The narrator of the story is Death. His duty is to guide the souls to the afterlife, not to worry about living ones, but he breaks this law, compassionately following the little girl, Liesel Meminger, who he calls a “book thief”. Death says that he saw her three times: in the train, when the plane crashed and he came for the soul of the pilot and after the shelling. He calls these meetings white, red and black. When Death saw her last time, Liesel lost a book she wrote about herself and Death saved this book to read it.
The story starts in Germany in January 1939. A poor woman carries her two children to foster parents because she can’t raise them anymore. Her missing husband was accused of spying for the Communists and she wants to protect her children from the Nazi pursuit. On their way Liesel’s brother named Werner dies because of the cold, underfeeding and absence of any medical treatment - his mother is too poor to allow herself that. This is the first time Death sees the little Liesel, on the nameless station, near the train and the fresh grave of her brother. Everything is quiet and white, covered by the thick layer of snow, so Death names this meeting “white”.
One of the gravediggers loses a book after finishing his job and Liesel takes it with her for the reason she can’t explain even to herself - the girl isn’t able to read at all. But from now on she sometimes calls herself a “book thief”.
Liesel and her mother arrive to the small town of Molching where the family that agreed to take Liesel lives. The girl is separated from her mother and this, along with Werner’s death, puts her into depression for a long time.
Her foster parents are named Rosa and Hans Hubermann. Rosa is short and plump, she shouts a lot and washes the clothes for the wealthy people in Molching. Hans is very tall and much calmer, he is a painter and in the evenings, he makes additional money playing accordion in bars. The Hubermanns have already grew their own children and now accept adopted ones for a small fee. They say Liesel to call them “Mom” and “Dad” and the girl has a hard time adapting to it. She is a bit afraid of Rosa and considers her too loud and strict, but is almost immediately attracted to Hans. Hans is the one who sits with her after another nightmare about Werner’s death.
Liesel is now nine-year-old, but she can’t enter the class of her age because she can’t read and write. Once, after she had another nightmare and wet herself in terror, Hans helps her to change the bedsheet and finds the stolen book Liesel hid under the mattress. It is called “The Gravedigger’s Handbook” and contains instructions of proper burials. Hans asked Liesel if she read the book and she answers that she isn’t able to. The man decides to teach his stepdaughter reading and writing. At first they write single letters at the backside of the sandpaper and paint them on the walls of their basement but soon Liesel manages to read and write the whole words.
The Hubermanns’ neighbor is the tailor named Alex Steiner. One of his sons named Rudy is a promising sportsman. He is obsessed with runners, especially American athlete Jesse Owens, to the point he once painted his skin with coal to be as black as his favourite sportsman. Rudy likes Liesel very much. When she is transferred to the next class and her new classmates start to mock her, Rudy tries to care for Liesel and soon becomes her best friend. He still hopes to be more than a friend to her, but Liesel considers him strange and unattractive.
Soon the World War II begins. Liesel fails her reading test and, after new attempt of mockery from the classmates, beats them, earning herself a title of “boxing champion of the schoolyard”. The war heavily affects the Hubermanns. Less and less people can afford the laundry. Rosa tells Liesel to work with her hoping that the sight of the poor little girl will make her clients more generous.
In January, 1940 Liesel’s class learns to write letters. Liesel writes a real letter to her mother and takes some money from the laundry income to send it. Rosa gets angry when she learns that, and beats her with a wooden spoon. There is no reply for this letter and later Hans tells the girl that her mother was taken by “them”.
In April 20, the town celebrates Hitler’s birthday making a huge bonfire from “harmful” books. Hubermanns’ elder son visits them and they have a quarrel with Hans. Hans doesn’t support Hitler and isn’t a member of the Party and his son is a devoted fascist. Hans tries to persuade his son that there is no reason to mistreat Jews and it is shame for all the Germany. The young man, in his turn, calls Hans a coward and scolds Liesel for reading some “random nonsense” instead of “Mein Kampf”. Hubermann’s son leaves and Death adds that two years after he will die in the Battle of Stalingrad.
