Narrated by Death, a male voice who over the course of the book proves to be morose yet caring, the plot follows Liesel Meminger as she comes of age in Nazi Germany during World War II. After the death of her younger brother on a train to the fictional town of Molching, Germany, on the outskirts of Munich, Liesel arrives at the home of her new foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, distraught and withdrawn. During her time there, she is exposed to the horrors of the Nazi regime, caught between the innocence of childhood and the maturity demanded by her destructive surroundings. As the political situation in Germany deteriorates, her foster parents conceal a Jewish fist-fighter named Max Vandenburg. Hans, who has developed a close relationship with Liesel, teaches her to read, first in her bedroom, then in the basement. Recognizing the power of writing and sharing the written word, Liesel not only begins to steal books that the Nazi party is looking to destroy, but also writes her own story, and shares the power of language with Max. Through collecting laundry for her foster mother, she also begins a relationship with the mayor's wife, Ilsa Hermann, who allows her to first read books in her library, and later, steal them.
One day, as a group of Jewish prisoners is led through town towards Dachau Concentration Camp, Hans offers one particularly weak man a piece of bread, drawing the ire of others in the town. Max leaves the Hubermanns' home soon after out of fear that Hans's act will draw suspicion on the Hubermann household and their activities. Eventually, as punishment for this act, Hans's long-withheld application to join the NSDAP is approved and he is drafted into the army, cleaning up the aftermath of air raids on the German home front. A while later, Liesel sees Max among a group of prisoners and joins him in the march, ignoring a soldier's order to step away and getting whipped as punishment.
After Hans returns home, bombs fall on Liesel's street in Molching, killing every one of her friends, family, and neighbors. Liesel, working on her manuscript in the basement at the time of the raid, is the sole survivor. The workers searching for survivors and cleaning up the scene take Liesel's manuscript along with the rubble, but Death saves it. Devastated, Liesel is taken in by the Hermanns and refuses to clean the ashes off herself until she walks into the river where Rudy saved a book before, saying her final goodbyes to him. In 1945, Liesel works in the tailor shop owned by Rudy's father when Max enters. They have an emotional reunion.
Many years later, "just yesterday", Liesel dies as an old woman in the suburbs of Sydney, with a family and many friends, but has never forgotten Hans, Rosa, Rudy, and her brother. When Death collects her soul, he gives her the manuscript she lost in the bombing. She asks him if he read it and Death says yes. She asks him if he understood it, but Death is confused and unable to understand the duality of humanity. Death's last words are for both Liesel and the reader: "I am haunted by humans."