Suggesting a Cross-Curricular Approach Coordinating ELA and History Classes

SUBJECTS — World/Germany, WW-II, ELA (theme, personification, symbol, & irony);


MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Responsibility, Caring.

AGE: 13+; MPAA Rating — PG-13 for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material;

Drama; 2013, 121 minutes; Color. Available from

HAVE STUDENTS READ THE BOOK! The best selling novel on which the movie is based is truly a wonder and is loved by millions, teenage and adult. The movie retains the remarkable human characters who are the foundation of the story, the setting, and many of the events described in the book. However, no movie can capture the depth of this novel and much has necessarily been lost in the adaptation of 550 pages of text to a two-hour film.

This Learning Guide contains materials for teaching the novel as well as the movie. The more students know about pre-WWII Germany, the Holocaust, the Blitz, and the Allies’ devastating response, the more they will appreciate Markus Zusak’s worldwide best-seller. Thus, TWM suggests cooperation between ELA and history instructors. However, the Guide also provides the basic historical background that can be used by ELA teachers when there is no opportunity to coordinate with a history instructor.

This Guide includes reports of actual events on which a few episodes in the story are based. These increase the veracity of both the novel and the film.

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TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students’ minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie.


Film Study Worksheet for ELA Classes;

Film Study Worksheet for Social Studies Classes for a Work of Historical Fiction

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.


Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.


The Book Thief is the tale of a young orphan named Liesel and the people who love her in a small German town just before and during WWII. The story shows that the power of love overcomes tragedy and hardship. Set among civilians living in Nazi Germany, The Book Thief demonstrates that even among a vicious and feared enemy there are valuable people of character. The story leads the reader/viewer to a new understanding of the abrupt and indiscriminate death caused by aerial bombardment of civilian communities.


Selected Awards:

This film received several awards nominations for the best musical score.


Featured Actors:

Sophie Nélisse as Liesel Meminger; Geoffrey Rush as Hans Hubermann; Emily Watson as Rosa Hubermann; Nico Liersch as Rudy Steiner; Roger Allam as Narrator / Death (voice); Heike Makatschn as Liesel’s Mother; Kirsten Block as Frau Heinrich.



Brian Percival.


When shown after the book has been read, the movie allows teachers to confirm lessons taught using the novel and to demonstrate how a book and its adaptation to film can be independent works of art. For classes in which reading levels do not permit students to experience the novel, the movie is an excellent example of cinematic literature from which lessons about a character-driven story, plot, irony, and theme can be crafted.

Students will gain new understanding of the power of love and the horrors of war. In ELA classes students will be exposed to the important themes set out in the story, be able to analyze a character-driven story, derive its themes, and explore the use of irony. Both novel and movie offer good occasions for discussion and writing assignments. For history classes the story will provide a vivid added dimension to events in Germany before and during WWII, especially of the Allies’ aerial bombardment of Germany.




Your child should be aware of the history of WWII set out in the Introductory Section of this Learning Guide. Before watching the film tell him or her that in this story, the narrator is a personification of death. After watching the film, read the selected quotations from the author about some of the real events that are reflected in the story.




“I see the book and film as two completely different things. Like brothers, they might look the same at times, and sound it. They might even have the same blood in their veins. But they go their own ways.” Markus Zusak in the Sydney Morning Herald.

