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!”

“Yes, Mama!”

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.

41 comments:

  1. I haven't read it, so perhaps I shouldn't comment. I've heard it's sad, so I've passed. Maybe that's my bad.

    Is Harry Potter MG? Dan Wells' I Am Not a Serial Killer series is marketed in the U.S. as adult (subject matter) though the protagonist is 15. It's marketed in Germany as YA.

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    1. It's definitely hard to have an opinion if you haven't read it. Thanks, Donna. And you bring some other good examples, too.

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  2. I haven't read it either so couldn't argue either way.

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    1. Fair enough. Thanks for stopping by, Alex.

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  3. I'm going to first say that it's been a few years since I read this novel, but it's one of my top 10 favorites. At the time I didn't even know that it was marketed to MG or YA - I found it in the adult fiction section of my library.

    There are some novels that cross all age groups and I think this is one. However, I don't think one can say it's appropriate for ALL middle school kids or JUST young adults. I know plenty of middle school kids who are nowhere near ready to understand/appreciate the beauty of this novel, especially the role the character, Death, plays. I'd be afraid that those kids would start out reading it and hate it. However, there are others at this age who devour books - I'm sure you can think of some - and would love it. It's heavy content, to be sure, but it's hopeful. And what I loved about it, is it makes that period history alive and real - something which can be hard to translate from history books.

    So, my longhanded answer is I think it depends on the child. And I think it helps to have an adult who has read the book available (parent, teacher, Aunt Sally, etc.) to answer questions.

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    1. I completely agree. For example, my soon-to-be-eleven-year-old is going into middle school in the fall, and I know she's mature enough to handle it if she expressed the interest, but most of the children she knows that are her age are probably not.

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, Suzie.

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    2. I really resonate with this comment, Suzie F. "Heavy content, but hopeful"!

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    3. I agree, it depends on the child.

      MG child could start it and if it's too heavy put the book away until they're more mature.

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    4. Yes! That's a perfect summary.

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  4. I also have not read this book, but reading the description in this post makes me want to! As for the dual posts with opposing arguments, that's wonderful and a bit funny too. :)

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    1. Well, I'm afraid the idea was better than the execution, but thanks for your comment. You should definitely read it.

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  5. When I try to categorize this book as either MG (OMG!) or YA, I just can't do it! I agree with Suzie - there are some books that cross all age groups, and this is definitely one of them. Still, I'm absolutely certain I would not have picked The Book Thief up when I was a middle grader! It would have felt too big. Compare it to perhaps, "Once," a heart wrenching tale, which seems more classic Middle Grade nestling in well there.
    And yet, when I went to purchase The Book Thief, I found it sitting comfortably in the adult section of my local bookstore. Would it sit the same way in MG? I don't reckon so, but it could loiter around, see what happens. You just never know!

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    1. You make an interesting point, Linda. When I picked up the trade paperback at my local B&N, it was shelved in Teen (YA), so I find it curious to know it's sometimes shelved with adult.

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  6. I haven't read it, but I plan to now!
    I once read an agent's blog who said that in YA the mc has changed and now looks at the world as an adult. In MG the mc has grown, but still has the innocence of childhood. I thought it made sense. Although I don't know how it would apply to this book.

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    1. That's an interesting take. And it does make some sense. The MC in this novel has her outlook change quite drastically, but as you can probably tell from these two posts, I'm still undecided.

      And you should definitely read it, Rachel.

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  7. Interesting. The Boom Thief, just like Harry Potter, are one of those books you can't easily classify as one demographic.

    What's your opinion of I Am the Messager?

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    1. I haven't read that one yet, Chihuahua, but I intend to. Thanks for the comment!

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  8. I've read both of your 'arguments' and I am so obsessed and in love with this book that I can only shout loudly from the rooftops that this book is for PEOPLE in general. Human beings. No matter what age. I guess the idea of taking on complex issues or bad language doesn't occur to me because I don't have my own children and I was reading incredibly inappropriate books at a young age without my parents knowledge. Ha.

