Synopsis:In April 1938, a voice representing the Angel of Death, tells about how the young Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) has piqued his interest. Liesel is traveling on a train with mother and younger brother when her brother dies. At his burial she picks up a book that has been dropped by his graveside. Liesel is then delivered to foster parents Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) Hubermann, because her mother, a Communist, is in danger. When she arrives, Liesel makes an impression on a neighbor boy, Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch).
Rudy accompanies her on her first day of school. When the teacher asks Liesel to write her name on the chalkboard, she is only able to write three 'X's, showing that she doesn't know how to read. Later that day, she is taunted by her schoolmates who chant "dummkopf". One of the boys, Franz Deutscher, challenges her to read just one word to which Liesel responds by beating him up. She impresses Rudy and they become fast friends. When Hans, her stepfather, realizes that Liesel cannot read, he begins to teach her, using the book that she took from the graveside. Liesel becomes obsessed with reading anything she can get her hands on.
World War II breaks out and Liesel and Rudy become members of the Hitler Youth movement. While at a Nazi book burning ceremony, Liesel and Rudy are bullied into throwing books onto the bonfire by Franz, but Liesel is upset at all the books being burned. When the bonfire ends and everyone but she has left, she grabs a book that has not been burned. She is seen by Ilsa Hermann, the mayor's wife. Hans discovers that she has taken the book and tells her she must keep it a secret from everyone. One day, Rosa, her stepmother asks Liesel to take the laundry to the mayor's house. Liesel realizes that the woman who saw her taking the book is the mayor's wife and she is scared she will be found out. Instead, Ilsa takes her into their library and tells Liesel she can come by anytime and read as much as she'd like. One day Liesel is found reading by the mayor who not only puts a stop to her visits but dismisses Rosa as their laundress. Liesel continues to "borrow" books from the mayor's library by climbing through a window.
There is a night of violence against the Jews (known historically as Kristallnacht). Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer) and his mother, who are Jewish, are told by a friend that one of them (but only one) can escape and Max's mother forces him to go. Max goes to the Hubermann's house where Rosa and Hans give him shelter. Max is the son of the man who saved Hans' life in World War I. Max is initially allowed to stay in Liesel's room while recovering from his trip and they begin to become friends over their mutual hatred of Hitler, as Liesel blames Hitler for taking her mother away. Max is later moved to the basement so he can move around more, but it is colder in the basement and Max becomes dangerously ill. Liesel helps Max recover by reading to him with every spare moment.
One day while borrowing a book from the mayor's home, Liesel is followed by Rudy. He discovers the secret of the books, and also the secret of Max whose name he reads on a journal that Max gave to Liesel for Christmas. Rudy guesses that her family is hiding someone and he swears to never tell anyone. Franz overhears them and confronts them about their secret. Rudy is forced to throw the journal into the river to keep it away from Franz. After Franz has gone, Rudy plunges into the icy river to rescue the journal and Liesel realises that she can truly trust him. Soon a local party member comes by to check the Hubermann's basement and they have to hide Max. However, they are told that their basement was being checked as a potential bomb shelter and realize they weren't suspected of harboring a fugitive.
While working one day, Hans sees a neighbor and friend being taken away by the police because they say he is really a Jew. Hans tries to tell the police that the man is a good German but his name is taken by them and he realizes what a mistake he has made, as this has made them visible. He tells the family and Max realizes he must leave in order to protect them. Hans then receives a telegram that he has been conscripted into the army and must leave immediately.
On the way home from school one day, Liesel believes she has seen Max in a line of Jews being led on their way to a death camp, being marched through their town, and she begins screaming his name, walking through the line. She is thrown off the street twice by a German soldier and finally relents when Rosa picks her up and takes her home. Within a few days, Hans returns from the front because he was injured in a bomb that hit his unit's truck. The family is reunited only for a short time though as one night the city is bombed and no air raid siren alerts the citizens. Hans, Rosa and Rudy's family, excluding his father who has joined the Army, have been killed in the blast. Liesel was spared from the bombing by falling asleep in the basement while writing in the journal given to her by Max. Rudy is brought out of his house by neighbors and he is barely alive. He begins to tell Liesel that he loves her but he dies before he can finish the sentence. Liesel begs him to not die, telling him that she will give him that kiss he has been asking for and actually kisses him, but he has already died. During this scene, the Angel of Death is heard speaking again about how he received the souls of the dead.
Two years later, Liesel is seen working in a tailor shop of Rudy's father, who has returned safely from the war. She looks up to see Max enter and she runs to hug him. The final scene is the Angel of Death speaking again about Liesel's life and her death at the age of 90, mentioning her husband, children and grandchildren, as we look over her apartment with pictures in her past and a portrait of her which continues to zoom in; it is not stated whom did she marry. The Angel of Death says that he has seen many good and bad things over the years, but Liesel is one of the few that ever made him wonder how it would be to live life. But in the end, there were no words, only peace. Lastly, Death says that the only truth it knows is true is that he "is haunted by humans."