Like the 22 books that preceded it, Markus Zusak's “The Book Thief” was chosen for the Chicago Public Library's One Book, One Chicago fall selection based on its literary merit and universal themes that would appeal to the widest range of readers. But this particular book was also chosen to play a pivotal role in a further initiative.
Now is the Time, a partnership among the library, Facing History and Ourselves, and Steppenwolf Theatre Co., was created to inspire young people "to make positive change in their communities and stop youth violence and intolerance," according to the organization's website. As a haunting story and a resonant conversation starter, "The Book Thief" fit the bill for those programs.
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Hailed by The New York Times as "brilliant" and "the kind of book that can be life-changing," Zusak's international award-winning novel is set amid the horrors of Nazi Germany and is narrated by a wry, amiable and almost sympathetic Death, who relates the story of a remarkable young girl, 9-year-old Liesel Meminger. At the funeral of her younger brother, she steals her first book, which a gravedigger drops in the snow. Growing up in the home of a foster couple, she learns to read and write, and books become her salvation.
When she came to write her story, Death relates, "she would wonder exactly when the books and the words started to mean not just something but everything."
That "The Book Thief" is technically the first One Book, One Chicago selection that was marketed to a young adult audience is very much beside the point, said Annie Tully, program coordinator. Previous selections, such as "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "The House on Mango Street," have over the years become staples of middle school curriculums and been embraced by young adult readers, she noted.
"We always try to select books that will appeal to the widest audience," she said. "This book has a lot of sadness, but also a hopeful message at its center, and hopefulness is something that appeals to people across a wide range of ages, incomes and neighborhoods, which is what we are always looking for. That the story explores the power of the individual fit well with what Steppenwolf had in mind to present on their stage" as part of Now is the Time.
Steppenwolf, which previously collaborated with One Book, One Chicago (presenting Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" and an adaptation of "The House on Mango Street" by Sandra Cisneros), is performing its production of "The Book Thief" through Nov. 9. It was adapted for the stage by Heidi Stillman and directed by Hallie Gordon, and it features Steppenwolf ensemble member Francis Guinan as Death.
One member of the audience will have a very personal interest in the production: Zusak himself, who will attend a performance Oct. 21.
"I'm very excited to see what they do" with the adaptation, Zusak said in an email exchange. "I'm not involved in it at all, which is probably a good thing. There's a temptation to look for what was cut out, changed, and left in, but I really like the idea of turning it over to someone else who will make it into a new version of itself."
Zusak, who is making several Chicago appearances in connection with his book's selection, said that "any presentation I ever do revolves around a story. Often people want to know where 'The Book Thief' comes from, and it's not always what they expect. In the end, you hope a book will speak for itself, and I'll get a few words in here and there."
Zusak praised One Book, One Chicago as "definitely the most innovative program I've ever been part of, and it's a real honor, especially considering the books that have been chosen in the past. It's quite a list. Other communities have used the book, but not in such a specific way. That's one of the reasons this will be such an eye-opening trip. I'm really excited to experience Chicago itself, and get a sense of what direction the 'Now is the Time' theme takes."
Gordon spearheaded the Now is the Time initiative, a part of which is a theatrical component, Now is the Time to Act, made up of a consortium of Chicago-area theaters, including American Theater Co. and About Face Theatre. In the wake of the upsurge in youth violence, she said, "I couldn't ignore this. Kids weren't safe doing everyday things like walking home from school or jumping rope. I was looking for a play that spoke to issues about how youths view violence and being an upstander in the community. Annie Tully said I needed to read 'The Book Thief.' I fell in love with it. There are many connections that can be made between the book and Now is the Time."
One such connection, she said, is a subplot about Liesel befriending a Jew her foster parents hide from the Nazis in their basement.
"This raises the discussion about their compassion and doing the right thing under the worst possible circumstances," Gordon said. "That's really the conversation we want to have (with young people). Look at this family and the choices they are making. What are the positive choices you are making in your own community?"
Another interesting aspect of the book is the role of Death as the narrator, Gordon observed. "In the play as well as the book, he states, 'You are going to die. Does this worry you?' At a certain age you don't think about death. You think you're going to live forever. And at another certain age, you think about nothing but death. There is something interesting in putting that out there and taking responsibility for that. You don't have more than one life. What are you going to do with it?"
As with all previous One Book, One Chicago selections, "The Book Thief" benefits from repeat readings. "You really do pick up on so many things with each reading," said Tully, who reads each selection several times to enhance her work with librarians. "You can read this book seven times and still find something new and exciting."
For his part, Zusak expresses surprise at the book's unlikely success story.
"I thought nobody was going to read it at all," he said. "As I often say, it's set in Nazi Germany, nearly everybody dies, and it's 560 pages long. Who would want to read that? It's just nice that it can be part of something in a city far away from the one I live in, and yet the concerns are very much the same."
Donald Liebenson is a Chicago-based freelance writer.
One Book, One Chicago events
The Chicago Public Library is conducting a number of public events for the One Book, One Chicago program. Here are some upcoming ones; unless otherwise noted, more information can be found at tinyurl.com/93bkt9k, 312-747-8191.
→ "The Book Thief" author Markus Zusak will sign books after a Steppenwolf Theatre Co. performance of his work and an audience discussion with cast and production members. Performance begins at 3 p.m. Oct. 21, Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., steppenwolf.org, 312-335-1650.
→ Zusak will be the keynote speaker at the annual Teen Volume conference, which this year is adopting the "Now is the Time" theme. 1 p.m. Oct. 22, Cindy Pritzker Auditorium, Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State St., Chicago.
→Zusak and Chicago Tribune columnist Dawn Turner Trice will discuss "The Book Thief." 6 p.m. Oct. 22, Cindy Pritzker Auditorium, Harold Washington Library Center.
→Steppenwolf Theatre teaching artists will lead theater-based workshops entitled "How Does 'The Book Thief' Speak To Teens Today?" at Chicago library branches the week of Oct. 22. See tinyurl.com/93bkt9k for times and locations.
→Artist Steve Musgrave and Teen Volume moderators will conduct workshops for participants ages 12-18 in which they will create artwork inspired by the book. 6:30-8 p.m. Oct. 24 at the Sulzer Regional Library, 4455 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago; and 4:30-6 p.m. Oct. 25 at the Harold Washington Library Center.
"The Book Thief"
By Markus Zusak, Alfred A. Knopf, 576 pages, $12.99 paperback