This is a story about a German girl named Liesel who travels by train with her mother
and brother to her new foster family in the small city of Molching, Germany just before
World War II. However, on the train, her younger brother dies. They bury the boy, but one of
the gravediggers leaves behind a book. Liesel picks it up and continues on her journey.
Liesel eventually makes it to Molching and the foster family, the Hubermann's. The husband,
Hans, is a soft-hearted painter who loves to play the accordion, while the wife, Rosa,
is a feisty woman who enjoys cussing.
Liesel is very nervous when she first enters their house and she consistently has nightmares
of her deceased brother. However, Hans stays with Liesel through the night and they begin
to form a special bond. After discovering her book about gravediggers, he begins teaching
her to read.
Liesel begins helping her mother with their laundry business and she collects and delivers
the laundry to the rich houses in the area. She becomes particularly interested in the
mayor's house because of the large library of books. The mayor's wife even lets Liesel
read in the library whenever she likes.
In her spare time, Liesel enjoys playing soccer with the other kids. Rudy, an athletic boy
who has a crush on Liesel, befriends her and they participate in mischief, like stealing.
But times begin to get harder for the Hubermann's as the country's internal conflict with the
Jews escalates into World War II. Hans is getting less work as a painter and Rosa's
laundry business is losing customers. Liesel is particularly hurt that the mayor's wife
cannot continue to be her mother's customer. To spite the mayor's wife, Liesel begins breaking
into the mayor's house and stealing books.
One day, the Hubermann's are visited by a stranger named Max, a Jewish boxer who is
escaping persecution. He also happens to be the son of a man who saved Hans' life during
World War I. The Hubermann's take Max in, hiding him in the basement. At first, Liesel
is afraid of Max, but they talk and become friends.
Life becomes stressful for the family as they continue to hide Max. During his time in the
basement, Max begins to dream and starts writing and illustrating on blank pages from Mein
Kampf. He shares this with Liesel and she loves them.
Max eventually leaves, fearing that he has endangered the family enough.
Soon, a trail of Jews, nearly dead, walks through the town. Hans offers a piece of bread
to one of the passing Jews and both get punished for it. Hans' punishment is enrollment in
the army, much to the outcry of his wife and Liesel.
Hans' job in the army is to work with the clean up crew. He does a good job clearing
away debris, but gets injured in a truck accident. He is sent home with a broken leg.
Liesel is happy to see Hans. As the sight of the Jews walking through town becomes more
and more common, she also starts scanning the crowd to see if she can see Max. Although
her efforts are initially unsuccessful, she does see him and they hug. However, she is
pushed aside and Max is whipped before continuing his walk.
The mayor's wife meets Liesel and tells her that she knows about the stealing from her
library. Instead of punishment, she gives Liesel a book with blank pages and tells her
to write a story. Liesel spends each night writing in the basement.
One night, as Liesel is writing in the basement, the town gets bombed and all of the people,
including the Hubermann's and Rudy, are killed. Liesel is the only survivor.
After discovering that her family and friends are killed, Liesel is stricken with grief.
In the end, Liesel is raised by the mayor and his wife and grows up to have a family
of her own.
First, this is a story about death. Death occurs throughout the story and ultimately
defines many of the characters. The opening death of Liesel's brother fixates in her mind
and dreams, often haunting her for weeks and months. Even the death of Max's father, Hans'
old war friend, has a great influence on Hans, as he learns the accordion and takes in Max,
a Jew, during a highly volatile time.
This story also discusses the power of words and language. Readers see the rise of Liesel
through just the simple act of reading. Initially, written words separated Liesel from the world,
but after she learns to read, she becomes a part of a bigger world.
From her reading comes her writing. And it's when she begins authoring her own life that
she finds her true power.
More than that, death is literally telling this story. The tone and voice, though contemporary,
is personable. The narrator is the personification of death - whether it be a grim reaper, angel
of death, or demon.
Readers are learning the story of Liesel and her family through an omnipotent narrator
who is both supernatural and spiritual. Through this insight of death by death, readers learn
that death is inevitable and that we are all on its schedule.