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    1. That's my experience as well, Melissa. I read LOTR in like 3rd grade, and then by Middle School I was reading pulp like Phoenix Force. But yeah, each kid is different, I suppose.

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  9. I loved The Book Thief, hard as it was to read at times. I agree with Susie F. that not all middle graders would be ready for this book, but that doesn't mean it's not a MG story. Heck, wasn't/isn't Bridge to Terabithia sometimes still challenged and the content considered too adult for middle graders?

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    1. That's another great example. Thanks, Bish.

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  10. First off, bravo! I like the dueling arguments on both blogs, and that you found two different covers (neither of which was the cover on the edition I read!) which seem to support your thesis.

    I also think MG and YA can be arbitrary distinctions, helpful to marketing types. Interestingly, when first pubbed in Australia, the novel was aimed at adults (or so I believe.) I find it hard, despite your attempts, to believe that it could be categorized as middle grade (despite there being some middle graders who could handle it.) Why? Because of the theme and the language. Furtehrmore, it seems to me--although I am not widely read in YA--to be a little out of the mainstream there too. Although Lisel is the main character, Death the narrator shifts his focus for many pages onto other, adult characters, particularly Max, the Jewish man the family is hiding in their basement. I think you could make the argument that The Book Thief is an adult novel, accessible to teens. It would be interesting to find a breakdown of who actually has bought and/or read it. Is it all the rage on high school campuses, or at adult book clubs (where I read it.)

    Thanks for the post, Matt, and for starting the week by making me exercise my brain cells!

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    1. I completely forgot to mention: this book was assigned reading in my daughter's sophomore honors lit class this year. That was part of the spark that finally got me to read what had been a major gap book for me.

      Now, I think you make some great points, Mike. And it's fascinating how it's marketed in different ways in different regions.

      Personally, I think this book defies categorization. You're right that the narration by Death does shift around at times, but there is definitely a heavy focus on Liesel, and I wonder how many teens would be interested in reading an entire novel about a little kid. I wonder how different it would be if Liesel was the narrator?

      Anyway, I'm so glad I could get your brain cells churning. This is definitely one that has confounded me so far.

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  11. Oh, and if anyone has time, Audrey left an interesting comment on my personal blog. I should have turned comments off over there.

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  12. I think the book is a crossover, between MG, YA and adult. Honestly, i don't know that i could categorize it, other than saying it's a fantastic book, and just rereading the ending lines again (over on YA Confidential) is like a punch in the gut. So good.

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    1. I accidentally replied to you by email. I can't keep it all straight!

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  13. I haven't read the book. I don't think I plan to. I heard good things about it, but, when I picked it up at the store to take a look at it, the first page made me roll my eyes, and I put it back.

    I totally hate the whole MG/YA thing. I think it's bad for books. Those are not genres, and people are treating them as such, and -that- annoys me. But that's not the point. There are books that existed before this whole MG/YA thing, like the Narnia books, that are now stuffed into this category. Books that were just books but not meant -just- to be for 10-year-olds. Now, we have all these people writing books -for- 10-year-olds or 12-year-olds or whatever-year-olds instead of just writing books for people. It may be a money-making thing, right now, but I think it's bad for books, all books, in the long run. It's just another brick in the wall of inaccessibility of books to adults. Write books for people that are accessible to kids but not -for- kids.
    End of line (rant).

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    1. I'm curious to hear what made you roll your eyes. I found the prose in this novel to be very impressive.

      Anyway, I think you have a valid point. I mean even 20 years ago, when I was an adolescent in between the supposed MG and YA age groups, I was reading all kinds of different things, and even being assigned to read them, too.

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    2. I don't actually remember what it was. I think it was just that it starts out so typically for books that are -aimed- at this age group. Just that whole 1st person introduction thing. I'm really tired of it, to tell the truth, so I was completely uninterested in -another- one that starts out just like all these others. Honestly, it was probably the Peculiar Children book that really set me against it, and, if I'm remembering correctly, Book Thief reminded me instantly of that book.

