Introduction

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So you’re going to teach The Book Thief. Whether it’s your first or hundredth time, Markus Zusak's contemporary novel has become a mainstay in English classrooms since its publication in 2005. While it has its challenging spots—historical references to the Holocaust, intimate portrayals of death, and confrontations with human cruelty—teaching this text to your class will be rewarding for you and your students. Studying The Book Thief will give them a unique insight into the genre of historical fiction and provide them with a deeper understanding of various literary devices including narrative voice, allusion, and symbolism. Students will engage with important themes surrounding the power of words, the effects of war, and the process of growing up in dark and challenging circumstances. This guide highlights some of the most salient aspects of the text before you begin teaching.

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Facts at a Glance 

  • Publication Date: 2005
  • Recommended Grade Level: 6 and up 
  • Approximate Word Count: 118,900 
  • Author: Markus Zusak 
  • Country of Origin: Australia and Germany
  • Genre: Young Adult Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Literary Period: Contemporary Fiction 
  • Conflict: Person vs. Person, Person vs. Society, Person vs. Supernatural, Person vs. Self
  • Narration: First-Person Omniscient, with Death as Narrator
  • Setting: Fictional city of Molching, Germany, 1939–1943
  • Structure: Novel, Frame Story
  • Tone: Dark and Cynical, yet also Hopeful and Lighthearted 


Texts That Go Well With The Book Thief

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Like The Book Thief, Doerr’s novel won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for historical fiction. The novel follows Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind French girl, and Werner Pfennig, a German boy, as they grow up in occupied France during World War II. 

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein, is a young adult historical fiction novel published in 2012 and narrated by two British women, Maddie, a pilot, and Julie, a spy, who become separated after a plane crash during World War II. 

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Published in 1953, Bradbury’s dystopian novel examines the theme of the power of words. Fahrenheit 451 follows Guy Montag, a firefighter in the 24th century who is tasked with burning illegal books. Like Liesel, Montag discovers the power of books and individual thought in a world awash in propaganda. 

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry was published in 1989 and won the 1990 Newbery Medal. This young adult historical fiction novel follows Annemarie Johansen as she helps her Jewish friend Ellen Rosen escape imprisonment during World War II. The story is a fictional retelling of the rescue of Jews from Denmark to Sweden during the war. 

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay is a work of historical fiction published in 2006. A story told through parallel plots, the novel examines the lives of Sarah Starzynski, a Jewish girl, who is arrested during the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup in Paris, and Julia Jarmond, a journalist who researches the roundup sixty years later. 

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne is a work of historical fiction published in 2006. The novel is about the timelessness of childhood friendship. Bruno, a Nazi commandant’s son, meets Shmuel, a prisoner in Auschwitz, and they become friends despite the barbed-wire fence that separates Bruno’s home from the concentration camp. 

The Diary of a Young Girl, or The Diary of Anne Frank is an autobiographical book written by Anne Frank while in hiding for two years during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Published in 1947, The Diary of Anne Frank is one of the only autobiographical accounts of a young Jewish girl’s WWII experience. In the diary, Anne provides a glimpse into the realities of the Holocaust, as well as into the world of a young woman as she talks about family, friends, and love.

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Key Plot Points