  • The movie does not adequately develop and de-emphasizes the character of the narrator, Death.
  • In the novel, Max insists upon sleeping in the basement, after his first sleep of several nights. In the movie, it is fear of discovery that sent him downstairs. In the book, the Hubermanns bring Max back up to sleep in Liesel’s room because of the cold in the cellar. This does not occur in the movie.
  • The entire food-stealing subplot is not in the movie. The subsidiary characters and the emotional development of the characters of Liesel and Rudy that occur because of the food stealing are absent from the film.
  • In the movie, Liesel calms the people in the air-raid shelter by telling them a story reminiscent of Max that allows the audience to reflect on Max’ situation and her reaction to it. In the novel, she reads from a book, an action which is more in sync with the themes of the importance of reading.
  • In the novel, Rudy’s father is sent to war as a punishment for not permitting Rudy to attend an elite Nazi school. One of the Zusak family stories that inspired the book was that Marcus Zusak’s grandfather was drafted into the German army as retribution for not allowing his son, Marcus’s father, to be sent to a special Nazi school. The novel includes this story, but in the movie, Rudy’s father is drafted before Rudy is offered the opportunity to go to the school. The only part of this incident that remains in the film is the offer to Rudy to attend the school and his family’s refusal to allow him to go. In the novel, both Hans and Mr. Steiner are drafted as punishment for not cooperating with the Nazi regime.
  • In the book, Hans tries to give bread to a starving Jewish man and is whipped for his actions. As a result of this impulsive action, it is not deemed safe for Max to remain hidden in the basement. In the movie, the confrontation with the Nazi authorities that sets up Max leaving the Hubermann’s home occurs when a man is taken away by the Gestapo which has been examining birth certificates looking for people born Jewish who are still at large in the country. Hans protests that he has known the man all his life, and the Gestapo officer pushes Hans to the ground and takes his name. In both novel and film, Liesel and Rudy scatter bread for a column of starving Jews. They are chased by a soldier.
  • The subplots of the hatred between Rosa and Mrs. Holtzapfel, the return home of Half-staff’s son, his suicide, and Liesel reading to Mrs. Holtzapfel are not included in the film. Again, this is important information relating to the development of Liesel’s character and themes of the book that were excised from the film, undoubtedly due to time constraints.
  • In the novel, the use of walls in the basement for Liesel to learn to read is haphazard and not organized. In the movie, Hans paints section for words of each letter of the alphabet.
  • The aspect of Max’s character as a fighter and the origins of his friendship with the man who saved him are not developed in the movie.
  • The adult children of the Hubermanns are not in the film. Again, this excludes some interesting background and character development that are included in the novel.
  • In the film, the circumstances in which the mayor and his wife stopped using Rosa to wash their laundry are changed, and Liesel doesn’t yell at the mayor’s wife and insult her.


Before Reading the Book or Watching the Movie:


Coordination of Classes

The history teacher should take the lead in providing the historical background necessary to fully understand the story. The topics are set out below. If no history teacher is available to pair with, ELA teachers can provide the essential background from the information set out below. This information can also be provided through student reports.


Background to Help Students Get the Most from the Novel and the Film


Show the locations of Germany, Munich, England, and London. Molching, the fictional town in which the movie is set, is along a major route to the notorious German concentration camp of Dachau.


The First World War

WWI, in which England, France, and Russia fought Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey was one of the deadliest wars in history. The war was at a stalemate until 1917 when the U.S. intervened on behalf of the English and French. Jews fought for their various countries on both sides of the conflict.


The Nazification of German Society

The Nazi party and Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. Over time the Nazis thoroughly dominated Germany with all institutions of society being Nazified or disbanded. All dissenters, such as democrats, socialists, communists, and the religious were ruthlessly suppressed. Books which contained writings that did not conform to the Nazi ideology of Aryan superiority were burned. Paintings and other works of art that the Nazis disliked were destroyed.



The Nazi party used propaganda, including Hitler’s autobiographical manifesto, Mein Kampf (My Struggle), to acquire and maintain control over German society.


Hitler Youth and United German Girls

All children were required to belong to the Hitler Youth (for boys) and the United German Girls; the boys were prepared to be soldiers and girls were prepared to be homemakers and mothers. In 1933 Hitler stated that:

My program for educating youth is hard. Weakness must be hammered away. In my castles of the Teutonic Order a youth will grow up before which the world will tremble. I want a brutal, domineering, fearless, cruel youth. Youth must be all that. It must bear pain. There must be nothing weak and gentle about it. The free, splendid beast of prey must once again flash from its eyes…That is how I will eradicate thousands of years of human domestication…That is how I will create the New Order.


The Holocaust

In Nazi Germany, Jews, political opponents of the Nazis, socialists, communists, the very religious, the handicapped, and Gypsies were hunted down and placed into concentration camps. The goal of the Nazis was to “purify” Germany of people who were their opponents and of people who didn’t conform to the ideal of an Aryan. In addition, non-Jews from Nazi occupied countries, such as Poland, Russia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Ukraine, Holland, and France were killed in the concentration camps. It is estimated that 6,000,000 Jews died in the concentration camps and another 5,000,000 non-Jews died there as well. In addition, the Germans killed millions in the countries that they conquered without bothering to take them to concentration camps.

