The novel begins in 1939 with nine-year-old Liesel Meminger traveling by train to be taken to her new foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann. It is on that train ride that Death meets Liesel for the first time because he has come to collect her six-year-old brother. Following her brother's brief funeral, one of the grave diggers drops his book, THE GRAVE DIGGERS HANDBOOK. Liesel takes it as a reminder, and the book thief is born.
Zusak's novel walks the reader through Liesel's life in this small German town from 1939 through 1943 as she steals books, develops lasting friendships, hides a Jew, and loses everything. He shows that war is not about winners and losers, allies and enemies; it's about people who suffer and the inhumanity humans show towards one another. Death makes an insightful observation about the bravery of young men eager to go to war:
"I've seen so many young men over the years who think they're running at other young men. They are not. They're running at me." - Death, p. 174-75