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 growth?
- 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...
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