The concentration camp at Dachau, which was close to Munich, held clergy, communists and other political opponents of the Nazis, German royals and aristocrats, resistance fighters, scientists, writers and, of course, Jews. The conditions at Dachau were notoriously brutal. In addition, inmates at Dachau were subject to inhumane medical experiments which often caused their deaths. Dachau was also a major slave labor center. Other concentration camps, such as Auschwitz, were established for the purpose of simply killing people.



Kristallnacht means, in German, “the night of crystal.” On November 9 – 10, 1938 the Nazis coordinated attacks against Jewish synagogues and business throughout Germany, Austria, and German occupied areas of Czechoslovakia. The name comes from the shards of glass from the broken windows of buildings owned by Jews. That night Nazi rioters destroyed 267 synagogues and 7500 businesses. Ninety-one people were killed, and there were numerous rapes. The authorities looked on and, in fact, cooperated. 30,000 young Jewish men were arrested and incarcerated for no reason. Fire fighters would not douse the flames on Jewish-owned buildings but only sought to prevent the flames from spreading to structures owned by non-Jews.


Jesse Owens

Hitler had planned to use the 1936 Summer Olympics which were held in Berlin to show the superiority of Aryan athletes. It didn’t turn out that way, in large part because of Jesse Owens, an African-American. Owens won four gold medals: in the 100 meter dash, the 200 meter dash, the long jump, and the 4×100 meter relay. He was the most successful athlete at the games. Jesse Owens ran track for Ohio State University and held the world record in the long jump for 25 years.


German Bombing of England and Allied Bombing of Germany

World War II saw the first sustained aerial bombing of cities as a strategy of war. In those days, there were no precision-guided bombs as there are now. Aerial bombing was very inaccurate and many bombs missed their targets. In the summer of 1940, the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, started bombing military and industrial sites in England. In September 1940 the Luftwaffe shifted its tactics and bombed civilian areas of British cities, particularly London. The goals were to degrade British industry and military preparedness and to demoralize the population in preparation for a German invasion of England. The bombing of civilian areas lasted for eight months, until the following May, when Hitler gave up on the idea of invading England and turned his attention to Russia. The British called the bombing campaign “the Blitz.” The Blitz only stiffened British resolve to fight.

The German bombing of London was intense. During the first 57 days of the Blitz, London was bombed day and night. In all, 40,000 – 43,000 civilians in London and other British cities were killed by the Luftwaffe between September 1940 and May 1941. Another approximately 46,000 were injured. 1.4 million were made homeless. Later in the war, the British and the Americans repaid the favor with aerial bombing that killed more than 300,000 German civilians, destroying entire neighborhoods. Again, the stated reasons were to degrade war industries, disrupt military preparedness, and demoralize the population. There is no evidence that the air campaign demoralized the German population. While today the indiscriminate killing of civilians from the air would clearly be considered a war crime, no German official was prosecuted for his participation in the Blitz. Some historians contend that this was because the U.S. and British air forces had themselves killed so many civilians from the air.

By the end of the war, the Germans had lost the ability to send bombers to England. However, they fought back with V-2 rockets, the first guided missiles. The V-2s killed about six thousand British civilians and wounded another seventeen thousand. V-2s were more accurate than bombing from airplanes but did not have anything like the accuracy of modern cruise missiles which can hit a specific building. Casualties would have been much worse except for a British disinformation campaign that convinced the Germans that the V-2 rockets were over-shooting London targets by 10 to 20 miles. The Germans fell for it and this limited the V-2’s effectiveness. After the war Germans who worked on the V-2 program, including Wernher von Braun, were recruited by the Allies and the Russians and became leaders of the competing American and Soviet space programs. See The Right Stuff. They were not prosecuted for war crimes.



Special Note for Classes That Watch the Movie But Don’t Read the Book:

Teachers: The movie could have done a better job of introducing the narrator. To correct for this, simply tell students that the story has an unusual narrator: i.e. Death. He starts and ends the film.


After Reading the Novel or Watching the Movie:

The author has stated that the book includes incidents contained in stories told to the author by his parents. Several are set out below. The fact that scenes in the novel and the movie relate to real-life events, that the author’s father had a friend who was mistreated by the Hitler Youth leaders, and that his mother lived with foster parents during the war enhance the story’s veracity. Read or relate the following statements by the author to the class.

