Monday, June 18, 2012

Debate: The Book Thief is a YA Novel


Disclaimer: this is a blog post, not a mission statement. It's written in the interest of sparking conversation, in the hopes of getting people to think about great books, and debate what makes them great, and how or whether they should be categorized. It does not mean that this is necessarily the official opinion of YA Confidential. It does not mean you should run out and buy this book for your fifteen-year-old (although, if your fifteen-year-old asks about this book, maybe you should read it yourself, and decide if you think they're ready).

So, now that you've read the legal small print, what do you think? I'm going to spend this blog post arguing that The Book Thief is a YA Novel. Not because I necessarily think it really is, but because it's something that stuck in my mind while I was reading it: how you do categorize a classic, important book like this?

Can you categorize a book like this?

First of all, let me start by saying, I'm not a huge believer in labels like MG or YA. I know why the marketing departments love them (because they sell books), and I'm not saying they're a bad thing, but I also don't believe books are that simple. You can't put them all in the same box and call it even.

In The Book Thief, Markus Zusak's instant classic which isn't necessarily a holocaust book, but certainly lives on the fringes of that brutal, tragic piece of history, there are a lot of mature topics and occurrences covered. First of all, it's narrated by death, and while he might have a somewhat pleasant outlook, and seems pretty well adjusted to the human condition, there's no denying that his day job might be a little grim for small children (or even MG aged children), because he carries off a lot of souls in the pages of this story.

Liesel's brother dies in the first few pages, and she quickly becomes a thief, stealing her first book just after the boy is buried in the snow-covered, frozen ground. And it doesn't stop there; she steals from almost anywhere, including ducking in through the window into the library of the mayor's house to pilfer books.

The book thief is certainly young, but she's a violent, angry girl, full of resentment, not to mention piss and vinegar. She gets in fights, and undermines authority at every opportunity. She also helps her father defy the Nazi Party in a way that is much more mature and courageous than you would expect from anyone but a YA protagonist, by [SPOILER ALERT] harboring the displaced, homeless Jew, Max Vandenburg in their basement. [END SPOILER].

This YA Novel is full of foul language. Sure, most of it's in German, but there are a few instances of both the S word and the A word. Leisel's mother Rosa Huberman, in particular, swears like a sailor.

It's an odd thing to think about, debating this book, because I bought my copy (First Knopf trade paperback edition September 2007) from the teen shelves at the local B&N, and I suppose many would say that proves it's a YA Novel, and I'm not going to say they're wrong, but I do wonder. How many YA Novels do we read in which the protagonist is eleven years old for the majority of the story?

Does it make a difference that it's narrated by the ageless character of Death? How much does it matter that the entire plot is surrounded by the horrors of World War Two? And especially that Molching (a fictional town based on the real Olching, which is outside Munich, and just down the lane from Dachau) was in center of the F├╝hrer's Heartland?

Here are some quotes from the book, that may or may not persuade you:

Death, describing Liesel's friend Max, in a bare-knuckle brawl:

The circle counted.

They always counted, just in case. Voices and numbers.

The custom after a fight was that the loser would raise the hand of the victor. When Kugler finally stood up, he walked sullenly to Max Vandenburg and lifted his arm into the air.

"Thanks," Max told him.

Kugler proffered a warning. "Next time I kill you."


Liesel, lamenting on missing people she cares about:

Don’t make me happy. Please, don’t fill me up and let me think that something good can come from any of this. Look at my bruises. Look at this graze. Do you see the graze inside me? Do you see it growing before your eyes, eroding me? I don’t want to hope for anything anymore.

I don’t want to pray that Max is alive and safe. Or Alex Steiner.


Because the world does not deserve them.


Death, the last lines of the novel:

I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn't already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race-that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.

None of those things, however, came out of my mouth.

All I was able to do was turn to Liesel Meminger and tell her the only truth I truly know. I said it to the book thief and I say it now to you.

* * * A LAST NOTE FROM YOUR NARRATOR * * *

"I am haunted by humans."

Clearly this is a novel for teenagers. A YA Novel.

What do you all think? Is there any argument to be made for The Book Thief as a YA Novel? Or do you think, like many people I've asked, that even mature teenagers could never truly understand a book like this, and it should be left to adults?

In the meantime, please visit Project Mayhem, where right now, I'm also arguing that The Book Thief is actually a MG Novel.

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