Death introduces himself as the narrator of the novel. The first time he saw the book thief, he says, was on a train. The next time he saw her was when he came for a pilot who had crashed his plane. And the third time was after a bombing. He associates a color with each sighting: white, red, and black, the colors of the Nazi flag. Death then begins the story. Liesel, her mother, and her brother Werner are traveling on a train to Munich when Werner suddenly dies. Liesel and her mother get off the train to bury the body, and Liesel steals a book from one of the gravediggers. She and her mother continue their journey to a town called Molching, where Liesel will be raised by foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. At first Liesel doesn’t like her foster parents, but Hans wins her over by teaching her to roll cigarettes for him.
Slowly, Liesel adjusts to her new life, though she is plagued by nightmares of her dead brother. She meets and befriends a neighborhood boy named Rudy, who worships the American athlete Jesse Owens and constantly pesters Liesel to kiss him. When Hans discovers that Liesel doesn’t know how to read, he begins teaching her the alphabet, and together they make their way through the book Liesel stole from the gravedigger. Meanwhile, the political situation in Molching and throughout Germany is becoming serious, with war escalating and food and work shortages at home. When the town holds a book-burning to celebrate Hitler’s birthday, Liesel steals another book from the flames.
Liesel begins delivering laundry for Rosa. One of Rosa’s customers is the mayor’s wife, Ilsa Hermann. One day Liesel is invited into Ilsa Hermann’s study, where she marvels at the walls of books. Frau Hermann allows her to read in the study. Meanwhile, in Stuttgart, a German Jew named Max hides in a closet with no food, light, or water. A friend brings him false identity papers and a map hidden in MKPF, Hitler’s autobiography. Max leaves the closet and takes the train to the Hubermanns’ house. Hans, we learn, served with Max’s father in World War I. After Max’s father died, Hans promised Max’s mother he would always help her. When Max arrives in Molching, Hans and Rosa hide him in the basement. As he recovers from his ordeal, he and Liesel become friends, and Max writes her a book on the painted-over pages of MKPF.
Frau Hermann tells Liesel she can’t afford to send out the laundry anymore. Liesel is furious because her family is already struggling to survive and the Hermanns have so much. With Rudy’s help, Liesel begins sneaking into the Hermanns’ library and stealing books. For Christmas, Liesel builds Max a snowman in the basement. When Max gets sick and falls into a coma, Hans and Rosa worry about how they will dispose of the corpse if he dies. After months, Max recovers. Nazi soldiers arrive and inspect the basement to see if it is deep enough for a bomb shelter. Luckily, they don’t see Max. Liesel continues stealing books from the Hermanns’ library. Frau Hermann leaves her a dictionary and thesaurus with a note saying she knows Liesel has been stealing from her. At a Hitler Youth carnival, Rudy wins three races. The Allies begin bombing near Molching, and the people on Liesel’s block must take shelter in a neighbor’s basement. With each raid, Liesel reads to them until it’s safe to exit. Max, meanwhile, has to stay in the Hubermanns’ basement by himself.
As the war intensifies, Nazi soldiers begin parading Jewish prisoners through town on their way to the concentration camp at Dachau. When Hans sees an old man struggling to keep up with the group, he gives him a piece of bread. Nazi soldiers intervene and whip both the man and Hans. Hans realizes he has aroused suspicion and drawn attention to himself, and Max is no longer safe in the basement. That night, Max leaves Hans and Rosa’s house. Hans waits for soldiers to come take him away, but none do. Instead, they come to Rudy’s house, to recruit him for a school for future Nazi leaders. Rudy’s father, Alex, refuses to let his son go. The soldiers leave, but a few days later both Alex and Hans are drafted into the German army. After Alex and Hans leave for duty, Rudy and Liesel go to the next parade of Jews and scatter bread in the streets. Rosa gives Liesel a book that Max made for her called “The Word Shaker.” It is the story of Max and Liesel’s friendship, and promises they will be reunited some day.
Hans is sent to Essen, where he is part of a squad that cleans up after air raids. Another member of the squad takes a dislike to Hans, and one day he insists they change places on their work bus. The bus crashes and the other man is killed, while Hans merely breaks his leg. Hans gets sent home to recuperate. Following another air raid, Liesel and Rudy find an Allied fighter pilot who has crashed his plane. They arrive just in time to see him die. Death sees Liesel for the second time when he comes to collect the pilot’s soul. The Nazis continue to parade the Jews through Molching, and Liesel sees Max among the prisoners. Liesel tells Rudy about hiding Max. She had never told anyone before.
The mayor’s wife gives Liesel a blank notebook so she can begin writing her own story. One night, while Liesel is in the basement editing her book, her neighborhood is bombed. Hans, Rosa, Rudy, and the rest of the neighbors are killed. When rescue workers pull Liesel out of the rubble, she finds Rudy’s corpse and gives him the kiss he always wanted. When the workers take her away, she leaves behind her finished book, called “The Book Thief.” Death, who has been watching, rescues the book. Liesel goes to live with the mayor and his wife. After the liberation of the concentration camps, Max returns to Molching and finds Liesel. They hug and cry together. Liesel eventually grows up and moves to Australia, where she has a family and lives to an old age. When Death finally comes to take her soul, he shows her the book she wrote so many years before.