Markus Zusak Biography

Markus Zusak was born in 1975 in Sydney, Australia, the youngest of four children of immigrant German and Austrian parents. Neither parent could read or write English when they first arrived in Australia, but they wanted their children to master the language and strongly encouraged them to read and communicate in English from an early age. Zusak began writing fiction at age 16 and pursued a degree in teaching. Before becoming a professional author, Zusak worked briefly as a house painter, a janitor and a high school English teacher.

In 1999, Zusak’s first novel, The Underdog, was published after many initial rejections. It is the first book in a trilogy narrated by Cameron, the youngest child in the working-class Wolfe family. Cameron is the underdog of the title, and the narrative follows his struggle to define himself within his family and society. Cameron and his brother and best friend Ruben were loosely based on Zusak and his own brother. The sequel, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, tells of the brothers’ participation in an illegal boxing ring as a means of supporting their family. The final book in the trilogy, When Dogs Cry (published as Getting the Girl in the United States) examines the complications of loss, death and falling in love.

Zusak’s second and third novels received numerous awards and honors, including the American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults for Fighting Ruben Wolfe and the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Young Adult Fiction for When Dogs Cry.

Zusak followed the Wolfe brothers trilogy with The Messenger (published as I Am the Messenger in the United States) in 2002. It is the story of down-and-out teenage cab driver Ed, who receives cryptic messages via playing cards that direct him to help strangers in need. In the process of deciphering the clues and completing the tasks, he ultimately discovers his own purpose in life. Lauded in Zusak’s native Australia and abroad, the book received the Michael L. Printz Honor and the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Award (Australia) and was named a Bulletin Blue Ribbon Book and a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year.

The Book Thief followed in 2006 and was met with even more critical and popular success. A sympathetically drawn Death narrates the story of orphan Liesel Meminger, who finds friendship and a new family in a small town in Germany during World War II. She also discovers the power of words and books as Hitler’s Nazi agenda threatens to destroy everything she has come to love. Zusak chose the subject matter in part to share the stories his parents told him about growing up in Austria and Germany during the war. The Book Thief was published as a novel for adults in Australia and as a young adult novel in the United States, but Zusak doesn’t draw such distinctions. “What I wanted to do… was write someone’s favorite book,” rather than write for a specific audience, Zusak revealed in an interview. Author John Green reviewed the book in the New York Times, hailing it as “[b]rilliant” and “achingly sad,” and said of the heroine, “[t]he hope we see in Liesel is unassailable, the kind you can hang on to in the midst of poverty and war and violence.”

Zusak received many awards for The Book Thief, including the Michael L. Printz Honor and the Kathleen Mitchell Award (Australia). It was named a Best Book by the School Library Journal and the Young Adult Library Services Association, and was the Editors’ Choice in the Kirkus Review and Booklist. Zusak lives in Sydney, Australia and continues to write fiction.

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