The novel begins in January 1939. Liesel Meminger is 9 years old.
ARRIVAL ON HIMMEL STREET
On a snowy night, the book thief Liesel Meminger and her six-year-old brother Werner are traveling with their mother by train to Munich, where Liesel and her brother are to be given over to foster parents. Half asleep, Liesel dreams of Adolf Hitler speaking at a rally where Hitler smiles at Liesel, and Liesel, who is illiterate, greets him in broken German. As Liesel's mother sleeps, Liesel sees Werner die, and Death takes Werner's spirit but remains to watch what happens next. The train stops due to track work, and the three exit with two guards who argue over what to do with the body.
Two days later, Liesel's brother is buried by two gravediggers. Traumatized, Liesel digs at her brother's grave but is carried away by her mother. Before leaving on another train, Liesel steals a black book from the cemetery ground.
In Munich, Liesel is given to foster care authorities and driven up to Himmel ("Heaven") Street in the small town of Molching. There is the home of Rosa Hubermann, a squat woman with a short temper, and her husband Hans Hubermann, a tall quiet man who rolls his own cigarettes. At first Liesel refuses to get out of the car; only Hans is able to coax her out. Liesel has just a small suitcase containing clothes and the stolen book: The Grave Digger's Handbook.
GROWING UP A SAUMENSCH
Death remarks that Liesel will steal several books and be made two by a hidden Jew.
Liesel is very malnourished upon arrival. Her father was a Communist, but she does not yet know what this means. Liesel feels abandoned by her mother but dimly understands that she is being "saved" from poverty and persecution. Rosa, described as loving Liesel yet acting harshly, constantly shouts profanity at Liesel, calling her a saumensch ("pig girl") when she refuses to have a bath. Hans, described as a house painter and accordion player, acts more kindly, teaching Liesel to roll a cigarette. Liesel begins to call her foster parents "Mama" and "Papa."
THE WOMAN WITH THE IRON FIST
For the first few months, Liesel would have a nightmare about her brother every night and wet the bed. Hans would come in and sit with her. Secretly Liesel keeps The Grave Digger's Handbook under her bed; despite not being able to read even the title, Liesel is reminded by it of the last time she saw her brother and mother.
A few regular activities are introduced. Liesel begins school but is forced into a much younger class of students just learning the alphabet. In February Liesel turns ten and is enrolled into the Hitler Youth. Hans goes to a bar some evenings to play the accordion for money. Rosa, who does laundry for wealthier neighbors, takes Liesel on deliveries and privately berates her customers. Rosa forces Liesel to deliver a bag to the mayor's house, where the mayor's wife silently takes it. Frau Holtzapfel, a neighbor feuding Rosa, spits on the Hubermann's door every night, and Liesel is made to clean it.
THE KISS (A Childhood Decision Maker)
Himmel is a relatively poor street. Some of the neighbors include Rudy Steiner, one of six who lives next door to the Hubermanns; Frau Diller, a staunch Aryan cornershop owner; Tommy Muller, a twitchy kid suffering from ear infections; and Pfiffikus, a vulgar man. The neighborhood kids play soccer with garbage cans for goals, and Liesel is made to be goalie (replacing Tommy). Rudy confidently fires a shot, but Liesel blocks it; in response Rudy hits Liesel with a snowball.
Rudy is made to walk Liesel to school, and he takes a liking to her. He explains that Frau Diller is so committed to the Nazi Party that she refuses service to anyone who does not say "heil Hitler" upon entering her shop. They pass Rudy's father's tailor shop, then a street of broken, empty homes labeled with yellow Stars of David. At school, Rudy constantly seeks Liesel out despite others' comments on her supposed stupidity; Rudy is implied to be in love with Liesel. The two race the hundred meters and Rudy bets a kiss on it; they both slip before the finish, but Rudy says that one day Liesel will "be dying to kiss" him.