In the evening Liesel goes for a walk with Hans. She sees some almost intact books in the fire and secretly takes one of them. Suddenly she notices that one of Rosa’s clients, Frau Herman, who is considered mad, watches her. Hans also sees what Liesel did and this solidifies his decision to secretly oppose the Party. He goes to the book shop and buys “Mein Kampf” there, then he sends the book somewhere via post.
Liesel gets even more afraid of Frau Herman, but still she has to take the dirty clothes from her. Once she invites the girl into her house and shows her the library - a huge room full of books that strikes Liesel’s imagination. Frau Herman allows Liesel to read the books from here.
Death makes a pause to tell about a Jewish boy named Max Vandenburg who lived in a dark basement and starved for a long time. Finally one of his friends bought him a book “Mein Kampf” and put false documents, a map, a key, and some money into it and wrote the name “Hans Hubermann”. Max went to search for Hans Hubermann pretending to be a loyal Nazi with the “right” book with him.
Liesel reads the book she took from the bonfire and also the books from Frau Herman’s library. She befriends the woman and learns that Frau Herman was driven mad by the death of her only son. Liesel and Rudy become the members of the teenager thief gang that robs the neighboring gardens. It is led by fifteen-year-old Arthur Berg who is quite benevolent to them and gives them the fair part of the stolen food. But at the end of the summer Arthur moves to Cologne and Death says he saw him there cradling his dead little sister in his arms.
On November night, Max opened the door of Hubermann’s house with the key he received in the book. Now Liesel learns his story. Fighting in the World War I Hans Hubermann met Eric Vandenburg who taught him to play the accordion. Before the battle, the sergeant searched for a man with perfect handwriting and Eric said that Hans has one. It saved Hubermann’s life because he was left behind to write reports while everyone else died. At the end of the war, Hans met the widowed Mrs. Vandenburg and learned that she and Eric had a son named Max. The woman gave to Hans the accordion of her husband and he told her his address.
That was the first reason for Hans not to join the Party, - he remembered that a Jew saved his life. Later, under the social pressure Hans gave up and enlisted to the Party but the next day he washed away the yellow star from the door of neighboring Jewish family. He was immediately suspended, but spared as a member of the Party.
In 1939 Hans learned that Max was in trouble. Liesel’s saving of the book was the last straw that made him risk himself and his family and send a book to Max filled with everything he needed to reach Hubermann.
Unlike most Jews, patient and uncomplaining, Max was a fighter. After the death of Eric, his mother moved to her brother where Max had to constantly fight with his nine cousins. Before the large Jewish pogrom in 1938 Mrs. Vandenburg persuaded Max to flee to her friend, Walter, who hid him in the pantry. Constant isolation broke the twenty-four-year-old young man and he is barely able to speak now. Hubermann has no option than to hide Max in the basement, because covering a Jew is a huge crime for a Party member.
Hans tells Liesel to keep Max’s secret or they all will be imprisoned by “them” and her books will be burnt down. Liesel agrees. Soon the girl discovers that Max also has nightmares about his deceased family and it becomes a start of their friendship.
On Liesel’s birthday, Hans presents her a book. Max can’t present anything, but he paints the pages of “Mein Kampf” with white paint and makes his own book with pictures for Liesel. This book tells the story of their friendship. Max constantly learns to fight even better, imagining that he is in the boxing ring with Hitler. Max tells Liesel that he waits for Fuhrer to come for him, so he has to train to meet him and avenge his family.
As the war unfolds, the income of Hubermanns’ falls drastically. Now no one can allow their services anymore. The last one to refuse is Frau Herman. She tries to give to Liesel her favourite book - “The Whistler” to apologize, but the girl is too angry at her because now her family has no work. Liesel throws the book to the woman’s feet and runs away.
Liesel returns to the garden robbery. The new leader of the gang is Victor Hemmel, a young Nazi who isn’t fair at all. Liesel and Rudy receive just a few apples for the work they do. Rudy tries to protest, but Victor, who is older and stronger, strangles him and drives him away from the gang. Liesel later offers Rudy to break into Frau Herman’s house. Rudy agrees and the kids enter the house. Rudy is more interested in food but the only thing Liesel takes is that book, “The Whistler”. Later, in December, Victor sees the book she stole and throws it into the river. Rudy manages to get the book back from the cold water hoping for a kiss, but Liesel doesn’t kiss him again.
