Zusak, Markus 1975-
Zusak, Markus 1975-
Born 1975, in Sydney, Australia; son of a house painter and a maid; married.
Writer and novelist. Worked as a janitor and a high school English teacher.
Older Readers Honor Book of the Year, Children's Book Council of Australia (CBCA), 2001, for Fighting Ruben Wolfe and 2006, for I Am the Messenger; Older Readers Honor Book of the Year, CBCA, and Young Adult Book of the Year, Queensland Premier's Literary Awards, both 2002, for When Dogs Cry; Older Readers Book of the Year, CBCA, and Ethel Turner Prize, New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards, both 2003, for The Messenger; Printz Honor Book, 2006, for I Am the Messenger.
YOUNG ADULT NOVELS
The Underdog, Omnibus Books (Norwood, South Australia, Australia), 1999.
The Messenger, Pan Macmillan Australia (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia), 2002, published as I Am the Messenger, Knopf (New York, NY), 2005.
The Book Thief, Knopf (New York, NY), 2006.
Since the publication of his first novel in 1999, Markus Zusak has rapidly become one of the more prominent young authors in Australia. In his books, Zusak, the son of working-class immigrants to Australia, tells the stories of other disadvantaged young men struggling against bleak circumstances and their own internal demons to improve themselves and their lives. "Stories have always told me where I was from," Zusak told interviewer Tammy L. Currier, on the TeenReads Web site. "[My parents'] hardships and struggle to live decent lives are probably the basis of everything I approach. Also, when I see my friends, we laugh and carry on, and it's our stories that give us that laughter. I guess without stories we'd be empty."
Zusak's award-winning novels about the Wolfe brothers, Fighting Ruben Wolfe and When Dogs Cry (published in the United States as Getting the Girl) have received a good deal of critical attention, both in his native Australia and in America. The books are written "in earthy, working-class dialect," a critic noted in a Publishers Weekly review of Fighting Ruben Wolfe, and are told from the point of view of Ruben Wolfe's younger brother, Cameron. The Wolfe brothers are teenagers in a blue-collar household that has fallen on hard times since their father was injured and lost his job as a plumber. Their mother works scrubbing floors, but it is not enough to make ends meet. So when, near the beginning of Fighting Ruben Wolfe, the boys are approached by a man who runs illegal boxing matches, they accept the chance to bring in extra money by fight- ing. Ruben, long a participant in after-school fistfights, has no problems adapting to boxing; billed as "Fighting Ruben Wolfe," he wins most of his matches, bringing home fifty dollars in prize money after each one. Cameron, who is the more reserved of the two, has trouble and gets the ring name "The Underdog," but he stays in the ring and fights through his fear with such "heart" that the spectators often throw him tips in acknowledgment of his tenacity. "The fast-paced narrative captures the physical rigors of the boxing ring as well as the emotional turmoil and the ultimate unity of the troubled Wolfe family," commented Peter D. Sieruta in a Horn Book review of Fighting Ruben Wolfe. Although the two brothers eventually are forced to face each other in the ring, they remain close; each chapter of the book concludes with a conversation between the two.
Zusak explained to Currier that the relationship between Ruben and Cameron is "my brother and me all over—not giving each other an inch at home, but willing to die for each other in the world." Zusak and his older brother even used to box each other in their backyard, "and being younger and smaller than my brother, he really used to beat the crap out of me," he continued.
In When Dogs Cry, the sequel to Fighting Ruben Wolfe, "Zusak explores the deep if inexpressible desire to create, as well as the intersection between family loyalty and romantic affection," explained a Kirkus Reviews contributor in a review of the U.S. edition, titled Getting the Girl. The Wolfe brothers have given up boxing, and Cameron has turned to writing as a means to express himself and to try to figure out who he is. At the moment, he seems to be a loner and a loser, as he wanders the streets by himself and pines outside the house of a girl who cannot stand him. Life starts looking up when Octavia, a sweet girl recently dumped by Ruben, turns her affection to Cameron, but Ruben objects to their blossoming romance. "The interaction of the characters is the real strength of this novel," Janet Hilbun commented in School Library Journal.
