I’ve decided that I’m long overdue for a rereading of The Book Thief. In my own opinion, it is one of the very best works of fiction to come out of the 21st century so far, in absolutely every way. The writing is peculiar and glorious, the themes are powerful and profoundly explored, the setting is well-evoked, the characters are some of the most memorable and wonderful and lifelike people I have ever met in the pages of a book. I would say that this book represents YA at its absolute finest. In fact, I want to talk about YA in terms of this novel just briefly, before getting into what I meant to get into. It’s a tangent, yes, but I’ve long wanted to do a post about this and if I keep putting it off, I probably never will.
The Identity Crisis of YA
The YA category draws a lot of disdain, and doesn’t get the kind of respect that adult literature gets. It doesn’t even get the kind of respect that middle grade fiction gets. And I think that’s because authors, publishers, and readers are having a very hard time defining what YA should and can be, what teens can handle both in terms of content and complexity, what kind of messages these books should be spreading, and just in general what it means to be YA.
Middle grade and younger books have clear parameters as far as what kind of content is okay. (I don’t think it’s always as well understood how much complexity readers of this age can handle, but that’s another post entirely.)
Adult literature really is without bounds. Besides this, adult literature ranges from the most baroque literary fiction to the most straightforward genre novel. Why is this? It’s because authors and publishers who are targeting adult readers understand that there are a variety of adult readers out there. “Adult readers” do not form one homogeneous demographic. No, within the adult population are individuals with different education levels, thinking-styles, personalities, tastes, lifestyles, professions, hobbies, interests, etc. And there are books marketed to every kind of adult reader you could possibly come across (except people who literally cannot stand the sight of a book…and even some of those people enjoy audiobooks or magazines or at least a newspaper).
I don’t know if it’s always understood as well that young adults are just as diverse. When I was really trying to get into reading YA, I was frustrated at every turn, regardless of genre, by the lack of complexity I found in most books. By the way all of the female protagonists had very similar voices. By the way all of the romances seemed to follow the same formula (and by the prevalence and all-importance of romance as well). In the YA section, I explored contemporaries and historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy, psychological thrillers and technological thrillers, and at every turn I was met with over-simplification, irritating and forced romances, and extremely familiar characters. Even in books that I had to applaud for attempting to tackle complex issues or an interesting premise, I later lamented for the way they simplified and, as I came to call it, “YA’d the heck out of” what could have been a good book.
And the thing that irritates me about all of this is when you compare what teenagers are reading at school with what is written for their recreational consumption. At the same time school curricula are assigning thematically-rich works like Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Animal Farm, YA authors are feeding them a set variety of over-simplified themes they think young people can relate to. While school curricula are gifting them with the beautifully-constructed sentences of The Great Gatsby and Fahrenheit 451, YA books are often written in a simplistic and mediocre style. While school curricula are handing them such compelling first-person voices as Jane Eyre, Huckleberry Finn, and Scout Finch, the narrators in YA are often pale and sickly in comparison, and sound very much alike. Schools believe that teenagers are capable of handling Shakespeare and The Odyssey, while many publishers and authors think they are only capable of grasping, in the simplest form possible, love triangles, friendship drama, and general disdain for authority.
PLEASE DO NOT MISUNDERSTAND ME.
THIS IS NOT TO BASH YA.
THIS IS TO CHALLENGE MORE YA AUTHORS, PUBLISHERS,
PARENTS, AND THE READERS THEMSELVES
TO HAVE THE SAME FAITH IN YOUNG READERS
AS SCHOOL CURRICULA HAVE HELD FOR DECADES.
How The Book Thief Differs
So anyway, let me step down from my ranting platform and say that I love The Book Thief because it is different. The Book Thief honours young people by acknowledging their capacity to grasp complexity. The Book Thief is not easily dismissed as “just a YA novel.” It is a beautiful work of literature that happens to be targeted towards young adults, which is really as it should be. And if YA books, authors, and readers are understandably tired of being constantly bashed and dismissed, then take note. This is how it’s done. Authors, don’t set out saying “I’m going to write a YA novel,” leaning on the tropes of that category. Simply set out to write an excellent book. Write the book you wish someone had written for you at that age. If you do that, then it won’t be easily dismissed.
The Book Thief lists what it is about early on:
It’s just a small story really, about, among other things:
- A girl
- Some words
- An accordionist
- Some fanatical Germans
- A Jewish fist fighter
- And quite a lot of thievery
Isn’t this list refreshing? Exciting? Doesn’t it just breathe of complexity? Raise questions that demand answers? Hint at enormous, heavy, adult problems? Doesn’t it sound so original, so unlike anything you have ever read in any other book? This particular list could not be applied to any other book. This list is unique to this book. This list tells you why you should want to read this book as opposed to any other book on the shelf.
In contrast, I read a lot of books in 2016 that, if you were to make a list of their elements, Book Thief-style, you wouldn’t be able to distinguish them one from the other. They bleed together in my mind. They rely too heavily on what has been successful in the past. Again, this isn’t saying all YA is guilty of this. It’s just that a large portion of YA suffers from these problems.
What I Would Like To Do
You know me and my track record with finishing what I start when it comes to series on this blog. (Side note: I am not at all content with our plural for “series” being “series.” It simply never sounds right in a sentence. I demand we remedy this problem.)
That spotty track-record aside, what I would like to do—what I hope to do—is to read through The Book Thief for what I think will be my third time, just really breaking it down and discovering why I think it’s such a pinnacle of 21st century YA literature—or just literature in general, really. I still have yet to fully-annotate my copy, so this will be a good opportunity to do that. Since this book is divided into sections, I want to do a section-by-section analysis, with each section getting its own post. I think this will be really enjoyable for me, and hopefully it will be enjoyable for others to read. Along the way, I hope to discuss this book with those of you who have read it. Maybe those of you who haven’t will pick up a copy and read along with me? That could be fun.
I think it will also help me as a writer to really study what Zusak did that made this book so great. Really deconstruct it and see how it is put together like a seamless piece of machinery. This might also benefit other writers as we talk about techniques that were used and why they work.
I really think it will be interesting to analyse a modern book like this, as more often, we do this with classics. I think this book is of such fine quality that it can hold up to being taken apart in this way, and I cannot wait to dive in. I hope you’ll join me.
Have a lovely day!