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A book that made me smile: ‘The Book Thief’ by Markus Zusak

This well-known and well-loved novel might not be your first thought when thinking about books that make you smile. A post-modern book written by Markus Zusak which tackles the issue of narrating a story about Nazi Germany, it is, in essence, a heart-warming tale tinged with sorrow. Yet the smiles gifted by reading this book, even with watery eyes, are smiles that a reader should relish in. The book itself has a feel of innocent sensibility, one that mirrors the virtue and pure-heartedness of children, perfect for a novel about a little girl who has an uplifting fiery spirit.

It is almost ironic to see that it is Death, the narrator, that is filled with sadness and it is his thoughts that are mirrored by Liesel, the main protagonist, and her friends and family. The book is fundamentally about a young girl who lives with her foster parents and likes to steal books. She comes to be in admiration of them when they support and hide a Jewish man in war-time Germany. The harrowing scenes illustrated by Zusak of hunger-stricken children pocketing food, bomb attacks and events such as book burning are carefully constructed by his light-hearted language and wry humour.

Liesel embodies a small hope in a time where Germany was fearful of the dictatorship ruling them, so every time she succeeds, we smile

Liesel is illustrated to be a child full of wonder of the world around her and shows that she is a strong force against all the injustices that occur. Although she goes through many hardships such as losing her brother and having her parents taken away to concentration camps, she strives forward to fight for her place in Himmel Street. The book consists of many visually powerful scenes such as when the pages of Mein Kampf are painted white so that Max (the Jewish man hidden in the house) can write a story for Liesel about her kindness and strength. 

The Book Thief offers us hope which is won by depicting harsh scenes that shroud Liesel, yet she breaks out and becomes an even tougher and more generous character. Liesel embodies a small hope in a time where Germany was fearful of the dictatorship ruling them, so every time she succeeds, we smile. We smile when Liesel plans her way to steal books, we smile every time her best friend asks for a kiss, we smile when her foster mother’s crude language screams out in front of our eyes. Every sorrow painted by Zusak is followed by a hopeful image even though sometimes smiling is the last thing we would expect to do after reading the harrowing events portrayed. 

Zusak draws attention to how small courageous acts of defiance against those who are cruel are the reasons why there is beauty in humanity

The reader is left to feel Liesel’s emotions of anger, fear, love, misery and confusion. She begins to understand the power of words and tries hard to read and this determination is satisfying to the reader when she finishes reading book after book after book. When Max gives Liesel a story in which he names her ‘The Word Shaker’, he implies that her words are a powerful force. She helps Max by describing the weather when he is forced to live in the shadows of the house, by painting an image in his head by her words:

“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”.

It is after this portrayal that Max realises that only a child could have described the weather in this particular endearing way. This awe of the goodness of children is echoed by Death. He tells the reader how his story of Liesel is one of only a handful of the many beautiful tales he holds. And indeed, The Book Thief is a moving and emotional story. Zusak draws attention to how small courageous acts of defiance against those who are cruel are the reasons why there is beauty in humanity. Liesel steals not only books but, as she did with Death, our hearts.

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