When I was growing up in suburban Sydney, I was told stories of cities on fire and Jews being marched to concentration camps. Both my parents grew up in Europe during World War II, and although they were extremely young at the time, in hindsight, they were able to understand many things. Two stories my mother told me about growing up in Munich always stuck with me. One was about a burning sky when the city was bombed. The other was about a boy being whipped on the street for giving a starving Jewish man a piece of bread. The man sank to his knees and thanked the boy, but the bread was stripped away and both the taker of the bread and the giver were punished.

You don’t really think of humor when you think of that time, but there were a lot of funny stories as well. I knew about my dad “jigging” as we say in Australia the Hitler Youth meetings, because he had a friend who suffered at the hands of the leaders. So they just said, “We’re not going. We’re going to go to the river instead and get dirty enough to fool our parents.” Another story I knew was about Hitler’s birthday, and my mother’s foster father refused to fly the Nazi flag. His wife said to him, “You’re going to fly the flag or else they’re going to come for us.” These are the stories I knew, and I thought, “I haven’t seen that on all the documentaries. I’m going to use these because this hasn’t necessarily been done a lot.” Interview with Markus Zusak, Author of The Book Thief and I Am the Messenger Mother/Daughter Book Club; Posted on February 24, 2010, 3:33 p.m.

The author also stated that “… [M]y dad stopped going to Hitler Youth, the same way Rudy did. He was also hand-picked to join a selective school for Nazis and his father was sent to war for refusing to hand him over.” Ten Questions with Markus Zusak Politics and Prose Bookstore;

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The following discussion questions relate to theme. click here for additional discussion questions on theme and for questions regarding some of the literary-cinematic devices found in the novel or the movie, such as irony, personification, and symbol.


1. Identify a theme from the story that taught you something or confirmed or expanded your understanding of something that you already knew.

Suggested Response:

Students will formulate the themes in their own way. The substance is what is important. Students may also see additional themes in the film. The following suggestions are not in order of importance. They may overlap.

A. The enemy population in war includes many good people and it is a tragedy when they die; thus all civilian casualties are a great loss and a great injustice, as are many military casualties. (As to military casualties, see All Quiet on the Western Front.)

B. Human nature has a strong element of duality. As Death said, “I am always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both.” p. 491.

C. Love is the basis of all that is good and great in the human character: it heals, nurtures and allows the best in others and self to flourish.

D. Love is the strongest and most important emotion, having the power to overcome great loss; in other words, the human spirit is strong and can survive many terrible losses through the power of love. [Themes C and D are, of course, related.]

E. Words are extremely powerful because they motivate people to act and affect how people see others.

F. The good in human nature triumphs over everything, including evil and the inevitability and randomness of death.

G. Meeting your responsibilities (as Hans did in hiding Max) is essential for good moral character and self-respect.


2. Who are the killers in this story? What is the significance of this fact?

Suggested Response:

There are two sets. It’s the American or British airmen who dropped the bombs that destroyed Heaven Street and killed Hans, Rosa, Rudy, and the others. While the Nazis threatened the inhabitants of Heaven Street and in the background were doing their atrocities in the Holocaust, it was the Allies who killed the people who Liesel loved. The significance of this fact is that in an all-out war, like WWII, hundreds of thousands civilians are killed, including people like the characters in this story.


3. What does this story tell us about death? (Death in this question does not include the character of the narrator in this story.)

Suggested Response:

Death, especially death in war, is random and senseless. Students might also note that death is a process (verb) and a result (noun).


4. Some commentators say that the strongest literary element in this story is characterization and that plot is secondary. Describe why they say this and why you agree or disagree.

Suggested Response:

This is clearly a character-driven story. The characterizations are strong. The climax, the Allied bombing of Himmel Street has nothing to do with the actions of any of the characters or the conflicts described in the story. For the characters and the issues they have been dealing with, the resolution comes, as it were, out of the blue.


5. Today, the bombing of a street like Himmel Street would probably be considered a war crime. Why is that? What is the implication of your answer to the use of atomic weapons?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer to this question. Good responses will discuss the advancing civilization of the world, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” (MLK). A good discussion will cover the following areas. Some would say that it depends upon the type of war. Civilian casualties should be very restricted in limited wars, such as the recent wars fought by the U.S. and its allies. A strong response will note the availability of cruise missiles which can guide bombs to targets as small as a specific building. Atomic bombs are indiscriminate weapons that destroy entire cities. Could atomic weapons ever be used in a limited war? What if Iran develops a nuclear weapon and bombs Tel Aviv? Would the Israelis or the U.S. be justified in dropping a nuclear bomb on Tehran? What about all the fabulous innocent people living in Tehran?