THE JESSE OWENS INCIDENT
A flashback to 1936, when Jesse Owens, the black American runner, wins four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics, embarrassing Hitler and the racist Nazis. Rudy, obsessed with the achievement, paints himself black with charcoal and runs the 100 meter relay at an empty track, imagining himself to be Owens. Rudy's father Alex Steiner drags his son home and lectures him not to pretend to be black or Jewish because of the Nazis' racial policies. It is noted that Alex is a member of the Nazi Party but not a racist, and that he will do anything to support his family, even if that means being in the party.
THE OTHER SIDE OF SANDPAPER
In May brown-shirted Nazis march through town, and Hans is revealed to not be a supporter of Hitler. After one of Liesel's nightmares, Hans finds her book and agrees to read it to her. Hans, a poor reader himself, is puzzled by the book about grave-digging, but begins reading to the young girl anyway. Hans finds that Liesel cannot read any words herself, so he begins teaching her the alphabet using sandpaper and a painter's pencil.
THE SMELL OF FRIENDSHIP
Hans continues reading to and teaching Liesel every night after her continued nightmares. Hans even accompanies Liesel when Rosa makes her do laundry deliveries. Hans and Liesel begin working in the basement, where they begin using paint on the cement wall for their lessons.
THE HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE SCHOOL-YARD
In September Germany invades Poland, starting World War II. Rationing begins as England and France join the fight against Germany. Liesel is moved up to the same class as Rudy and Tommy, the proper level for her age. All the students but Liesel are made to perform readings; Rudy interjects at the end that Liesel hadn't gone. The teacher, Sister Maria, refuses, but Liesel insists. Liesel cannot read her piece, so she instead begins to recite a chapter from The Grave Digger's Handbook, which she memorized from Hans' readings. Sister Maria takes Liesel into the corridor and gives her a watschen (beating) as the class laughs.
Later, Liesel is taunted by her classmate Ludwig Schmeikl. Rudy urges her to ignore Ludwig, but she instead savagely beats him. Still enraged, she also punches Tommy a few times and announces to the stunned crowd of students, "I'm not stupid." Back in class, Sister Maria punishes Liesel with a severe watschen. On the way home from school, Liesel thinks about her brother's death and the humiliating day, and Rudy comforts her.
Liesel's brother's death inspires many of significant events that set the novel's plot in motion. Liesel's obsession with words and learning to read -- a central part of The Book Thief -- is sparked by stealing The Grave Digger's Handbook, which to her at first was only a memento. Liesel's trauma and recurring nightmares cause her special closeness with and trust in her foster father Hans, a gentle man who is an extremely calming presence.
The small town of Molching and its cast of characters is the background of the novel, and the apparent quietness and stability of the town becomes steadily consumed by the political events surrounding the Nazis, the Holocaust, and World War II. Some instability is already evident: the broken shops and anti-Jew graffiti are signs of the Holocaust, and the Jews have already been terrorized and driven into concentration camps. Like the Jews, Liesel's father was persecuted and presumably killed or placed in a camp for being a Communist, and her mother gave Liesel up in part so Liesel could avoid the same fate.
While some characters like Frau Diller are staunch Nazis, others like Hans and Alex Steiner are worried about Hitler and the war, yet do not speak up against the steady destruction of their way of life. Death remarks that one gravedigger does what he is told by the other, and wonders what if the "other" is more than one person. This is a metaphor for Nazi Germany, where one man, Hitler, commands the entire nation, which obeys him unquestioningly.
Liesel's senseless brutalization of Ludwig and Tommy is compared with Hitler's invasion of Poland. In his rise to power, Hitler promised to restore Germany's greatness following a humiliating defeat in World War I. Similarly, Liesel "avenges" her humiliation through violence. Liesel later comes to regret this, and eventually realizes the superior power that words hold to violence.
As Liesel's brother died, Liesel was dreaming of listening "contentedly" to the literally glowing stream of words coming from Hitler's mouth. Yet Liesel could not speak well and had no understanding of the evil meaning of these words. Like the majority of the German people, Liesel was attracted in a childlike way to Hitler's oratory; as Liesel learns to read later in the book, she comes to understand the true horror of this. Hitler violently attacked the Jews in his speeches and preached hatred to his followers; Liesel's brother dying while fleeing persecution and poverty is juxtaposed with this.