Teaching: The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

9th April 2010

I am haunted by humans.

I first read The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak several years ago. At the time, no one had heard of it, but I read it and immediately passed it to all my book-loving friends. (Thank goodness for those.) Of course, I know most of you have read and reviewed this amazing book set in Nazi Germany that shows the overwhelming beauty and brutality of humanity, but I wanted to bring it up again A. because it’s such a phenomenal book that doesn’t ever leave you and B. I taught it to my college freshman and high school seniors the last two weeks.

It is difficult to teach a novel to college students. First, I have two different type of classes – classes that meet three times a week for 50 minutes and classes that meet twice a week for an hour and 15 minutes. I know it’s the same time, but the breakup of that time can sometimes be difficult to deal with. Second, some novels lend themselves well to teaching: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is episodic. Others you can split up easily in terms of theme. Although The Book Thief certainly has many themes, I was still having difficulty. I looked online, but there seem to be mostly resources for younger grades or high school. College is so different.

I framed the conversation in terms of narrator, first of all, because, well…. narrator. It’s Death. I showed some clips of Meet Joe Black on the recommendation of another professor to really illustrate the detachment and curiosity that Brad Pitt’s character, as Death, feels. We related that back to our novel. We also discussed how setting the novel in Nazi Germany could have been a dangerous move for Zusak had he not had an impartial narrator, such as Death. My students were very interested in Death. On some level, I think it bothered them to have to think of little “d” death, but on the other hand, they were really gripped by capital “D” Death’s storytelling.

Then the last several classes, we discussed that more than anything, more than the Holocaust, or Nazi Germany, or destroyed innocence, the book is about words and about the characters’ relationship to those words. Liesel first steals a book before she can even read the words it holds, and we discussed that her stealing begins, at least, as an act of reclamation, filling the void with some physical evidence of what is missing.

However, as Hans teaches her to read, painting words she knows on the walls of the basement, she begins to have a hunger for what those words enable her to do. Similarly, Max, the Jewish refugee the Hubermanns hide in the basement, also has a growing relationship with words. He carries around a copy of Mein Kampf, and when Liesel asks him if it’s a good book, he responds it’s the “best book” because it literally saves his life on the journey to Molching. However, and for good reason, he also hates the book, representative of the evil that caused his life to be in danger in the first place. He rips out the pages and repurposes them, claiming the pages for himself and his own story, instead of Hitler’s.

I asked students for the moments in the book where words stood out to them, and they came up with the books within the book, Standover Man and The Word Shaker, the latter written by Max for Liesel, which describes Hitler’s realization of his own power:

He’d seen a mother walking with her child. At one point, she admonished the small boy, until finally, he began to cry. Within a few minutes, she spoke very softly to him, after which he was soothed and even smiled.

The young man rushed to the woman and embraced her. “Words!” He grinned.

The Word Shaker goes on to say that Hitler plants symbols and words of hate that multiply into a forest of hatred and “farmed thoughts.” One day, the word shaker plants a different kind of seed, and the story ends with hope.

Zusak shows how beautiful words can be. Max asks Liesel:

“Could you go up and tell me how the weather looks?”

Naturally, Liesel hurried up the stairs. She stood a few feet from the spit-stained door and turned on the spot, observing the sky.

When she returned to the basement, she told him.

“The sky is blue today, Max, and there is a big long cloud, and it’s stretched out, like a rope. At the end of it, the sun is like a yellow hole….”

Max, at that moment, knew that only a child could have given him a weather report like that.

Liesel, though, learns how dangerous words can be. Rosa, Liesel’s adoptive mama, does washing for the mayor’s wife Ilsa Hermann. However, in keeping with the hardships of war, the mayor determines they should not pay for things the other citizens cannot afford. Ilsa, an odd woman, grieving over the long-ago loss of her son, sits in her library filled with books, and Liesel

sprayed her words directly into the woman’s eyes…

She summoned theme from someplace she only now recognized and hurled them at Ilsa Hermann. “It’s about time, ” she informed her, “that you do your own stinking washing anyway. It’s about time you faced the fact that your son is dead. He got killed…. You think you’re the only one?”….

After a miscarriaged pause, the mayor’s wife edged forward and picked up the book. She was battered and beaten up, and not from smiling this time. Liesel could see it on her face. Blood leaked from her nose and licked at her lips. Her eyes had blackened. Cuts had opened up and a series of wounds were rising to the surface of her skin. All from the words. From Liesel’s words.

And then the utter futility of those words strikes her, and she rips up one of Ilsa Hermann’s books:

She tore a page from the book and ripped it in half.

Then a chapter.

Soon, there was nothing but scraps of words littered between her legs and all around her. The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Fuhrer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or wordly tricks to make us feel better.

What good were the words?

She apologizes in a letter, saying:

As you can see, I have been in your library again and I have ruined one of your books. I was just so angry and afraid and I wanted to kill the words…. I love this place and hate it, because it is full of words.

At this point, I picked up a book, and dear reader, brace yourself: I began to rip out the pages. Some students gasped. Some just looked surprised. I don’t think one was texting, though. I let the ripping of the pages speak for itself for a moment and then I told them: Maybe Liesel was naive for thinking hate wouldn’t exist without the pages of a book. But what about Max? He takes that hate, and he makes it into something beautiful.

