A Literary Larcenist (amongst other things)

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Nine going on ten– that is how old Liesel Meminger is when she steals her first book. The protagonist from the acclaimed novel The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, Liesel grows up in Nazi Germany with her two foster parents and her best friend Rudy, on a downtrodden road in Molching ironically named Himmel Street; Himmel is the German word for heaven, exactly what the street is not. She is the character I have chosen to portray, and I have a few very important reasons why: she is a multidimensional character, neither a perfect role model nor a bad one, and she is exceptionally courageous and assertive.

First, Liesel is not a cookie-cutter, overly ethical central character. She is ultimately tenacious, lionhearted, and bold—the movie tagline is “Courage Beyond Words”—but that does not stop her from being errant and immature along the way. She is after all, the book thief, and doesn’t limit her larceny to just literary works either. Liesel joins a thieving gang with Rudy, and they steal food from the nearby farms. She also breaks into the mayor’s library several times, feeling little to no remorse as a result. This makes her a far more dynamic character. It makes her human. Real.

Second, there are at least eight moments I can think of in which Liesel exhibits remarkable nerve, especially for a young girl. They are, chronologically, as follows: (1) she succeeds in blocking the soccer ball when playing goalie against Rudy, a feat that not one of the boys is able to accomplish. (2) She beats up a boy named Ludwig Schmeikl for calling her stupid. (3) She steals a book from a book burning and conceals it inside her clothing, as a result burning her skin and causing smoke to billow from her shirt. (4) She yells at the mayor’s wife (and insults her) for firing her mother. (5) She stands up against Viktor Chemmel, the cruel leader of a gang of young thieves. (6) She steals a book from the mayor’s library to get revenge for her mother’s unemployment. (7) She gives bread to Jewish prisoners and very nearly gets caught. (8) She walks down the street with Max, a Jewish prisoner whom her father once hid, and after being thrown out of the line by a soldier onto the street, she stands up and gets back in line, and as a result is whipped. These are possibly my favorite moments involving Liesel, because she is resilient and independent, unlike so many female characters in novels and movies who are unable to help themselves. For example, in the book series Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer, the protagonist Bella, far older than Liesel at the beginning of the novel, loses her will to live merely because her boyfriend leaves her. Liesel, on the other hand loses both of her parents and her only brother and has her life uprooted, and she still manages to push on. She has an incredible amount of strength for anyone dealing with her situation, let alone a young girl.

Upon receiving the assignment, I knew almost immediately that I wanted my character to be from a novel, and one of the first to pop into my head was Liesel. Among the others were Hermione from Harry Potter, Katniss from The Hunger Games, and Skeeter from The Help. Despite being from completely different backgrounds, time periods, and stories altogether, these characters have multiple things in common: they are all strong female characters, they all fight against some form of injustice and discrimination, and they are all bravely defiant of certain societal expectations. I admire all of these characters, and I ultimately ended up choosing Liesel over the others admittedly based a lot on aesthetics. As soon as I saw the movie poster for The Book Thief, I was mesmerized, and it is what inspired my photograph. I chose to place Liesel in the middle of the frame, much like the poster. She is holding a book in a graveyard, the first place Liesel ever steals; therefore the location is very important to Liesel’s story, both the one I am telling through the picture and the one Markus Zusak wanted to tell when writing the novel. In addition, the book she is holding is the one that started it all, The Grave Digger’s Handbook, and if it had been visible in the picture, I would have written the title on the cover. In terms of setting, the graveyard is dark, snow-covered, eerie. I wanted the picture to almost look like a painting.

Liesel is several years younger than I am, and although she is courageous and defiant I wanted to give her an appearance of vulnerability and youth. I used braids to make myself look younger than I am and made myself appear slightly disheveled. Liesel is wearing a navy blue blazer a matching skirt, and boots, and she stares half angrily, half dejectedly at the camera. The dark clothing stands out from the snow in the background, making Liesel stand out as well. It is an eye level shot, yet she seems to have an air of power and confidence that a low angle shot would normally imply. She also looks sad, but not hopeless. I considered showing her hunched over, grabbing the book from the ground, or shooting her from a high angle, which would have made her appear smaller to depict her terrible situation. However, I ultimately decided that it was important for me to show Liesel’s resistance against her world instead of the adverse affects it has on her.

This transformation matters for two main reasons, the first being that Liesel’s spirit and audacity are traits I strive for, and the second that she is a staggering example of a female protagonist. Growing up in one of the most terrible times in human history, the Holocaust, Liesel manages to maintain her hope and, except for stealing, her morals, even though she is only a child. Many adults don’t have the strength that she exhibits throughout the story. In addition, while in recent years books with strong female main characters have become more prevalent, such as The Hunger Games, not many have had the overwhelming success that works such as Harry Potter, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and The Giver—which have male protagonists—have. I wanted to portray a female character who is strong-willed and not afraid to back down, unlike the countless damsels in distress in so many novels today and so many novels of the past. She stands up to her male peers and to the Nazi soldiers alike, and she is the one who really takes care of herself. Her adoptive family loves her in their own way, but she stands up for herself, holds herself accountable, and protects those around her.

Liesel, despite her young age, stays true to herself. She is not swayed by threats of watschens (beatings) or worse. Her resolute, steadfast beliefs and conflicting morals make her an extremely compelling character, as do her fearlessness, toughness, and persistence. I wanted to depict a character that matters, not just one who fascinates me or looks pretty on camera, and I think I accomplished that. The photograph, of course, is supposed to be intriguing, but so is the character. Liesel is not just two-dimensional, and through her eyes, the book she holds, and the depressing background there is a sense of mystery, danger, and hope.

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