The Book Thief centers on the life of Liesel Meminger, a ten to fourteen-year-old in Germany during World War II. Liesel's experiences are narrated by Death, who describes both the beauty and destruction of life in this era.
After her brother's death, Liesel arrives in a distraught state at the home of her new foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. During her time there, she is exposed to the horror of the Nazi regime and struggles to find a way to the innocence of her childhood in the midst of her destructive surroundings. As the political situation in Germany deteriorates, her foster parents hide a Jewish man named Max, putting the family in danger. Hans, who has developed a close relationship with Liesel, teaches her to read in secret. Recognizing the power of writing and sharing the written word, Liesel begins to not only steal books the Nazi party is looking to destroy, but also write her own stories and share the power of language with Max.
The protagonist of the story, she is an adopted girl on the verge of adolescence, with blonde hair that "was a close enough brand of German blonde" and a "smile that was starving" when she very rarely showed it. Her eyes, however, were a dark brown. She is fostered by the Hubermanns after her father "abandons" their family, her brother dies, and her mother is forced to send her to a foster home owing to her political belief-communism, which is forbidden then. Liesel is the "book thief" referred to in the title. Liesel Meminger is fascinated by the power of words "I have hated the words and I have loved them." and ends up stealing books from bonfires, mansions, and snow.
Liesel's foster father and husband of Rosa, Hans was a German soldier during World War I , accordion player, and handyman. He develops a close and loving relationship with Liesel, and becomes a main source of strength and support for her throughout the novel. He, like Liesel, doesn't have much experience with reading. Together, the two help each other with reading and write all the words they learn on a wall in the basement.
Liesel's sharp-tongued, often abrasive, foster mother, she is 155 cm (5 ft 1 in) and has a "wardrobe" build, with a displeased face, brown-grey tightly-cinched hair often tied up in a bun, and "chlorinated" eyes. To supplement the household income, she does washing and ironing for five of the wealthier households in Molching.
Liesel's neighbor, Rudy, has bony legs, rugged teeth, blue eyes, lemon-colored hair and a penchant for getting in the middle of situations. Despite being the Nazi physical ideal (blond hair and blue eyes), he does not support the Nazis. As part of a household with six children, Rudy is habitually hungry. He is known throughout the neighborhood because of the "Jesse Owens incident", in which he colored himself black with coal one night and ran one hundred meters at the local sports field. He is academically and athletically gifted, which attracts the attention of Nazi Party officials, leading to an attempted recruitment. His lack of support for the Nazi party becomes problematic as the story progresses. Rudy becomes Liesel's best friend, and eventually falls in love with her, always trying to get a kiss out of her. He dies in a bombing and finally gets his kiss from Liesel, as she weeps for him, realizing that she loved him as well.
A Jewish fist-fighter who takes refuge from the Nazi regime in the Hubermann's basement. He is the son of a WWI German soldier who fought alongside Hans Hubermann, and the two developed a close friendship during the war. He has brown, feather-like hair and swampy brown eyes. During the Nazi reign of terror, Hans agrees to shelter Max and hide him from the Nazi party. During his stay at the Hubermanns' house, Max befriends Liesel, because of their shared affinity for words. He writes two books for her and presents her with a sketchbook that contains his life story, which helps Liesel, to develop as a writer and reader.
The wife of the mayor of Molching who employs Rosa Hubermann, she is self-harming because of her depression after the death of her only son in the war. Ilsa allows Liesel to visit and read books in her personal library. She also gives Liesel a diary, which leads Liesel to write her own story, "The Book Thief".
The narrator throughout the story, Death, is tired of his job and wants a vacation, but cannot take one because there would be nobody to replace him. Death speaks of his job, removing souls and carrying them away which is odd seeing that he is death personified. He is "haunted by humans".
The book is introduced by the character/narrator Death, which underlines that mortality is very present in the lives of each character. Throughout the novel, the deaths of prominent characters reaffirm the presence of mortality. Because the novel takes place during World War II, death and genocide are nearly omnipresent in the novel.
Death is presented in a manner that is less distant and threatening. Because Death narrates and explains the reasons behind each character's destruction, as well as explains how he feels that he must take the life of each character, death is given a sense of care rather than fear. At one point, Death states "even death has a heart," which reaffirms that there is a care present in the concept of death and dying.
These three things act as symbols of freedom and expression throughout the story. As symbolic elements, they provide liberation and identity to the characters who are able to wield their power. They also provide a framework for Liesel's coming of age. In the beginning of the novel, she obtains a book at her brother's funeral, one that she is unable to read. As the story progresses, she slowly learns how to read and write because of the tutelage of her foster father Hans. At the end of the story, her character arc is heavily defined by her ability to read and write. The development of her literacy mirrors her physical growth and strength developing over the course of the story.
Language, reading, and writing also serve as social markers. The wealthy citizens in the story are often portrayed as owning their own libraries and being literate, while the poor characters are illiterate and do not own any books.
The Nazi burning of books is also represented in the novel. Symbolically, Liesel's continuous rescue of the books the Germans burn represents her reclaiming freedom and fight against being controlled by the Nazis.
In the midst of the damage that war, death, and loss have caused Liesel and the other characters in the book, love is seen as an agent of change and freedom. Liesel overcomes her traumas by learning to love and be loved by her foster family and her friends. In the beginning of the novel, Liesel is traumatized not only by the death of her brother and her separation from her only family, but also as a result of the larger issues regarding war-torn Germany and the destruction by the Nazi party. As Liesel's foster father Hans develops a relationship with her, healing and growth are a direct result. This pattern is reflected in the relational dynamic between the Hubermann family and Max. In the midst of governmental policies that reflect on who is worthy of love and acceptance, the Hubermanns' relationship with Max defies the Nazi regime. Further, the love that Max and Liesel develop through their friendship creates a strong contrast to the hate that is the backdrop of the story.
The theme of love also intertwines with the themes of identity and language/reading because all of these themes have the purpose of providing freedom and power in the midst of chaos and control.2006: Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Book (South East Asia & South Pacific)
2006: School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
2006: Daniel Elliott Peace Award
2006: Publishers Weekly Best Children's Book of the Year
2006: National Jewish Book Award for Children's and Young Adult Literature
2006: Bulletin Blue Ribbon Book
2007: Michael L. Printz Honor Book The Printz award is given to the best book for teens, based only on the quality of the writing.
2007: Book Sense Book of the Year Award for Children's Literature
The film was released on November 2013. It was directed by Brian Percival. Michael Petroni wrote the script. Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson portrayed the Hubermanns, Ben Schnetzer was Max Vandenburg, Nico Liersch was Rudy Steiner, and Sophie Nélisse was Liesel Meminger. John Williams wrote the music soundtrack. Much of the movie was filmed in Görlitz, Germany.