Thursday, February 27, 2014

Teaching The Book Thief: Repurposed Pages

Because The Book Thief movie was recently released, I decided to include the book as part of my World Literature class this year. I am so glad I did! Most of the kids absolutely loved this book, and we had fantastic discussions, ranging from Hitler Youth to banned books to the incredible power of words.

The Book Thief is all about words and books, hatred and beauty, death and the capacity for survival. I found lots of activities on the internet for this unit, but my favorite came from The Picky Girl, who ripped pages out of a book, handed each student a page, and had him or her repurpose the page in some way. I tweaked her plan to better fit my classroom, and I was absolutely thrilled with the results.

At home, I ripped pages out of a book. This was a little hard for me to do, particularly after a riveting discussion we had in class about book burning. Some kids maintained that it was OK to burn books that were of no value to them, some said that it was never OK to destroy a book, and a few said they didn't care either way. Oh, and several insisted that if there was a zombie apocalypse, they would not hesitate to burn a book for fuel or use it for toilet paper.

I will confess that it was a Chicken Soup for the Soul book out of which I ripped pages, and it really wasn't that hard to do. (The greater problem for me was pondering why we even had one on our bookshelf.) I ripped the pages out ahead of time rather than doing it for shock value in front of the class. I didn't think they would be particularly shocked, and also I needed to make sure that the pages were G-rated. (Censorship while teaching a book about words. I know.)

In class I handed each student a page with these instructions:

Your assignment this week, besides finishing the novel, is to repurpose your book page.
The Book Thief is largely a book about the power of words: how words can harm, heal, destroy, or build up. How words can be manipulated, ignored, reclaimed for a different purpose, grasped, and cherished. Max, for example, makes something beautiful out of Mein Kampf.
Writers use a variety of techniques to bring their written words alive for the reader. Zusak particularly uses a lot of similes, metaphors, and personification to hit his readers with vivid images.

Your job is to take a quote from the novel and interpret it creatively from your mind’s eye onto paper. You don’t have to be artistic at all. You can do this in a variety of ways. For example:
• paint over the page like Max did, write the quote, and use some kind of visual illustration. This can be your own drawing or something you cut out from a different source and attach to the page.
• black out words on the page except ones that have to do with your quote. Put the quote on the page in some way.
• Use your page as a frame for the quote, or cut your page out into an image.

#1 Rule: don’t be silly. I really want to see what kind of connections you can make with a quote, a page of words, and your knowledge of the book. Below are several quotes, but you absolutely can use other quotes or phrases from the book.

I included about 20 quotes from the book as ideas, but, as I said in the directions, they could choose their own quotes from the book. I had to include the "don't be silly" part because, well, I knew that one or two would consider this to be a blow-off assignment. 

Here are just a few of their pages:

Instead of using the page, this one took an old dictionary and repurposed it.

This little book actually opens and has a story for the book in it. How cute is that?


How awesome is this? He used his guitar as a canvas for the page. And this is a kid who says he really doesn't like reading.

I was positively thrilled with the results. Most of the kids put a lot of thought and creativity into the project. I wanted them to have a hands-on experience with how words can be manipulated, highlighted, and played with, and they totally pulled through.


  1. What an awesome assignment! Loved seeing the creativity! Best thing about being a teacher is seeing students go past your wildest imaginations in their expressions!

  2. Hi Sarah. I love your blog. I've been reading for a few months now. Anyway, what age group would you recommend this book to? I have a mature 7th grade son who is very interested in the WWII era.

    1. That is just really up to you and what you know of your son. The ready level itself is easy, and I know lots of school teach The Book Thief in middle school. Personally, I think much of the nuance and language would be lost on middle schoolers. My class is made up of 10th-12th graders, and this was perfect for them. There is also some language and of course are a lot of disturbing scenes in the novel. But it isn't so much that the novel isn't appropriate or readable at 7th grade; I just don't think they would appreciate it as much.

    2. I actually taught this book two years in a row to 8th graders and they love it! I had some students this year who said they have read it when they were in 6th grade. You know your son and what he can and cannot "handle". I even had students who are notorious non-readers tell me that this was the first book they truly enjoyed. Yes, there are some "choice words" and disturbing scenes in the novel but Sarah said, that is "lost on middle schoolers". My students did not worry about those words, they simply accepted it as part of the theme. Most of them identified with the different themes in the book: courage, friendship, love, and some with even death (unfortunately, due to the loss of parent or sibling). I'm sure my 8th graders looked at the book a bit differently than 10th-12th graders would but that does not mean they did not appreciate it as much. They just appreciated different aspects of the book as the high schoolers would.
      If your son is interested in the WW II era, I would recommend the book. Hope he'll like it! :-)

  3. This is SUCH a great idea. I hope I can use it as inspiration for a similar project in my literature classes in mexico - the kids work is really cool!

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this! My kids will love it- and they freedom that comes along w it as an assignment! I am in Anderson Co, TN (Clinton)- we're so close! Thanks again!

  5. Do any of you guys have a unit plan for this book? I am a new teacher and want to teach this book to my freshmen next year. Any help would be appreciated!!

    My email is

  6. Came across your site as I'm starting a unit on the Book Thief with my High School students. Any other materials you know of that could be helpful? Please let me know!

    I would greatly appreciate it!

    1. I am using the book thief in my English high school class. I really like your project idea. Do you have an outline for the project that you handed to students.

      If so I would be grateful to have a look at it.

      Thank you,

    2. Yes, I think I have something! I will send it your way.

  7. Thanks! This is fun, short, easy, BUT they still have to be thoughtful. My students have some trouble reading, so we do a lot of it in class. This is a nice little break.

  8. Hi! I will be teaching this for the first time this spring. Any help or materials would be appreciated! I love the book page idea and can't wait to use it as an assignment on words. Thanks!

  9. Sarah - I love this activity. We also homeschool, and I will be teaching 10th grade World Lit at my daughter's tutorial this year - first time - and plan on doing a unit on The Book Thief. Would appreciate any materials / tips you could send my way, especially as it pertains to having only 1 "classroom instruction" day per week with my students. Thanks! Email is


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