In all of his nineteen years, Ed Kennedy, a lonely incompetent cab driver, has grown up with not much to look forward to. He spends most of his time sulking in his broken down shack with his coffee-drinking, decrepit dog. When he’s not doing that, he’s arguing with a mom who doesn’t love him, playing cards with his equally washed up friends, or trying to deny that he is madly in love with his best friend, Audrey. This all changes, though, the day that he is portrayed as a hero who is able to stop a bank robbery. Soon after, Ed receives an anonymous playing card in the mail with a mysterious message, one that inspires him to come out of his shell and approach those in need of help. As Ed continues to receive playing cards from this unknown messenger, each with its own cryptic missive, he is not only challenged to positively change the lives of others, but also to find meaning in his own existence. In the end, the messenger’s identity is revealed, and Ed gets the opportunity to look back at all of the good he has caused in the lives that he was courageous enough to change. In that reflection, his life purpose is realized.
Zusak’s writing and character development stand out and will draw readers in. Knowing that intermediate grade readers generally “enjoy reading about protagonists who are a year or two older than they are,” Zusak does an excellent job of creating a protagonist of an appropriate age who has a very conversational, relatable voice (Vardell 2008, p. 140). Because the novel’s theme revolves around the lessons that Ed, the protagonist, learns, it is very appropriate that Zusak chooses to use his voice to make it happen. As Booklist states, “Two particular elements will keep readers enthralled: the panoply of characters who stream in and out of the story, and the mystery of the person sending Ed on the life-altering missions.”
Another brilliant element that stands out in this novel is Zusak’s use of italics and differing fonts to draw reader’s attention to key moments in the book. Italics are mainly used to emphasize important thoughts that Ed thinks to himself while different fonts are saved for notes passed between characters or the code written on the playing cards. For example, on page 77, as Ed experiences the violence on Edgar Street for the very first time, he speaks to himself, saying The door […] Go to the door – it’s open. This is a powerful moment in the novel and one that is well suited for the use of italics.
Contemporary realistic fiction books like this one can be subject to controversy and book challenges. As Vardell states, “Book characters may be coping with the death of a loved one, the divorce of parents, and family separations, personal sexuality issues, physical, mental, or emotional disabilities, war, and persecution, and other real life crises that touch us all in one way or another (Vardell 2008, p. 150). This is certainly true with the main character, Ed Kennedy. Before the plot of the book takes shape, readers learn that Ed’s father has died of alcoholism, that he has a strained relationship with his mother, and that his emotional and psychological health has reached unhealthy levels. Throughout Zusak’s writing, readers also learn that Ed has completely lost sight of the purpose in his life and struggles with everyday emotional and sexual demons. Publishers Weekly adds that “graphic situations (both violent and sexual) mark this as a book for more sophisticated readers.” Although all of these things have caused controversy among cautious parents at times, one would be hard pressed to argue against the notion that Zusak’s authorial voice is one of the most compelling in young adult literature.
With the movie release of Markus Zusak’s most popular book, The Book Thief, now would be a great time to introduce readers to all of the other books Zusak has written. This could be done in a display or a poster in the Young Adult section of the library. Biographical and book information is available on his Facebook page and an in-depth interview about his ideas and motivations is available at http://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/mar/28/ whyiwrite.
Facebook. 2013. “Marcus Zusak” Accessed December 3, 2013. https://www.facebook.com /MarkusZusak
Kinson, Sarah. 2008. “Series – Why I Write.” Accessed December 3, 2013. http://www.the guardian.com /books/2008/mar/28/whyiwrite
Vardell, Sylvia. 2008. Children’s Literature in Action: A Librarian’s Guide. Westport: Libraries.
Zusak, Marcus. 2002. I Am the Messenger. New York: Random House, Inc. ISBN 978-0375836671