An Interview with Markus Zusak, Author of The Book Thief and I Am the Messenger

November 28, 2007

Madeleine and I recently had the opportunity to interview Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief and I Am the Messenger, when he was in Portland to speak at Powell’s bookstore. Madeleine was thrilled to meet one of her favorite authors, and Markus was generous with his time. I’ve praised Zusak’s writing in other posts, and I can’t say enough about how thought-provoking and original his books are. They would be great to read and discuss with reading groups of high school girls and their moms.

Here’s a picture of Madeleine and Markus the night of the event, followed by an excerpt from the interview. To read the entire interview, click here. You may also want to visit Zusak’s Web site, which has great information.


The Book Thief was written from an angle that you rarely see, that of ordinary German people living under the Nazi regime. Why did you choose to write that story?

MZ: There are a few reasons, but the main one is that those are the stories I knew. My mom is German my father is Austrian. I grew up hearing those stories. One of my mum’s stories was about something that happened when she was six. She heard a noise that sounded like cattle being herded down the street. It was people being herded to a concentration camp. There was an old man who couldn’t keep up, and a boy gave him a piece of bread. They were both whipped, one for giving the bread, one for taking it. When you see a soldier chase a boy down and beat him to the ground for being kind to somebody, when you see that when you’re six, what could you possibly make of that?

You don’t really think of humor when you think of that time, but there were a lot of funny stories as well. I knew about my dad “jigging” as we say in Australia the Hitler Youth meetings, because he had a friend who suffered at the hands of the leaders. So they just said, “We’re not going. We’re going to go to the river instead and get dirty enough to fool our parents.” Another story I knew was about Hitler’s birthday, and my mother’s foster father refused to fly the Nazi flag. His wife said to him, “You’re going to fly the flag or else they’re going to come for us.” These are the stories I knew, and I thought, “I haven’t seen that on all the documentaries. I’m going to use these because this hasn’t necessarily been done a lot.”

Did you think of this as a book about the Holocaust?

MZ: I never thought of this as a Holocaust book, ever. When you think of World War II and what happened in Germany, you immediately think Holocaust and concentration camps. Once I started researching I kept uncovering more and more things like the beautiful acts that some Germans did such as hiding their Jewish friends in their basements. And the more I’d see of this the bigger the book got and instead of a 100 page novella that I was thinking about, I ended up with a 580 page book. All my books are important to me, but this is the one that is everything to me because of where it came from.

How did you decide to use Death as the narrator?

MZ: The decision to use Death as a narrator only came off the second time around; if I had stuck to publishing deadlines Liesel would probably be the narrator. I went from Death as narrator to Liesel telling the story herself to even trying third person. The real breakthrough was when I thought of the last line of the book. I was in down in Tasmania and there was water everywhere around me. I was reminded of the last line of a book called “A River Runs Through It,” which is, “I am haunted by waters.” I thought, “Aaaahhh, Death is afraid of us and haunted by us, because he is on hand to see all the terrible things we do to each other. It makes sense that he is telling the story to prove to himself that humans can be beautiful and selfless as well.”

Another Great Beach Weekend for Mother-Daughter Book Club

November 20, 2007

November isn’t the best time to go to the Oregon Coast, but it ended up being great for the mother daughter book club I’m in with my youngest daughter, Catherine. This was our first trip away together as a group, and we didn’t really know what to expect.

What we got was lots of great conversation, wonderful food, fresh air and walks on the beach, time alone, time together and less sleep than we expected. We talked about our book selection, A Mango Shaped Space, and we watched movies. It did rain quite a bit, but between the rain drops we were able to walk outside and enjoy the outdoors. And we had a great view of the ocean for the wet moments between.

But the time we had together was invaluable. Without the two hour constraint of our monthly book club meetings, we were able to really get to know each other and talk about life experiences we hadn’t been able to before. There was lots of time for the moms to be alone together and for the girls to be alone together as well as for all of us to be with each other.

We all agreed it was a great way to spend a weekend. Here’s a picture of the girls having fun on the beach during one of the drier moments.


Youth Librarians Can Help You Choose Books for Your Book Club

November 13, 2007

If you’ve ever been stuck for an idea of a book to recommend for your mother-daughter book club, you know how valuable it can be to get advice from someone who works with kids and books everyday. Web sites like this one and other book sites certainly provide good information, but being able to talk to your local youth librarian about your group can be even more helpful.

If your group tends to like science fiction or historical fiction or any other genre, she’ll often be able to recommend related books by age group. She’s probably read many of the selections herself, and she’ll be able to talk to you about themes that will make good discussion or challenge group members to see issues in a different light.

Our youth librarian is named Susan, and when my daughters walk into the library she greets us immediately and talks about exciting new books she’s heard about. If a book is not in at our local branch, she’ll put a copy on hold for pickup at a later date.

Through her recommendation, we’ve all discovered books we probably never would have on our own. She makes going to the library fun! Look for your own Susan at your local library and get to know her. Chances are she’ll become one of your most valuable resources.

Book Review: Every Crooked Pot by Renée Rosen

November 8, 2007


I was sucked into Nina Goldman’s life the minute I started to read this little gem of a book from Renée Rosen. Nina was born with a strawberry birthmark that covers one of her eyes, and early on she learned that it brings both good and bad attention to her. I agonized along with Nina as she struggled to fit in socially through middle school and high school, sure that her eye was the only thing keeping her from being popular. Nina’s story brought back memories from the mixed up social scene of my own school years, where everyone was trying to find who they were, and most of us were insecure about something.

Dominating Nina’s life outside of school is her father, Artie, whose larger-than-life character sucks in everyone around him as they try to live up to the high expectations he creates for himself and his family. There’s not much room for other memorable players in this story, but Rosen weaves other characters into the narrative seemlessly, and she makes it easy to get the dynamics between Nina and her friends, and Nina and the rest of her family.

Nina’s mother is a minor character, but readers will find lots to talk about in the family dynamics at play, the times described in the book (1960s and 70s), and Nina’s search to find what’s really important to her.

It’s hard to believe this was penned by a first-time author, but Rosen brings very complicated issues together seamlessly in a book that’s hard to put down once you start it. Something to note: the frank handling of drug use and teenage experimentation with sex probably makes Every Crooked Pot most appropriate for high school readers and their moms.

Book Review: Firestarters: 100 Job Profiles to Inspire Young Women by Kelly Beatty and Dale Salvaggio Bradshaw

November 6, 2007


I recently finished reading Firestarters: 100 Job Profiles to Inspire Young Women by Kelly Beatty and Dale Salvaggio Bradshaw. I think it would be a great book to share with readers in a mother-daughter book club. Madeleine, my daughter who is in 11th grade, read it at the same time I did, and we found lots to talk about regarding potential careers to match her interests.

The women profiled in Firestarters have dynamic jobs, and many have changed direction sometime during the course of their careers. They give candid assessments about what a day on the job is like, and they also talk about challenges they face. If your book club takes it on as a selection, each girl could choose three or four of the jobs profiled and talk about what interests her about the work.

The book would also be a great entree for moms to talk about their career pathways. I’ve found that as we all try to get through a busy family schedule every day, parents often don’t share details about the beginning of their careers or the process they went through in deciding what to do after high school graduation.

Firestarters is very accessible too. Each profile is organized the same, making it easy to pick up and read one or two profiles at a time. I had the opportunity to interview the authors about this book for, and you can click here to read what they say about why they wanted to publish Firestarters and the value it can bring to young women as they consider what they want to do in life.