Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief. New York: Knopf, A Division of Random House Children's Books. 2006. Print.
How the lives of a teenage book thief, an accordian player, and a Jewish fist fighter intertwine during Nazi Germany,
as narrated by "Death."
Justification for Award Rejection:
I do admit, it is a good story, the plot is good and interesting and I am even partial to historical fiction. But it doesn't deserve a Printz. Here is why:
To be Printz worthy, first and for most, it really should be YA, and it should be fantastic YA.
For a yes vote, there HAS to be emotional connection to the protagonist of the story. That protagonist must resonate with the reader and have a character arc, meaning they must start at the beginning one way, and by the end of it be forever altered, showing an arc of growth that the teen reader can not only relate to, but journey with themselves. For it to be really great, that journey must feel profound.
I am asking all of you to get your inner teen lens on.
Historical fiction is a tough sell to teens, but can be done. The only way I've seen it ever work on a teen is when it is written in FIRST PERSON NARRATIVE, or a close Third Person. Today's teen will only crawl back in time if they can crawl into the teen's head that is telling the story. And the story better hold elements of coming-of-age that teen reader can fully relate to.
Let's view The Book Thief through that teen lens.
It is entirely plot driven, and it is very unclear who the protagonist is. The reader is in no way intimate with the protagonist.
As a device for writing in Limited Omniscient Point-of-View, the author chooses Death as the narrator. At first I thought this was going to be interesting, but we never learn a damn thing about Death as a character, but for the predictably trite snarky "grim reaper" comments. Now, teenagers are extremely interested in death, as proven by risk-taking behavior, fascination with all things vampire, etc. If I was going to write a YA book with Death as the one speaking, Death would be the PROTAGONIST. Because Death would be one interesting dude to talk to.
A teen might ask Death:
How did you become Death? Is it just a job given you by God? Or given you by the Devil? Was it a punishment? Or do you enjoy doing it? How long have you been doing it? Who did it before you? Have you ever been talked out of taking somebody? If so, did you get in trouble for it? Were there fateful ramifications, like upsetting the time/space continuum? Have you ever gotten attached to a human? If so, why? Did you then spare them death because of that attachment? Do souls that kill others (as in Hitler) go straight to Hades, or are they serving a necessary job for other souls to grow, and so actually fulfill some weird type of villain casting in this 3D world we call reality? What happens to us when we do go with you, Death?
So, in my opinion, the "Death" narrating this story is so pathetically ill-used -- not fully drawn. Other than the couple times he interjects his snarky "death humor" his limited "2D voice" fades right into third person narrative -- SO DAMN IRRITATING.
Who then, is the PROTAGONIST? Is it Leisel? Hans? Max? Hans is the most sympathetic character; I liked him quite well. However, he was a middle aged man, with possibly a character arc, but this limited omniscient point of view left me, (and I strongly believe, any teen reader) very distanced from him as well as all of the characters, on an emotional level. Liesel shows no real character arc, and especially not one of YA. There is no character here for the teen to identify with, emotionally or otherwise.
What would this book have looked like if it was told in (changing) First-Person Narrative? If first Leisel told the story, then other chapters were given to Hans being the Protag, then Max? I think I would have loved to hear Rosa in first-person. However, a wise writing teacher once told my class sternly, if you have a character that you as a writer, are giving a tic, or a word/phrase that they like to say, to identify with them, you must use them SPARINGLY -- you need to realize that one "Dude" in dialogue counts for ten. The very same goes for "Saumensch" or "Saukerl." Rosa (and later even Liesel) whips these out so much that by the tenth time I read them I started to wonder if it was the first (or only) German word Zusak ever knew.
Speaking again of IRRITATING, there is nothing I hate more than a writer that is trying to hard with the prose. I'm all for lyrical writing, if it is well done, but if a writer is using descriptive words that not only do not apply, buy obscure meaning, that is just irritating as all hell and says to me they are trying way too hard. The same goes with using a word in the wrong tense. ARRRRGGGHHH!
Examples, so you don't think I'm full of crap:
"You will be caked in your own body." (Location 21) Caked? Really?
"A gang of tears trudged from her eyes." (location 252) Gang? Trudged? Trying too hard.
"Liesel was tempted to ask her the meaning, but it never eventuated." (location 284)
Why would you use the word eventuated? Why?
". . . eyes were swampy and brown. Thick and heavy." (location 2478) When thinking of eyes, what do you think swampy means? Or thick? Just annoying.
"the mayor's wife was sitting hunch-drunk over at the desk." (location 2813)
I have no idea!
There were some verb-tense situations also, but I unfortunately did not highlight them. Believe me, they were there, and I think it was purposeful, like a "break the rules because I can" thing, just like sentence fragments are used, often to good effect. The verb-tense errors did not work. At all.
Finally, let's talk length. I'm all for a good fantasy or adult novel being 500 plus pages long, but if you are doing YA, and it is 400 or more pages, it damn well better be a fantasy. They let you have that many pages due to the necessary world-building that goes into fantasy/sci-fi. But at 576 pages, with no clear protagonist, this historical fiction was WAY TOO LONG for YA. I am an avid reader. I consume books as a favorite past-time. I love YA as a preferred genre to both read and write in. I was very excited to read this because it was so highly recommended by y'all. Instead of zooming through this, I was falling asleep every time I picked it up within 10 pages, so it took me forever to slog through it. That is why The Book Thief does not deserve our Mock Printz Award.
Genre: Printz, Historical Fiction, Coming of Age, Fantasy.
(I challenge all of these but the Historical Fiction heading.)