See TWM’s unit on Mass Casualties and Making Decisions About War which provides an in-depth analysis of the decision to launch a nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Students who have read The Book Thief or who have seen the movie, might be interested in this unit.

Additional discussion questions on some of the literary/cinematic devices relating to the novel or the movie.

6. A commentator wrote that, “Without ever denying the essential amorality and randomness of the natural order, The Book Thief offers us a believable, hard-won hope.” What is that hope?

Suggested Response:

The hope is that people can survive terrible circumstances and still have lives filled with love, as Liesel did. All the loving people in the novel embody that hope: Hans, Rosa, Rudy, the Mayor’s wife, and especially Liesel. Liesel becomes someone so alive and giving that even Death cannot help but love her and while Death may not be obsessed with them Hans, Rosa, and Rudy are memorable characters that all human readers/moviegoers will come to love. The quote is from Fighting for Their Lives by John Green, New York Times, May 14, 2006


7. Liesel is an admirable character, but there is something she did in this story that she will regret all her life. What was it and how does it relate to a major theme of the story?

Suggested Response:

Liesel will regret not allowing Rudy to kiss her; in other words, not allowing Rudy to express how much he loved her. And also not being able to tell him how much she loved him. The theme that this relates to is the positive power of love (Item C in the suggested response to question #1 in the Learning Guide). Of course, Liesel’s refusal was innocent and totally appropriate for a girl her age. It was only in light of Rudy’s unexpected and sudden death that it could be seen as an error.


8. The following two questions should be asked together:


A. What is the reason for Liesel’s brother, Hans, Rosa, and Rudy to die and for Liesel and Max to live?

Suggested Response:

There is no reason. Death is random.


B. This story suggests how to respond to the random dreadfulness of death. What does it tell us?

Suggested Response:

The only way to respond to the random dreadfulness of death is through a commitment to life and with love for the living.


9. In reality, is death-haunted by human beings? Why is the personification of death, the narrator of this story haunted by humans?

Suggested Response:

Death (the verb) is a process. Death the noun is a result. (p. 6). In reality, death has no feelings. However, as a literary device, as a narrator, “Death” must care about humans. Otherwise, the story would be flat and boring. But most importantly, Death is haunted by human beings because a theme of the book is that despite dreadfulness and inevitability of death, the human spirit triumphs over all; and in fact, as human beings, we need to believe that and we should believe it.


10. Several characters in the story suffer from survivor’s guilt in this story. What is survivor’s guilt and how do the characters deal with it.

Suggested Response:

Survivor’s guilt can occur when a person survives a traumatic event and others do not. Survivors will sometimes feel guilty as if they have done something wrong, when, in fact, they were just lucky or smart. Hans suffers from survivor’s guilt because he was the only person in his unit to survive an engagement. Hans, a man who understands the importance of love, takes his guilt and uses it to learn to play the accordion and to help Max. The son of Ms. Hostapfel commits suicide. Max feels guilty that he was happy to be alive when he left his family, most of whom undoubtedly were murdered by the Nazis. We are not really told how he deals with that but Death comments that he felt it all his life.


11. The novel contains the following passage at page 65:

Some crunched numbers. — Since 1933, ninety percent of Germans showed unflinching support for Adolf Hitler. That leaves ten percent who didn’t. Hans Hubermann belonged to the ten percent.

Consider this passage in relation to the one below from a novel called The Magus by John Fowles.

The human race is unimportant. It is the self that must not be betrayed. I suppose one could say that Hitler didn’t betray his self. . . . But millions of Germans did betray their selves. That was the tragedy. Not that one man had the courage to be evil. But that millions had not the courage to be good. (The Magus, p. 132)

As a member of a society, what do these passages mean to you? Do you think that Hans did enough to resist Hitler?

Suggested Response:

There is evil in every society. These passages tell us that we cannot stand idly by and allow our society to do terrible things. We must do what we can to enhance the good and restrain the evil. There is no good response to the question of whether Hans did enough to resist Hitler. A few Germans did resist the Nazis and paid for their actions with their lives. See The White Rose.