And that was my students’ homework assignment. I picked up the first batch today. I told them they didn’t have to put their names on the sheet, but they did have to repurpose the page they took home. They could make it have something to do with the book or with hatred in general. I was impressed. I was actually really impressed with what I got. Here are some photos:

The one with most of the page blacked out is really impressive. The student only left some words, and those words convey this message:

The prisms of beautiful sunlight each soft, shimmered gently and were spilling like living paint. That light, fullest light could permeate my heart inside me and the luminous refraction of the shining moment tints the world and music inside my heart. I have all brightness in my heart.

How cool is that?

  • This is fantastic! I know a lot of bookworms can’t stand even doggearing a book but since I do some collage work and bookbinding, well I don’t mind seeing a book turned into something else. I love that your students got to express their vision. Thank you for sharing this!

    • Thank you for commenting. I dogear books that I teach from simply because it makes my life a LOT easier. And, believe me, it was difficult to rip up that book (but it was a crap book I didn’t enjoy 🙂 ). Overall, though, I wanted to get the point across to them, and I think I did – at least for some of them.

      I really enjoy art revolving around words and books, so I certainly get where you are coming from. The work in my header at the top of the blog is from one of my favorite artists who uses old books, posters, book covers, etc. So cool.

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  • Liz

    Hi PickyGirl,
    I’m about to start teaching The Book Thief and I’d love to replicate your repurposing task. Would you mind sending me some more details, like what you gave the students in terms of instruction (or did you leave it open?)

    I struggled with finishing the novel, though I know my students have loved it. I think this task would be lots of fun for them.


    • Liz –

      We talked about Max and Liesel’s relationship to and with words and how that changed over the course of the novel. I read the part where Liesel is in Ilsa Hermann’s library ripping up the books and why/if they considered that naive. We then discussed that Max did something arguably greater by turning hate into something hopeful and lovely. They then had the option of illustrating how that played out in the story (on their own page) or repurposing the page like Max did to represent this struggle today.

      I hope that helps!

    • Also, for some reason I couldn’t comment on your Book Thief post, so I’ll post my thoughts here:

      I really love this book, for a lot of reasons. No, it’s not perfect, but it’s one of the best books I’ve read in the last five years certainly. I also felt that compared with some other young novelists’ work, it was a more complete story than most. I do not like the endings of, say, The History of Love, Everything is Illuminated, or The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.

      In answer to some of your questions:
      Another book on the Holocaust? Yes, but no. It’s not really just about the Holocaust in terms of themes. It’s about a whole lot more than that. Plus, maybe you are different, but I have not had a lot of exposure to literature where the story occurs in Nazi Germany.

      The narrator totally *makes* this story for me. In fact, in my comp class, I frame our entire discussion around the narrator, discussing how that gives Zusak the ability to set the story in Nazi Germany without riding the German side of that fence too closely. Also, his lightheartedness and naivete are a bit charming and help to make the book more bearable to read. I had several students note that had they not known Rudy dies, etc., they would have been furious and really not liked the book. Also, I think it allows the reader to focus more on the relationships between the characters as opposed to what is going to happen.

      The colors of the sky? Loved it. I really felt, again, that they were the narrator’s coping mechanism but more than that, they were one of the few expressions he was allowed to have. What a book for imagery: newspaper sky with words floating around after bombing?

      As you can see, I altogether love this book. My college students almost 100% loved this book. I had students who hate to read come to me separately and tell me how much they enjoyed this book.

      I’m sorry it wasn’t your favorite, but I hope your students respond as well to it as my own did. Good luck!

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  • aww, i love love love the assignment that your student turned in. that is so beautiful.

    i wish i’d had more teachers like you over the years!

    • You are too sweet. I try to engage them as much as possible, but you just never know. Many of them really stepped it up for this project. I was proud.

      Sent from my iPhone

  • Krista

    I did a variation of this project in class today with my advanced Sophomores. We discussed what words mean to Liesel, Hans, Max, Rudy, and Eliezer from the book Night by Elie Wiesel. I then discussed what words mean to me, and the students brainstormed what they mean to themselves.

    I then took an old book (I couldn’t bear using The Book Thief) and tore out pages for the students. They were instructed to turn the pages into what words mean to them. Some of the projects have a promising start! I would like to share some of the good ones with your blog readers; may I email a few pictures to you later this week?

    • Oh my goodness! I would love that.

      In fact, I’d really like to hear more about their responses to your lesson.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to email me. When you send photos, do you mind maybe giving a bit more info for me to include as well?


  • I just came across your piece on teaching The Book Thief. It’s one of my favourite novels of the last few years too and am looking forward to teaching it to my 17-18 year old pupils in September. It’ll form part of a comparative course. There are so many ideas in this lengthy book that I think it could be compared with any other text!
    Thanks for all your ideas. I was concerned that my pupils might not like the novel but am heartened by the fact that your students warmed to it so. I may try your ‘ripping up a rubbish book’ technique, but I have to say that it goes against the grain. It really seems to have worked for you, so you never know. You certainly have got me thinking! All the best.

    • pickygirl

      It can be difficult to teach something you really love, and I kept trying to think about some of the more important (to me) aspects of the book. Sometimes you have to jar your students, and it did work. It may not work with every group or every student, but I was lucky that it did with mine. If it makes you feel better, I was crazy nervous before the “book ripping” but then I could feel their tension and knew it was making an impression.

      I’d love to hear how you make out with your students and what you end up doing. Thanks for stopping by!

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  • Sarah Small

    Oh wow–I LOVE the idea of re-purposing a page. I am going bookmark this for the end of our unit on The Book Thief. GREAT idea!