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  14. Before I head over to YA Confidential, I'll talk about The Book Thief as MG. First, this is my all time favorite book. Matt - I love this idea of two different posts with two different arguments...

    As much as I would love for this book to reach into MG audiences, I don't believe it does (generally speaking). I teach seventh grade. I used to recommend this book frequently. However, I found very few seventh grade readers could get into it. I teach at a bright, over-acheiving school (I have the kind of kids that stress out easily because they push themselves too hard - that's my school). What my students typically get hung up on, though, is the fact that this is narrated by Death. They struggle with that concept. Many of them don't even realize it when they begin reading. The language and metaphors Zusak uses (which I absolutely love) are often too complex as well. Naturally I have many kids who read it, get it, and love it. But those are my kids who often pick up adult books for the added challenge.

    Interestingly enough, like Mike, I'd also heard this was originally written and marketed for an adult audience. The parents of all of my kids LOVE this book. It's a favorite among them as well.

    I would love for this book to have a stronger MG appeal. But, despite the age of the narrator, I'm not sure that it does because of the language, the narrative style and the way Zusak presents his themes about this time period.

    Thanks Matt for posting a great conversation starter!

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    1. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, Kimberly. That was exactly the reason I decided to write this type of experimental post. I tend to agree with you, in the sense that I don't know that I believe it's a MG Novel, but I definitely think it makes for an interesting discussion.

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  15. What an amazing book. Every person should read it. It brought so many emotions to the surface.
    My son read it last year during 7th grade when he was 12 which seemed right, he could have read it the year before too. My almost 10 yr old daughter wants to read it, but I want her to wait a year or two. I always considered this book an mg, but I do think the reader needs to be mature enough to read it. As with any book, it really depends on the child, not the specific age.

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    1. Exactly. Well said, Kelly. I couldn't agree more.

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  16. I see your point sir. But I think I'd need to read more before I'd trust it to hand over to my child (I don't have any children) but am "just sayin'".

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    1. I completely understand that. In fact, I don't think anyone but a child's parents should be deciding what they read.

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  17. I think children understand more than adults want to believe. The descriptions in this are worded in a way my Bug (at ten) could relate to. The verbiage is almost adultified, but again, some children have larger vocabularies than others. And they pick things up by context.

    I haven't read this book Matt, and you haven't really given me enough excerpts that show definitely MG. But I also don't think just because a novel features a certain age group that the story is age appropriate. What I see from your excerpts is that this "kid" is dealing with larger issues than the average 9 year old; but he also has some appropriate age related responses.

    Maybe some stories transcend age/genre definitions. Which makes those indepth book reviews really important.

    I'm off to read your YA argument now. Thanks for sharing your insights.

    ..........dhole

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    1. I definitely agree, Donna. My own ten-year-old reads mostly YA novels now. She read a lot of MG when she was 8 and 9, but I think like most children, she reads up, because she's interested in the kinds of things she'll soon be experiencing.

      Now, this being a historical novel, it's a little different. Hopefully my daughter will never live through the experiences Liesel Meminger did, but the emotions can be the same, or at least similar.

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  18. Holy cow. I had no idea this was marketed for mg or ya. I found it on one of those tables at BN in the middle of the store. I think it was mixed with books like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Glass Castle, a few classics, etc. I loved every word of it. It didn't even dawn on me that it wasn't marketed for me (no longer mg or ya). I can't see any reason a MG reader with some background on Nazi Germany couldn't love this book, too. Obviously, I think it's fine for YA, too.
    Well, that does make it difficult to decide which shelf to put it on.

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  19. I'd definitely say it's a YA book, not an MG book. It's not always the age of the protagonist that decides the book, and this, to me, had a decidedly YA tone, despite the portions you mentioned!

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    1. I don't disagree. Thanks, Jessica!

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Thanks for adding to the mayhem!