Personification of the All-Seeing Narrator


12. What was the benefit to the story that the narrator was a personification of death?

Suggested Response:

There are many; here are some examples. Students will probably come up with their own. (a) Using Death as a narrator allows the author/filmmakers and the reader/viewer to look at the lives and deaths of the characters from a vantage point that is something other than just being human. Since one of the important themes of the story is a celebration of the human spirit and of the human capacity for love and survival even through horrific circumstances, having Death be in awe of that spirit, haunted by humans as he says in the last words of the book and the film, allows the author to celebrate the human condition without appearing overly proud. In addition, the events of the story are so terrible that Death, as a non-human (a “result” as he says) can discuss them dispassionately, whereas a human observer would not be able to do this. Death’s lack of human feeling allows the reader/viewer to supply the emotion and in doing so, the reader/viewer can feel the emotion more exquisitely. (b) Having Death as a narrator is also a clear foreshadowing that important characters will die and allows explicit foreshadowing in the novel and the film. (c) Using Death as the narrator provides the opportunity for one of the chief ironies of the story, i.e., that death, which will eventually conquer all people and deprive them of their humanity, is obsessed with humanity especially by the character and strength of a little girl. (d) Using Death as a narrator immediately elevates the story to one that involves important questions of the human condition. (e) Having Death as the Narrator allows for numerous interesting ideas to be presented. Two examples are set out below:

One small fact: you are going to die. Despite every effort, no one lives forever. Sorry to be such a spoiler. My advice is when the time comes, don’t panic. It doesn’t seem to help.

It’s always been the same. The excitement and rush to war. I met so many young men over the years who have thought they were running at their enemy, when the truth was, they were running to me.


13. Death has different reactions to the souls of the people that it takes in the story. What do those reactions have in common?

Suggested Response:

Death’s reaction is very human and life-affirming. This is the essence of personification and one of the central ironies of the story.


14. In this story, death is personified, that is, it is given human characteristics despite the fact that it is not human; it’s a process (as a verb) or a result (as a noun). What is your reaction to that character?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer. Some may say that they feared him. Others may say that he was wise. Some may say that he was cynical. Others may refer to his sense of humor. Still others may say that he was ludicrous.


15. Is the personification of Death as presented in this story a helpful concept?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer. A good discussion will include the idea that it is not helpful in life because it doesn’t matter to Liesel or to us that death is haunted by humans. Death is cold, hard and the taking of our humanity. Another good point is that it is an overly romantic concept. Others may say that it gives them a sense of comfort even though it is a fantasy. [Teachers can further ask, “Why is that?” The answer is that we are human beings and we are afraid of death. The idea that death takes account of our actions is part of the idea that the universe takes account of our actions and that is comforting; since we are all going to die.]


16. Why are Liesel and her wonderful book spared?

Suggested Response:

Chance, only chance.



17. Identify two symbols in this story.

Suggested Response:

Each of these symbols can be described in different ways. They include:

