The Book Thief as a Work of Historical Fiction: Historical fiction is a literary genre that fuses history with fiction. In The Book Thief, Zusak bases his story within the history of World War II and the Holocaust. While some events, characters, and settings are fictional, the majority of the story’s historical basis is accurate. The fictional city of Molching experiences the destruction of the war on an acute scale, and the Hubermann family struggles with the decision to align themselves with the Nazi Party. Many of the subjects in The Book Thief are controversial, allowing readers to question how Zusak chooses to relay his story. Another point to include in classroom discussion is the genre of historical fiction itself and its ability to impart historical information.
- For discussion: How are Nazi Germany and World War II illustrated in the novel? How does the novel condemn the Nazis? Does it present a sympathetic portrayal of Germans? Why or why not?
- For discussion: Describe how the Hubermanns cope with Nazism despite their opposition to Nazi ideals. How do some characters resist the Nazi’s oppression?
- For discussion: What are the merits of the historical fiction genre? How is reading a novel of historical fiction different from reading a history textbook? What can historical fiction teach us about remembering the past?
The Book Thief as a Bildungsroman: A bildungsroman is a story that traces a character’s emotional and moral growth as they mature from child to adult. Some regard The Book Thief as a bildungsroman because the narrator, Death, follows Liesel as she grows from a nine-year-old girl into an old woman. When Liesel first arrives at the Hubermann home, she is initially rebellious and stubborn. She fistfights other kids and steals books and food with Rudy. However, over the course of the novel, Liesel displays courage and a resilience to the difficulties of life and war. She demonstrates compassion and kindness during the air raids as she reads to her frightened neighbors. Through her interactions with Max, she learns how to care for others and to remain hopeful. Finally, she learns the hardest lesson of her life when her town is bombed and she loses her entire family: that goodness does not always prevail.
- For discussion: How is The Book Thief an example of a bildungsroman? How does Liesel grow up over the course of the novel? How does she display maturity and bravery? Is she a sympathetic character? What are some of her most admirable traits?
- For discussion: Bildungsromane involve the moral development of the protagonist. What moral lessons does Liesel learn throughout the course of the novel? How does she learn these lessons?
- For discussion: How is the notion of childhood developed throughout the novel? What are the timeless and universal elements of childhood that persist despite time and place?
The Power of Words as Theme and Books as Symbols: One of the most poignant themes in The Book Thief is that words have power. Whereas Nazis burn books that represent deviance and immorality, Liesel steals books because she knows that words can change people and society for the better. For example, once she learns to read from Hans, she uses her capabilities to calm children during air raids, connect with Max, and provide comfort to Frau Holtzapfel.
- For discussion: What do the book burnings symbolize? What do Liesel’s stolen books and books in general symbolize?
- For discussion: Do you think it is wrong for Liesel to steal the books? What does Frau Hermann’s library represent? How do each of the books Liesel steals correspond with her...
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- For discussion: How does Liesel’s reading during the air raids and to Frau Holtzapfel demonstrate the power of words? How do Liesel and Max bond over books? What do the books that Max writes for Liesel—The Standover Man and The Word Shaker— symbolize?
- For discussion: Max writes his stories for Liesel over the pages of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Does this act of rewriting have significance? Why or why not?
Death as Narrator: One of the most compelling aspects of Zusak’s novel is its narrative structure. The Book Thief is told from the perspective of a personified Death, who is surprisingly jovial and amiable. He picks up the souls of the deceased and struggles with how to reconcile the simultaneous capability for humans to display compassion and cruelty. Sometimes Death comes across a story so tantalizing that he must stop to consider it; such is the case with Liesel’s story. Death recounts each of his encounters with Liesel as she grows up. His narrative style is especially noteworthy because he frequently inserts himself into the story, offering candid commentary on life and death and spoiling the plot with paragraphs set in boldface.
- For discussion: How is the novel structured and narrated? How does this point of view contribute to the narrative? Is he more relatable? Why or why not?
- For discussion: What is Death’s tone of voice? What does the effect of personifying death have on the story?
- For discussion: How does Death tell Liesel’s story? Why does he frequently insert boldface text, break chronological order, spoil the plot, and foreshadow upcoming events?
- For discussion: Describe Death’s personality and understanding of humans. How does Death use colors to cope with his job? Why does he have a special connection to Liesel?
- For discussion: How does Death approach Liesel at the end of the story? What does Death mean when he says that he is “haunted by humans”?
- For discussion: Initially, Zusak wrote The Book Thief as a one-hundred page novella. In this version, Death was arrogant and merciless. However, Zusak changed course, realizing Death should be a more sympathetic narrator. How would the novel have been different if Death were remorseless?
