Death introduces himself as the narrator and describes the three times he saw "the book thief." The story begins with Liesel, her mother, and her brother Werner riding on a train. Werner dies and Liesel and her mother disembark to bury him. At the funeral Liesel finds a book called The Grave Digger's Handbook in the snow, but she doesn't know how to read. Liesel's mother drops her off in Molching, where Liesel moves in with foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. Rosa is loud and insulting, but Hans wins Liesel's trust through his gentleness and support.
Liesel has nightmares of her dead brother nightly, but Hans sits with her and comforts her. She meets a boy named Rudy Steiner who idolizes the athlete Jesse Owens, and they become best friends. Rudy constantly asks Liesel to kiss him, but she always refuses. Hans discovers Liesel's book and starts giving her reading lessons in the basement. Meanwhile World War II begins, and Molching has a book-burning to celebrate Hitler's birthday. Liesel steals a book from the fire. She is sure the mayor's wife sees her steal it.
Rosa does the laundry for a number of wealthy townspeople, including the Mayor. On a day soon after the book burning, Liesel has to deliver the laundry to the mayor's wife, Ilsa Hermann. Ilsa invites Liesel into her library and Liesel is amazed at the books. She returns many times to read.
Meanwhile, a young Jewish boxer named Max Vandenburg hides in a storage room for weeks. A friend brings him an identity card hidden in a copy of Mein Kampf, Hitler's book. Max travels to Molching and finds the Hubermanns. Death explains that Max's father Erik saved Hans's life in World War I, and Hans promised to help Max's mother should she ever need it. The Hubermanns let Max in and hide him in the basement, where he starts to imagine boxing with Hitler. Max and Liesel share nightmares and soon become friends. Max paints over the pages of Mein Kampf and writes a book called The Standover Man for Liesel.
Ilsa Hermann quits the laundry service, and Liesel insults her. Later Liesel returns with Rudy and they start stealing books from Ilsa's library. Max gets sick and falls into a coma, but he finally recovers to the joy of the household. Nazi Party members check the basement for its ability to serve as a bomb shelter, but don't notice Max hiding there. Ilsa Hermann, meanwhile, leaves Liesel a note in one of the stolen books and Liesel realizes that Ilsa is letting her steal the books. The war escalates and there is an air raid in Molching, and the Hubermanns have to leave Max in the basement. At the next raid Liesel reads out loud to the others in the shelter.
Soldiers parade Jewish prisoners through Molching on their way to a concentration camp. Hans, moved to pity, gives an old Jewish man a piece of bread and gets whipped. Max leaves that night, not wanting to get the family in any more trouble. The Gestapo come to recruit Rudy for an elite Nazi school, but Alex Steiner refuses to let him go. Soon, both Hans and Alex are drafted into the army. Rudy and Liesel leave bread on the street for the next parade of Jews. Rosa gives Liesel Max's sketchbook, which includes a story called The Word Shaker, about the power of words and Max's friendship with Liesel.
In the army, Hans is assigned to a squad that cleans up after bombings, but his bus crashes. Hans breaks his leg, and he is allowed to return home to heal. An Allied pilot crashes during another raid and Liesel and Rudy watch the pilot die. There are more parades of Jews, and one day Liesel sees Max among them. They find each other and both are whipped. Liesel goes to the mayor's library and rips up books in her frustration.
Ilsa Hermann gives Liesel a notebook so she can write her own story. Liesel starts writing a book called The Book Thief in the basement. Just after she finishes, but while she is still reading it in the basement of her house, the neighborhood is bombed. Hans, Rosa, Rudy, and the other residents of Himmel Street all die. Workers rescue Liesel and she finds Hans's accordion and then her parents' bodies. She kisses Rudy's corpse. Death rescues The Book Thief from a garbage truck.
Liesel goes home with Ilsa Hermann and is later reunited with Max. Liesel moves to Australia and grows to be an old woman with a family. Death comes for her soul and shows her The Book Thief, and tells her that humans haunt him.