    • Heaven Street: This is the name of the street on which the major characters live. It is the street where Liesel found love and happiness, where she learned to read, and where she started writing. With all the other problems that Heaven Street had, at least it gave her that and that was her source of happiness, i.e., it was heaven.
    • Books, Words, Reading: There are a number of ways to describe this. Books and the ability to read are the means to salvation, literally, Liesel is saved because she went to the basement the night of the bombing to write her memoirs. Liesel is able to calm the people in the bomb shelter by using words: telling them a story or reading from a book. In the novel she does the same for Frau Holtzapfel. Death, who is haunted by humans, reads Liesel’s memoirs many times, i.e., life asserts itself over death through Liesel’s book, as Markus Zusak does through his book. Max is saved by his use of Mein Kampf to divert suspicion when he is traveling. Hans is saved when he is chosen to write some letters rather than go into the battle in which his platoon is decimated. Writing is a bell-weather for relationships. When Liesel’s mother doesn’t write back, she knows she’s dead. Liesel’s relationship with Frau Hermann, the Mayor’s wife, is based on books and it is Frau Hermann who gives Liesel a home after the bombing. Michael Holtzapfel explains his decision to take his own life in writing. However, books are also the means by which Hitler seduced the German people, as symbolized by the book Mein Kampf. So, it could be said that books, words and reading symbolize power for good or for evil.
    • The Accordion: The accordion represents the best of Hans. It was given to him by Erik Vandenberg, the man who saved his life. Playing the accordion is a source of joy and comfort for Hans and for Hans’ audience. Rosa holds it to her breast and sleeps with it when Hans is away. It is a constant reminder and reaffirmation of his promise to Max’ father; complying with that promise, at great risk to himself and his family, ennobles Hans. One of Max’s first words to Hans when he shows up at the Hubermann’s door is, “Do you still play the accordion?” When Hans returns from military duty, somewhat broken after his experiences, it is difficult for him to play.
    • Bread: In this story, bread is the staff of life, its archetypical meaning. However, when the Hans (in the novel) and the children (in the movie) give it to starving Jews it is more than that. It is respect and honor; an acknowledgment that they are human beings worthy of respect. This is why in the novel the old man kneels before Hans as, in the Zusak family story, the old man kneeled before the boy who gave him bread.
    • The Snow Ball Fight and the Snow Man: These are a symbol for life. We have to do it and in the end it all melts away. Hopefully, we’ll have a great time in the process like the Hubermanns, Liesel and Max.
    • The Grave Digger’s Handbook is the first book that Liesel uses to learn to read. Since reading is life for Liesel the name of her first book is an ironic symbol for that fact.
    • The pages of Hitler’s Mein Kampf are whitewashed to become the pages of Liesel’s book.



18. List some instances of situational in the story.

Suggested Response:

Note to teachers: This story has ironic elements but the irony is not nearly so pervasive as the irony in other stories, such as Cyrano de Bergerac. A non-exhaustive list of ironies is set out below.

    • Death being haunted by life, “usually, people are haunted by the fear of death;”
    • Death has typical affectionate human reactions to each of the people whose souls he gathers; Death, however, is an impersonal process which results in the loss of human life and all that is human;
    • Max, the Jew, uses a volume of Mein Kampf as a shield to avoid detections as he travels incognito in Germany;
    • It is the pages of Mein Kampf, whitewashed by Max, that are the pages that Liesel uses to write her book;
    • Rudy, the blue-eye, blond haired, perfect Aryan type is obsessed by Jesse Owens, a black athlete;
    • Liesel who starts out not knowing how to read is saved by writing;
    • Liesel is not supposed to be in the basement – she’s supposed to be upstairs in bed; but she lives because she’s in the basement;
    • Liesel survives in a basement that was deemed too shallow to be an adequate shelter; Max also survives in that basement but not from an air raid;
    • Hans’ life was saved when his friend Erik Vandenberg nominated him to stay back from the engagement and write letters for an officer; however, Hans wasn’t so good at reading and writing himself (obviously Mr. Vandenberg had more in mind than a good person to write letters when he suggested that his friend Hans stay back from the engagement — one would like to think that Mr. Vandenberg knew that Max was a good and loving soul who would do good in the world);
    • The Mayor, the leader of the book burners, has a library full of books.
    • The beginning of Liesel’s salvation is through The Grave Digger’s Handbook;
    • The name of the first book that Liesel reads, the book on which she first learns to read, is The Grave Digger’s Handbook; since, for Liesel, reading is life, it is ironic that the book that Liesel uses to learn how to live is called The Grave Digger’s Handbook.


Other Literary Elements – Miscellaneous Questions [for students reading the book]

19. In the novel, Death is obsessed with color. Why does this make sense?

Suggested Response:

Death is the absence of color (bleached bones, entropy, etc.), and the way that a personification of death that was fascinated with life would react is that it would be attracted to color.


20. Max told Liesel that, “Memory is the scribe of the soul.” What figure of speech is this. What was Max trying to get at.

Suggested Response:

This is metaphor, a description enhanced by the comparison of unlike things. It is a beautiful thought. It is hard to say exactly what it means: one possibility is that our souls are made of memories, or that memory is the way that our souls work.


21. There are many instances of foreshadowing in this book. How does this author use foreshadowing?

Suggested Response:

He uses it to keep interest. The foreshadowing is always vague in many respects, and we want to read on to see how it turns out. Foreshadowing occurs on at least the following pages. 30, 33 & 34,55, 71, 80, 127, 128.