Reconciling Human Compassion and Cruelty as Theme: In the final moments of the novel, Death contemplates:
“I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race—that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.”
Like Death, Zusak has expressed that in writing The Book Thief, he wanted to explore the duality of humanity. Throughout The Book Thief, Zusak explores the human capacity for compassion and cruelty. He sets his novel in a period of absolute destruction and death, yet still presents readers with characters who represent goodness, beauty, resilience, and hope.
- For discussion: Describe how compassion and cruelty are developed as motifs in the novel. What are some examples of compassion? What are some examples of cruelty?
Hans and Rosa Hubermann as Character Foils: After the death of her brother and separation with her mother, Liesel arrives at Himmel Street where she meets her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. These two characters provide a study in opposition: Hans is kind and caring, teaching Liesel how to read, whereas Rosa is abrasive and insulting, calling Liesel a “saumensch,” or filthy pig. Although the Hubermanns are not Liesel’s biological parents, they raise Liesel and teach her valuable life lessons, including kindness, resilience, and bravery.
- For discussion: How are Hans and Rosa Hubermann alike? How are they different? Does Hans serve as a role model for Liesel? Does Rosa? If so, how?
- For discussion: Although the Hubermanns are not Liesel’s biological parents, how do they become her family? Explain the roles of friendship and family in the novel.
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
The Book Thief Deals With War, the Holocaust, and Nazi Germany: The subject matter of The Book Thief may be jarring at first for some students. However, it is important to remind them that the story is rooted in history, and that many of these events really did happen. Once students understand the historical background behind the Holocaust and World War II, they will have a better grasp of the story and the novel’s historical impact.
- What to do: Before reading the novel and beginning lessons, ask students to do preliminary research on World War II. Watch films in class that provide insight into the history of WWII. Have a class discussion to discover what your students might already know, and provide lessons on what they don’t.
- What to do: Use the historical material provided in this guide to provide students with introductory lectures or lessons on the Holocaust and Nazi Germany. Distinguish which elements of the novel are real and which are fiction.
Death as the Narrator May Be Disconcerting: While the narrative format of The Book Thief is unique, it might also present a challenge for some students in the classroom. However, teachers should not be afraid to broach these dark subjects. Most students will be enthralled by such a unique narrative structure, and may even find Death a somewhat likable, sympathetic character.
- What to do: Allow students to make their own judgments about Death as a character. Engage with students about what they think about his character, and if that is how they imagined he might act.
- What to do: Consider reading The Book Thief as an opportunity for students to gain a more complex understanding of the human condition by asking them to discuss the brutality of war and the Holocaust.
- What to do: Remind students that Death as a character allows them vast opportunities for literary analysis. Consider exploring other literary manifestations of Death—for example, Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death,” Charles Dickens’s Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, and T.S. Eliot’s “Eternal Footman” in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
Readers Will Encounter the Deaths of Main Characters: At the end of the novel, Hans, Rosa, and Rudy die in the bombing of Molching. Death narrates these events, occasionally foreshadowing their deaths throughout the novel.
- What to do: Many young readers may not have read novels that deal with death in such a visceral way; take this opportunity to teach them about the realities of war, specifically during the Holocaust.
- What to do: Recognize that the narration by Death might provide opportunities for students to understand and discuss the characters’ deaths. By presenting their deaths through the amiable and likable Death, students will be better equipped to engage with complex subjects.
Alternative Approaches to Teaching The Book Thief
While the main ideas, characters, themes, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving The Book Thief, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novel.
- Focus on the friendships between Rudy and Liesel; Max and Liesel. Consider how these friendships evolve over time and what each friendship means to Liesel. How does the romantic relationship between Rudy and Liesel evolve? What do Max and Liesel teach each other about the power of words and the sharing of stories?
- Focus on the novels, poems, and illustrations within The Book Thief, specifically The Standover Man and The Word Shaker. How do these creative forms illustrate the relationship between Max and Liesel? What do they reveal about each character? Consider how Max’s novels demonstrate the power of words during harrowing times.
- Focus on the use of symbols throughout the novel, including books, champagne, colors, and Hans’s accordion. Many objects in the novel are rife with symbolism, which students and readers should take time to consider.
- Focus on the genre of The Book Thief. When asked whether The Book Thief is directed to a young adult audience or an adult audience, Zusak did not provide a clear answer. Do you think The Book Thief is a work of young adult historical fiction? Why or why not? Does it necessarily matter to whom Zusak intended to write the novel?