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Markus Zusak’s ‘The Book Thief’ And What Makes A Good Teen Novel, by Beth Revis

A Million Suns by Beth Revis

Today, I want to take a moment to analyze what makes a good teen novel. One of the best books I’ve ever read, Young Adult or not, is Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. When I was a teacher, this was the single most stolen book from my classroom – a high honor indeed!

In case you’ve not heard of this brilliant book, The Book Thief is about a girl, Liesel, during World War II. She’s a foster child, and the family she’s staying with is hiding a Jew from the Holocaust. And also, the book is narrated by Death.

Here’s what makes this book stand out:

  • A totally unique narrator: Like I said, it’s narrated by Death. And the unique perspective gives everything a new light. Stories about the Holocaust have been done before. But stories about one of the greatest human travesties in history, told from the point of view of a character who has, literally, seen every death in the world in all of time casts a new shadow onto the way we, the reader, see this event in history.
  • Foreshadowing: Not only does Death give a unique perspective, he is an all-knowing character. Death knows the end of the story, and as the reader discovers it, he drops hints. This carefully layered foreshadowing enhances the story in an amazing way – we know what’s coming, not only from a historical level, but on a personal level, too, and it heightens our fear for the characters. It’s like Titanic – you know the ship’s going to sink, but you’re not sure if Jack and Rose will make it.
  • Bringing the historical to a personal level: In a similar vein, you have the fact that this story takes something historical – the Holocaust – and makes it extremely personal through specific characters. Elie Wiesel’s Night does this, too, in a different way. It’s hard for us, as humans, to comprehend the enormity of loss in the Holocaust – be we can understand an individual’s suffering, and that is what creates empathy within us.

The Book Thief is truly a book we can all learn from. A good teen novel tells a unique story through a unique perspective. In your own writing, write the story from the point of view of a character who can tell that specific story. Your story cannot be so vague that just anyone could narrate it – your narrator must be the one person who can tell the story in this way. Additionally, you need to know your story enough to add in the clues – foreshadowing and more – that give depth to the reading and make the book better to experience on a second reading. And finally, your narrative must be as personal as possible. Making it personal makes it true, and a true story (not necessarily a nonfiction, but a story that is true-to-life) is one of the most important things we as writers can do.


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Across the UniverseA Million Suns (Across the Universe)Shades of Earth: An Across the Universe Novel (Across the Universe)     The Book ThiefRikers HighAngel DustNight

Writing Teen Novels

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. My views on this book are the complete opposite. I’d been looking forward to reading it for awhile, since one of my areas of historical expertise and writing focuses is the WWII/Shoah era, and it ended up a DNF after 115 pages. I skimmed through the rest, since I had to read it for a YA Lit class. There was only so long I could take of that obtrusive, gimmicky narrator bloviating about breakfast-colored suns and disfigured figures, giving away so many spoilers and pivotal events, interrupting the narrative with those annoying Newsflashes, painting almost every character (except maybe Rudy and Hans) as extremely one-dimensional stereotypes, throwing around lowbrow, vulgar expressions that no real German would ever dream of using as supposed twisted terms of endearment for a spouse or child (just picture an English-speaker calling his or her spouse or child by one of George Carlin’s 7 dirty words you can’t say on TV), and not even developing a real plot. I kept waiting for some sort of plot structure or inciting incident to take shape, and it never happened. It just bopped from scene to scene, like a loosely-connected series of anecdotes and vignettes.

    I normally love long books, esp. for historical, but this book was long in a bad way. It felt like a very, very rough first draft that was never fleshed-out and rewritten into a complete novel. It also had all the subtlety of a D.W. Griffith movie, constantly beating the reader over the head with overwrought emotions and essentially telling him/her what to feel. I’d honestly prefer to watch a Griffith film, since at least he knew how to tell an entertaining story in spite of his moral heavy-handedness. I felt absolutely nothing for any of the characters, and since I knew they were almost all going to die (thanks to the narrator doing third-person omniscient all wrong and giving away so much), I couldn’t feel anything when that happened. It would be like if the ending of Leon Uris’s Exodus had been given away well ahead of time. That ending emotionally guts me every time I read the book, esp. the first time, since I had no idea it was coming. It wouldn’t have had nearly so much emotional impact if he’d intruded into the story to smirk about what was coming up and how clever he was for sneaking that spoiler in there.

    There are so many more wonderful books about the WWII/Shoah era I could recommend than this massively overrated book, even books set in Germany instead of one of the more common settings for this era. I was so glad to discover I wasn’t the only one who hated this book, as evidenced by all the well-written, well-argued 1- and 2-star reviews at Amazon and Goodreads.

    February 7, 2013

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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