderDogs’ by Markus Zusak.” LA Times. Los Angeles Times, 14 Aug. 2011. Web. 6 May 2015. <http://articles.latimes.com/2011/aug/14/entertainment/la-ca-markus-zusak-20110814>.
- Carstensen, Angela. “On Top of His Game: Margaret A. Edwards Award Winner Markus Zusak Talks about Finding His Voice, His Responsibility to Readers, and His Obsession with Getting Things Right.” School Library Journal 60.6 (2014): 26. Print.
- Green, John. “Fighting for Their Lives.” New York Times. New York Times, 14 May 2006. Web. 6 May 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/14/books/review/14greenj.html>.
- Maslin, Janet. “Stealing to Settle a Score with Life.” New York Times. New York Times, 27 Mar. 2006. Web. 7 May 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/27/books/27masl.html?_r=0>.
- Burrows, Victoria. “Rolling with the Punches.” South China Morning Post 1 Mar. 2009: 3. Print.
- Crowley, Cath. “Cameron Wolfe, Lost and Found.” Age 14 May 2003: 5. Print.
- Kinson, Sarah. “Why I Write—Markus Zusak.” Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 28 Mar. 2008. Web. 6 May 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/mar/28/whyiwrite>.
- Moran, Rod. “Beauty amid the Carnage.” West Australian 16 Oct. 2006: 10. Print.