22. The voice of this story has two interesting aspects. One is that it is told from the standpoint of people who were the enemy in WWII, who we bombed, and who we tried to kill. The second is that it is told from the perspective of death. How does this dually foreign point of view add to the story?

Suggested Response:

The first is that it teaches one of the great themes of the story, which is that even among a hated and feared enemy there are people of character. The events of the story are too fraught with emotion to tell it from form Liesel’s point of view, or that of Hans, Rosa, or Rudy or any human character. The distance of death from human concerns allows the author/filmmakers to tell the story and then let the human reader/audience feel the emotions themselves. Also, having death as a narrator provides wonderful opportunities for thematic comment, imagery, etc.


See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.



1. Liesel’s mother was ill and could not take care of her children. What was the best thing she could do for them? Suggested Response: If there were no relatives suitable to place them with, it would be to place them with foster parents. See page 32, first three paragraphs. Teachers should consider reading this passage to the class.



(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)


1. What is the key act showing responsibility in this story?

Suggested Response:

It is Hans’ act of hiding Max, even though it put his life and that of his family in danger.


2. Was it right for Hans to put the lives of his wife and his foster daughter in danger just to fulfill his responsibility to Eric Vandenberg’s son?

Suggested Response:

The key to answering this question is that hiding Max was the right thing to do for other reasons, such as being caring and resisting injustice.



(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)


Numerous questions set out above and in the Learning Guide relate to the ethical precept of caring.


See also Discussion Questions which Explore Ethical Issues Raised by Any Film.


For ELA Classes

Most of the discussion questions in this Guide can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:


1. Write a letter from Liesel to the bombardier on the plane that dropped the bombs that destroyed Himmel Street. In the letter, she should tell him what his bombs did to her community. She should discuss whether she can forgive him. She should discuss the German bombing of civilian targets in England.


2. Write a one-paragraph description of the following characters in this movie: Liesel, Hans, Rosa, and Rudy.


3. Write an essay comparing The Book Thief with a story that contains both strong characterizations and a resolution deriving from the conflicts faced by the characters (e.g. Hamlet) or with a story dominated by plot such as (e.g., Romeo and Juliet).


For Social Studies Classes

4. Research and write a paper about the use of aerial bombing from World War II to the drones used in modern warfare. Include a section on the ethics of such bombing.


5. Certain incidents that develop Liesel’s character and give it more maturity and depth were eliminated from the movie; undoubtedly this was done because of time constraints. Write an essay comparing the development of Liesel’s character in the novel and in the movie. [Strong essays will cite the elimination of the food stealing sub-plot, the reading to Mrs. Holtzapfel, and the suicide of Mrs. Half-staff’s son. Strong essays will also describe the complications of the relationship between Liesel and the Mayor’s wife that are included in the novel but not the film.]


6. An episode contained in the novel but deleted from the movie involves Hans’ relationship with his son. Find the references to Hans’ son in the book and describe the development of Hans’ character that is missing from the film.


7. Max asks Liesel, “Make the words yours. If your eyes could speak… what would they say? Find a beautiful scene or object, or an ugly one. Write a paragraph describing what your eyes say about it.


8. After his mother insisted that Max go off with his friend who had false papers for him, Max felt that “awful, light-headed relief . . . that he would live.” In the book, the feeling is described in this way, “the relief struggled inside him like an obscenity. It was something he didn’t want to feel, but nonetheless, he felt it with such gusto it made him want to throw up. How could he? How could he? But he did.” Write the letter that Max would send to Liesel in which he described these feelings to her. Part of the letter should refer to the circumstances which caused him to need to write the letter to Liesel.


See also Additional Assignments for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction and TWM’s guide to Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories or Plays.



Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.”) CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.



Anchor Standards #s 1, 2, 7 and 8 for Reading and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 35 & 60.



Anchor Standards #s 1 – 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.


Speaking and Listening:

Anchor Standards #s 1 – 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.


Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.


This is a marvelous book and everyone should read it.



See Links to the Internet. We also included some of the concepts and question in the “Questions for Discussion” on pages 3 — of the Readers Guide in the First Knopf trade paperback edition September 2007. Specific Citations:

This Learning Guide was written by James Frieden and was published on October 26, 2014.

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All page references without a citation are to pages of the First Knopf trade paperback edition September 2007.

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