The Book Thief by Markus Zusak; published 2005 by Alfred Knopf
Who says picture books are just for kids? Not Markus Zusak, and not me, and not you after you read this book.
Only a few sections are in pictures – it’s part of the story, a sketchbook by one of the characters. But it is a refreshing, not-so-common way to tell the story and bring some lightheartedness to a book that tackles one of the most dark times and places of human history: World War II Germany.
The narrator of the book is Death, and Death, therefore, is one of the characters, which is intriguing in itself. While the point of the story isn’t necessarily to shed light on or even explore what death is, it does prompt some interesting questions about death and afterlife (a subject which has been interesting me lately).
Death is telling the story of Liesl, a young German orphan who is adopted by Hans and Rosa Hubermann. Liesl catches Death’s attention (not in a bad way) because the first time he sees her, she steals a book after her brother’s funeral. She can’t read at the time, but when she wakes up from her nightmares in the middle of the night, Hans comforts her by spending a few hours in the wee morning teaching her how to read.
For the Hubermann family, life gets a lot more complicated when one of Hans’s friends shows up to call in a favor Hans owes him. The favor is to hide a sick, starving Jewish man, Max. Max lives in their basement, sketching and helping Liesl with her reading. Max becomes an important part of the family, especially to Liesl. Max is eventually forced to leave the Hubermann house for all of their safety, but every time Jews come through the town on their way to the concentration camps, Liesl runs to see if Max is one of them.
Meanwhile, Liesl and her best friend Rudy begin stealing. They join a group of boys with the intent of stealing food only. But when Rudy and Liesl set out to steal on their own, Liesl ends up stealing a different kind of food – books. The touching part of this is that Liesl is really a very bad thief. She begins periodically stealing books from the mayor’s reclusive wife, who has a large library. But she notices things – the window is left invitingly open, a plate of cookies is left out near the books, and finally a note is left for her, revealing that the mayor’s wife knows what is going on and will not stop Liesl. What starts is a tenuous relationship between Liesl and the mayor’s wife, centered on their mutual love of books. The two eventually come to help each other in dealing with the very real consequences of the war, which soon come upon their small town.
This is a wonderful book. It is a celebration of words and friendship, rendered all the more meaningful in the darkness that was and still is World War II.