Monday, June 18, 2012
Debate: The Book Thief is a MG Novel, by Matthew MacNish
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 Project Mayhem. It does not mean you should run out and buy this book for your ten-year-old (although, if your ten-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 MG 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, Liesel Meminger is nine-years-old when our tale opens, and just barely fourteen when it closes (not counting the quasi-epilogue). Some might argue that makes it a MG Novel automatically. I'm not going to disagree with that, but again, I don't think it's that simple.
What does make a MG novel MG? It's not just the age of the protagonist (Oliver was nine when Oliver Twist began, for example), and it's not purely about content either. Sure, a lot of MG books do take place in Middle School, but a lot of them take place in fantasy worlds too (just ask some of our wonderful PM authors).
I'm not exactly sure, I mean I love to read MG books, but I've never had one published, so I don't know that I'm the expert here. However, I would like to argue that The Book Thief has a lot of what makes for a great MG Novel.
Liesel's an orphan, who eventually finds a wonderful relationship with a loving father, and a harsh, but still caring one with her foul-mouthed, but ultimately steadfast mother. She loves her neighbor and best friend Rudy Steiner, but never [SPOILER ALERT] acts on that love in the way an older teenager might.[END SPOILER]
Note: there is a bit of swearing in this book, but 99% of it is in German.
Leisel is also illiterate when the tale begins, but she soon learns to read, falls in love with words, and uses words, books, and storytelling to stand up to both the Third Reich, and the threat of losing everything she loves, in the only way she knows how: by reading.
It would be difficult to say for certain whether this book should be marketed as MG or not, especially without delving into far more details of the plot, but I think it's definitely a question worth thinking about.
Here are some quotes from the book, that may or may not persuade you:
Our narrator describes himself:
I do not carry a sickle or scythe. I only wear a hooded black robe when it's cold. And I don't have those skull-like facial features you seem to enjoy pinning on me from a distance. You want to know what I truly look like? I'll help you out. Find yourself a mirror while I continue.
One of the first times Liesel is sent out to handle the wash, with papa:
As they walked toward Frau Diller’s, they turned around a few times to see if Mama was still at the gate, checking on them. She was. At one point, she called out, “Liesel, hold that ironing straight! Don’t crease it!”
A few steps later: “Liesel, are you dressed warm enough?!”
“What did you say?”
“Saumensch dreckiges, you never hear anything! Are you dressed warm enough? It might get cold later!”
Around the corner, Papa bent down to do up a shoelace. “Liesel,” he said, “could you roll me a cigarette?”
Nothing would give her greater pleasure.
Our narrator describes the last time he sees the book thief:
The last time I saw her was red. The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring. In some places, it was burned. There were black crumbs, and pepper, streaked across the redness.
Earlier, kids had been playing hopscotch there, on the street that looked like oil-stained pages. When I arrived, I could still hear the echoes. The feet tapping the road. The children-voices laughing, and the smiles like salt, but decaying fast.
Clearly this is a novel for children. A MG Novel.
What do you all think? Is there any argument to be made for The Book Thief as a MG Novel? Or do you think, like many people I've asked, that children could never truly understand a book like this?
In the meantime, please visit YA Confidential, where right now, I'm also arguing that The Book Thief is actually a YA Novel.