In the winter, Liesel brings some buckets of snow to the basement, so that Max can make a snowman, but Max catches cold and almost dies because of this. Feeling guilty, Liesel sits with him and reads him “The Whistler” aloud. Once Death comes for Max, but Max fights him and Death gladly surrenders. He likes the young fighter. When “The Whistler” is over and Liesel has nothing to read to Max, she decides to steal another book from Frau Herman’s house and manages to do this. Max survives.
In the spring, the Party members start searching the houses. Liesel notices them and deliberately injures her knee to call Hans and warn him without being suspended. Hans manages to hide Max under the stairs and save both Max and his family. Now, under the danger of shelling, Hans gets another job, he paints the blinds on the windows black.
Rudy enters the Hitlerjugend and trains fanatically. In mid-August he is invited to the sports festival and wants to win four running competitions to show Victor and his another rival, Franz, that he is better than them. Rudy manages to win three medals, but he leaves voluntarily before the fourth competition. He doesn’t have strength to run but doesn’t want to lose also. He presents his medals to Liesel.
Liesel continues to steal books. To her surprise, she finds one of her favourites just lying on the windowsill. There is a letter from Frau Herman in it. She knows what Liesel does and is glad to share her library. She hopes that one day Liesel will enter her house openly and through the door.
The shelling becomes frequent. The Hubermanns hide in the basement of their neighbors, leaving Max alone in their house. To prevent panic, Liesel begins to read “The Whistler” aloud and people calm down. Hearing this story Max starts writing a book “The World Shaker” about the girl who defeated the Fuhrer - the anti-hero of the story - with good words.
The next day after the shelling, the neighboring lady offered Liesel a payment for reading aloud for her twice a week. Rosa allows her stepdaughter to work like that.
Later the imprisoned Jews pass through the town to the concentration camp. Hans can’t stand seeing their suffering and tries to feed them but is whipped for that. Now he is suspended, so Max has to leave. The Nazis come to Steiners and offer them to take Rudy to the special school where they grow “perfect human breed”. Alex refuses to give his son and soon he and Hans are sent to the war as a punishment.
Liesel reads to her neighbor and looks for Max when she sees more imprisoned Jews. Rosa, seeing her sadness, gives her the finished “The Word Shaker” Max has left for Liesel before he went away. Later, when stealing another book, Liesel finds it on the top of the dish with cookies and then returns the dish entering through the front door and reconciling with Frau Herman. Soon Hans who was wounded at war returns home. Liesel is fourteen at the moment.
One day a plane crashes near the town. The locals go to see the deceased pilot. Death also comes and sees Liesel near the plane, crimson with the pilot’s blood. Liesel doesn’t know who is near her but she feels Death and they recognize each other. This is their red meeting.
Liesel tells Rudy about “The World Shaker”. Now she wants him to kiss her but Rudy doesn’t dare. After the long meditation and talks with Rudy, who is now fascinated with Nazi propaganda, she decides that Max was right. It is propaganda, the “bad words”, the weapon from the book that makes the war continue. Liesel goes to Frau Herman and tells her that she doesn’t want to read anymore, explaining her the reason. Frau Herman understands that and soon comes to Hubermanns, giving Liesel a blank notebook, “a book without words” to write her own story.
This book, named by Liesel “The Book Thief” saves her life. During another unexpected shelling at midnight, Liesel is in the basement, writing another chapter of her autobiography. She was the only one from the whole street to survive. The rescue team finds her in the ashes, holding the hands of her dead family. She finally kissed dead Rudy and put the accordion next to Hans. There, in the black ashes, Death saw her for the third time. He took Liesel’s book with him.
Frau Herman took Liesel to her house. Alex Steiner returned to the town bitterly regretting he didn’t allow Rudy to go to the Nazi school and thus to survive. After the war, he opens his workshop and Liesel helps him. Later Max finds and joins them.
Liesel lives a long life and dies in a suburb of Sydney, leaving her mourning husband, three children and grandchildren. Death comes for Liesel and gives “The Book Thief” back to her, the words in the book almost erased by time. Death read it over and over again during his journeys.