The Book Thief is narrated by Death, who tells us the story of Liesel Meminger. It's January 1939, and Liesel, who is about ten-years-old, is traveling by train with her mother and her little brother Werner. Liesel and Werner are being taken to the small town of Molching, just outside of Munich, Germany, to live with foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann. Werner dies on the train of mysterious causes having to do with poverty, hunger, cold, and lack of medical treatment. Before Liesel arrives in Molching, she attends her brother's burial in a snowy graveyard. She steals The Grave Digger's Handbook from the cemetery after it falls from a young grave digger's coat. The kicker is, Liesel can't read.
Liesel is reluctant to enter the Hubermann house on Himmel Street, but is coaxed by her foster father, Hans, to whom she takes an immediate liking. She's not sure about Rosa, though. Liesel begins school, but suffers because she doesn't know how to read yet. She also meets Rudy Steiner, who is soon to be her best friend, not to mention her partner in book and food thievery.
One night, Hans finds The Grave Digger's Handbook hidden in Liesel's mattress after her usual nightmare of seeing her brother dying on the train. This is what inspires him to begin teaching her to read. When Liesel learns to write, she begins composing letters to her mother, but these letters go unanswered. Finally, we find out that her mother has disappeared.
Liesel becomes aware of what it really means to be living in Nazi Germany when a book burning is organized to celebrate Adolph Hitler's birthday on April 20, 1940. She finds the mound of literature being burned fascinating yet disturbing. Now that she can read and write, she has come to see great value in books and words. When Liesel hears a Nazi spokesman calling for death to communists as well as Jews, a light bulb goes off. The only thing she knows about her father is that he was accused of being a communist. She realizes that Hitler is likely behind her father's disappearance, her brother's death, and her mother's disappearance.
When Hans confirms her suspicions after the book burning, Hitler becomes Liesel's sworn enemy. This is a dangerous conflict for a young girl in Nazi Germany. Hans warns her against voicing her anti-Hitler opinions in public. This conflict helps drive Liesel to steal her second book, The Shoulder Shrug, from the burning pile of books.
Turns out that Erik Vandenburg, a Jewish man, saved Hans's life during World War I, giving up his own life in the process. After the war, Hans visited Erik's widow and young son. Now, that son is 22 and is hiding from the Nazis. His name is Max, and Hans is his last hope for survival. Upon learning of his plight, Hans readily helps arrange for Max's journey to Himmel Street. When the desperately starving and exhausted young man arrives, Hans and Rosa hide him in their home. At first, Liesel isn't sure what to think of Max, but they soon make fast friends. Meanwhile, Max's arrival and his suffering produce a change in Rosa, for the better. Liesel is amazed to see her courage and her softness.
Hiding a Jewish person in your home during World War II is one of the most brave and frightening things a German person could do. It means a constant state of paranoia for all involved. For Max, it means extreme guilt for putting the lives of those he's come to love in danger. But, above all, it means friendship for the residents of the Hubermann home, and complicated friendship at that.
Liesel has also entered into a complicated almost-friendship with the mayor's wife, Ilsa Hermann. Ilsa saw Liesel steal the The Shoulder Shrug. She also pays Rosa to do her laundry. When Liesel comes to Ilsa's house on laundry visits, she invites Liesel into the library to read. When Ilsa has to stop using Rosa's services, Liesel begins stealing books from her, though Ilsa doesn't seem to mind.
Everything changes in October of 1942 when "The parade of Jews" (55.4) comes through Molching on the way to the nearby concentration camp Dachau . Hans feels compelled to offer one of the Jewish prisoners a piece of bread and is whipped along with the prisoner by a Nazi guard. Now Hans is desperately afraid the Nazis will search his house and find Max, so he sends Max away that very night. His house is never searched, and Hans berates himself constantly, waiting to be punished for his mistake.
One day, Liesel sees the Gestapo (Nazi secret police) on Himmel Street, and Hans thinks they are coming for him. In fact, they are coming for Rudy, who has recently shown himself to be a great student and athlete. The Gestapo wants to take Rudy to a special training school. His parents protest and essentially make a trade. Rudy stays home, but his father, Alex Steiner, is conscripted into the military and has to leave home. Around this time, Hans is also conscripted, as punishment for giving the Jewish man bread.
With Hans and Max gone, Liesel does her best to go on. She reads to the residents of Himmel Street in the bomb shelter during air raids, thieves with Rudy, and helps Rosa. One night, Rosa shows her the book Max left for her, a book written on painted-over pages of Adolph Hitler's book Mein Kampf. It's called The Word Shaker and includes a story by the same name.
In February 1943, just after Liesel's fourteenth birthday, Liesel and Rosa get word that Hans is coming home. He broke his leg in a bus accident, and his sergeant is transferring him back to Munich.
In August of 1943, Liesel sees Max again. He's marching through Molching to Dachau. She walks with him in the procession. Liesel learns that he was captured some six months earlier, about five months after he left the house on Himmel Street. The Nazi guards don't take well to Liesel's courageous display, and Liesel and Max are both whipped. Rudy stops Liesel from following Max any further and possibly saves her life.
Soon after, Liesel decides to give up books and Ilsa Herman's library. Ilsa presents her with a blank book, and Liesel begins writing the story of her life, called The Book Thief. She writes in the basement, and she's doing just this when Himmel Street is bombed. Everybody she loves dies while they sleep. In despair over their deaths, Liesel drops her book, but it's picked up by Death. Since Liesel has nobody left, the police hold her, not sure what to do with her. Soon Ilsa Hermann arrives and takes her in for a time. Alex Steiner comes home soon after, and Liesel spends time with him.
As the novel comes to a close, we first learn that Liesel has died after living a long and happy life with a husband, kids, and grandkids. Then we learn Max survived the concentration camp, and he and Liesel reunited at the end of World War II. But, we don't learn what happens to Max after that. The novel ends with Death giving Liesel back her book, The Book Thief, as he's taking her soul away from her body.