Zusak is also the author of The Messenger (published in the U.S. as I Am the Messenger), a novel about an aimless twenty-year-old cab driver named Ed. Ed is a laidback nobody, living alone in a shabby little house with his big-hearted but smelly dog, until he helps to foil a botched bank robbery and he is hailed in the local paper as a hero. Shortly thereafter, someone begins sending him playing cards with addresses and cryptic messages written on them. Each address, Ed discovers, directs him to someone who needs help. The card he receives, the ace of diamonds, leads him to an abused wife, a lonely old woman whose husband was killed in the war years earlier, and a struggling athlete who suffers from a lack of self-confidence. The ace of clubs leads him to a priest whose church is threatened by low attendance, a teenaged mother struggling to raise three children, and a pair of brothers whose relationship involves constantly beating and threatening each other. When the ace of spades arrives, one of the three missions leads Ed to information about his mother. The ace of hearts directs him to help out a trio of his friends. Finally, he receives a final card: a joker, upon which is written Ed's own address, directing him to the person who perhaps needs the most help of all. By assisting these people, and in the process helping himself, Ed begins to find a purpose and meaning in life. "This book tells the story of a young man transcending his belief in himself, valuing what he has achieved, and gaining a new outlook on his life. It captures the reader from the first pages, and its incredible ending will astound you," commented Bookloons Web site reviewer J.A. Kaszuba Locke. Ed "transforms from a self-absorbed (although funny and likeable) lout into a genuine hero, reaching out in a beguiling, unsentimental way to the others he's directed to find on the cards he receives," noted TeenReads reviewer Terry Miller Shannon. Matt Berman, writing on the Common Sense Media Web site, mused that I Am the Messenger displays "glimpses of brilliance." Zusak "is a keen observer of the bonds that both connect and stifle relationships," Denise Civelli wrote in the Melbourne Herald Sun, and he is also "gifted in unveiling enchantment in the simple dealings of everyday life."
Survival in the grim world of Nazi Germany forms the background of The Book Thief. Narrated by Death himself, a wry, sometimes sardonic, even bitterly humorous character, the book follows the life of protagonist Liesel Meminger, who finds strength, wisdom, and determination in the pages of fourteen different books she steals throughout her difficult years. At the book's opening, in 1939, nine-year-old Liesel and her six-year-old brother are sent to live with foster parents Hans, a painter and accordion player, and Rosa Huberman in Molching, near Munich. Tragedy strikes during the arduous trip; her brother dies and is buried alongside the train tracks. There, Liesel spies the first book she will ever steal: a gravedigger's manual, dropped by one of the workers who prepared her brother's humble grave. Though she cannot read the book, it provides inexplicable comfort to her and helps her maintain a link to her fading past. Soon, her early trauma brings on nightmares and sleepless nights, during which her foster father teaches her to read. Another time she steals a volume from a pile of books being burned by Nazi soldiers. On another occasion, she is invited into the large library of the town mayor's wife, where she is secretly helped to steal other books. Slowly, through her access to these written works and her own developing intelligence, she begins to become aware of the atrocities going on around her. The family's proximity to Dachau lets her often see wretched columns of Jews being marched off to death. There, she sees a frail old man collapse in the street and a young boy bring him a scrap of bread; she also sees the savage beating that both of them receive at the hands of Nazi soldiers. Soon, Liesel connects the Nazis to her own identity as a German, causing great personal turmoil. She begins to realize the significance of the man whom her father helps hide: Max Vandenburg, a Jewish refugee. As Death tells of the travails and small victories of his grim mission, Liesel matures and begins to realize the power of knowledge, and how it can contribute to freedom even in the atmosphere of the deepest oppression.
