The protagonist of the book, Liesel is also its moral center. Having lost her father because of his Communist sympathies, and soon thereafter her brother and mother, she understands the pain of loss, and these experiences inform her actions and attitudes towards the other characters. When she first comes to live with her foster family, the Hubermanns, Liesel has a hard time trusting or allowing herself to be vulnerable and is characterized more by defensiveness than compassion. But as her foster family and new friends treat her with kindness and gentleness, she opens herself to the pain of others, while learning to express and transform her own pain. Liesel not only cares about specific people in her life such as Hans, Rudy, and Max, she cares about justice in general, and feels frustrated and angry at the injustices perpetuated by Hitler and war. Liesel’s early experiences with loss motivate her, and she is able to channel her anger to stick up for herself as well as others, as when she beats up a classmate for making fun of her, then later protects him when he is hurt at the bonfire.

As she matures, Liesel realizes that most everyone in her life has experienced loss and pain, and she reevaluates people she initially considered weak, such as Ilsa Hermann, with this new understanding. Even though she is a child, Liesel questions the status quo, and creates a moral system for herself rather than blindly following what society dictates. She is motivated both by a strong sense of guilt and a strong ideal of justice. The power of language is a major theme for Liesel, especially as she matures and becomes a more critical thinker. Liesel comes to understand that language can be both a dangerous weapon of control, as with the Nazi propaganda, and a gift that enables her to broaden her view of the world. Through the books she steals, reads, and writes, she evolves from a powerless character to a powerful character who deeply empathizes with the voiceless.

Read about Starr Carter, another protagonist whose growing empathy compels her to stand up for justice in Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give.