"This is a beautifully balanced piece of storytelling with glimpses of what is yet to come: sometimes misleading, sometimes all too true," commented Philip Ardagh in the Manchester Guardian. "Zusak is no apologist, but able to give a remarkable insight into the human psyche." Zusak "succeeds in finding diamonds among the ashes, balancing despair with hope and endurance," commented London Independent critic Christina Hardyment. "Unsettling, thought-provoking, life-affirming, triumphant and tragic, this is a novel of breathtaking scope, masterfully told," Ardagh concluded. "To be sure, The Book Thief attempts and achieves great final moments of tear-jerking sentiment. And Liesel is a fine heroine, a memorably strong and dauntless girl," commented Janet Maslin in the New York Times. The book, Maslin remarked, "will be widely read and admired because it tells a story in which books become treasures. And because there's no arguing with a sentiment like that."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Advertiser (Adelaide, South Australia, Australia), August 18, 2001, "The Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards," p. L19; August 17, 2002, "The Best Children's Books," p. W11; August 16, 2003, "Children's Book of the Year Awards," p. W09.
Age (Australia), September 10, 2005, Peter Pierce, review of The Book Thief.
Booklist, February 15, 2001, Bill Ott, review of Fighting Ruben Wolfe, p. 1129; May 15, 2003, Gillian Engberg, review of Getting the Girl, p. 1656; January 1, 2007, Michael Cart, "'Tis the Season," review of The Book Thief, p. 74.
Daily Telegraph (Surry Hills, New South Wales, Australia), August 23, 2003, Ray Chesterton, interview with Zusak, p. 30.
Guardian (Manchester, England), January 6, 2007, Philip Ardagh, "It's a Steal," review of The Book Thief.
Herald Sun (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia), October 12, 2002, Denise Civelli, review of The Messenger, p. W30.
Horn Book, March, 2001, Peter D. Sieruta, review of Fighting Ruben Wolfe, p. 217; May-June, 2003, Peter D. Sieruta, review of Getting the Girl, p. 360.
Independent (London, England), January 24, 2007, Christina Hardyment, "The Importance of Words in a Situation So Dire, It almost Beggars Description," review of The Book Thief.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2003, review of Getting the Girl, p. 402; December 1, 2006, Jerome Kramer, review of The Book Thief, p. 16.
New York Times, March 27, 2006, Janet Maslin, "Stealing to Settle a Score with Life," review of The Book Thief.
Publishers Weekly, February 26, 2001, review of Fighting Ruben Wolfe, p. 87.
School Library Journal, March, 2001, Edward Sullivan, review of Fighting Ruben Wolfe, p. 258; April, 2003, Janet Hilbun, review of Getting the Girl, p. 171.
Sunday Tasmanian (Hobart, Tasmania, Australia), December 15, 2002, Richard Sprent, review of The Messenger, p. T18.
Time, March 13, 2006, Lev Grossman, "Five Great New Books: Dragons! Lip Gloss! Death! There's Life in Teen Books after Harry Potter," review of The Book Thief, p. 63.
AllReaders.com,http://www.allreaders.com/ (May 16, 2007), Ann Gaines, review of I Am the Messenger.
BookLoons,http://www.bookloons.com/ (May 16, 2007), J.A. Kaszuba Locke, review of I Am the Messenger; J.A. Kaszuba Locke, review of The Book Thief.
BookPage,http://www.bookpage.com/ (May 16, 2007), Linda M. Castellitto, "Markus Zusak's Compelling Appointment with Death," review of The Book Thief.
Common Sense Media,http://www.commonsensemedia.org/ (May 16, 2007), Matt Berman, review of I Am the Messenger.
Contemporary Literature About.com,http://contemporarylit.about.com/ (May 16, 2007), John M. Formy-Duval, review of The Book Thief.
Pan Macmillan Australia Web Site,http://www.panmacmillan.com.au/ (May 16, 2007), "An Interview with Markus Zusak."
Random House Web site,http://www.randomhouse.com/ (May 16, 2007), biography of Markus Zusak.
Scholastic Australia Web Site,http://www.scholastic.com.au/ (May 16, 2007), "Profiles: Markus Zusak."
TeenReads,http://www.teenreads.com/ (May 16, 2007), Tammy L. Currier, interview with Markus Zusak; Terry Miller Shannon, review of I Am the Messenger.