The majority of the novel takes place in the fictional town of Molching, Germany, near Munich, between 1939 and 1943. Death narrates the story of Liesel Meminger, beginning when she is nine years old and suffering from the death of her brother and separation from her mother. Liesel goes to live with Hans and Rosa Hubermann at 33 Himmel Street in Molching. When Liesel arrives, she can't read and is made fun of in school. She realizes how powerless she is without words, and so Hans, a painter and accordion player, teaches her how to read during midnight lessons in the basement, reading from the book Liesel took from her brother's burial: The Grave Digger's Handbook. During Liesel's early days with the Hubermanns, she has nightmares and Hans sits with her through the night. With his gentle demeanor and his accordion playing, Hans gains Liesel's trust as she grows close to him and comes to associate his presence with safety. She becomes very good friends with Rudy Steiner, the Hubermanns' neighbor. Rudy is constantly trying to get Liesel to kiss him, but she always refuses.
For a while, Himmel Street is a happy place for Liesel. She helps Rosa collect the washing from different wealthy inhabitants of Molching. One house, in particular, catches her attention: 8 Grande Strasse, the home of the mayor and his wife, Ilsa Hermann.
The Nazi Party's presence becomes increasingly apparent in Molching. In addition to the destruction of Jewish shops and yellow stars that have already been painted on door fronts and windows, Liesel and Rudy are required to join the Band of German Girls and Hitler Youth, respectively. To celebrate the Führer's birthday, the people of Molching gather for a bonfire during which they burn enemy propaganda, including books. Liesel sees one book that survives the fire and hides it under her shirt. She's beginning to realize that Hitler is responsible for her brother's death and her mother's absence, and she hates him for it. Ilsa Hermann sees Liesel take the book and decides to share her own love of books with Liesel by inviting her into her library. To Liesel, the library is the most beautiful sight she's ever seen.
Meanwhile, Max Vandenburg, a Jew, is hiding in a storage closet in Stuttgart and receiving help from his friend Walter Kugler. Walter has been in touch with Hans and asks if Hans is willing to keep the promise he made to Max's mother after World War I. It was Erik Vandenburg, Max's father, who saved Hans's life during World War I and taught Hans to play the accordion. Hans promised Frau Vandenburg that if she ever needed something, she could contact him. Hans agrees to hide Max in his basement and sends the key to his house inside the front cover of Mein Kampf, a book written by Hitler. In an ironic twist, it is this book that holds the key to Max's life.
After Max arrives at 33 Himmel Street, Liesel is curious about the man in her basement but also somewhat afraid of him. She begins to realize that they have much in common. They both have nightmares, they both are fist-fighters, and they both have lost their families. They also share the same view of Hans Hubermann, namely that he and his accordion are sources of safety. Liesel does the best she can to bring the outside world to Max, describing the weather to him, bringing him snow, and delivering presents to the foot of his bed when he falls ill. She continues to play with Rudy and go to school, all while keeping Max a secret and listening to his stories about his past at night. Max, too, loves stories and shares these with Liesel.
Max also understands the power of words. For Liesel's birthday, he paints over the pages of Mein Kampf and makes a book for Liesel called The Standover Man. It is the story of his life, how he had to leave his family, about his journey to the Hubermanns, and about Liesel, who has become his friend and watches over him. In addition to his nightmares, Max also starts having daydreams about boxing the Führer, but Hitler always uses his words to incite the crowd and turn the people against Max.
Because most of the people on Himmel Street are struggling for money, Rosa Hubermann loses her washing jobs, including the one for Ilsa Hermann. Meanwhile, Liesel and Rudy join a gang of youths who steal apples and potatoes from farmers. One night, Liesel takes Rudy to the mayor's house and earns her title of book thief when she sneaks in through the window and takes The Whistler from Ilsa Hermann's library.
The summer of 1942 is primarily a happy time for Liesel. She spends it mostly with Hans as he blackens the windows for homes and shops in Molching in preparation for air raids. He tells her stories and plays his accordion, and at one home they even share a glass of champagne with the residents. Rudy continues training for the Hitler Youth carnival where he hopes to win four gold medals like Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics. He wins three, but he gets disqualified from the fourth race, which, he says, he does on purpose.
On another late-night visit to Ilsa Hermann's house, Liesel and Rudy take the Duden Dictionary and Thesaurus, which appears to have been placed by the window as a gift. Liesel finds a letter inside from Frau Hermann, saying that Liesel is welcome to come in the front door, too.
Shortly after these somewhat lighthearted days, the air raids begin. Liesel and her family, along with Rudy and his family, take shelter in the Fiedlers' basement because they've been told their basement is not deep enough to protect them from the bombings. They must leave Max behind. On one occasion in the Fiedlers' basement, Liesel begins to read from The Whistler. Everyone gathers around her and the words calm them as they calm Liesel. Those in the basement stay even after the all-clear signal has been given to hear the end of the chapter. Liesel realizes that books are her accordion.
Parades of Jews come through Molching on their way to Dachau. Liesel sees their suffering, and Hans tries to help one of them. Because of Hans's actions, they must send Max away because Hans is afraid the Gestapo will come to search their house. The Gestapo never comes for him, though; instead, they come for Rudy to offer him a place in a special school. The Steiners refuse. Eventually, both Hans and Alex Steiner are punished for their actions. Hans is sent to serve with the LSE, an air raid unit, in Stuttgart, and Alex goes to Vienna, Austria, to serve at an army hospital. Himmel Street becomes a very forlorn place.
Rosa gives Liesel a book called The Word Shaker, which Max made for her. It contains many of Max's stories, thoughts, and sketches. The fable about the word shaker catches Liesel's attention. In it, Max describes a girl who is able to use words like some of Hitler's most skilled word shakers, but she uses her words to help her friend and remove small bits of hate from a forest dominated by cruelty. Her words are for good, not for evil.
Meanwhile, Hans Hubermann avoids a fatal accident while on an LSE truck. Reinhold Zucker, who holds a grudge against Hans because of a card game loss, takes Hans's usual seat on the truck and dies in the accident. Hans gets a broken leg and is sent home.
In 1943, the Jews continue to march through Molching, and Liesel always looks for Max. One day, she sees him and runs to him, but a Nazi soldier tosses her from the parade. She gets up and enters the parade again, reciting words from The Word Shaker. She is whipped, and Rudy has to hold her down to keep her from going back for more punishment. Afterward, Liesel finally tells Rudy about Max Vandenburg.
Liesel returns to Frau Hermann's library and becomes angry with the words, how they can fill her up, but can also bring so much hate to so many people. She tears the pages from a book and then writes a note to Frau Hermann to apologize and say that she won't come back. Three days later, Ilsa Hermann shows up at Liesel's front door and gives her a black journal so that she can write the words of her own story.
Then, in October 1943, bombs fall on Himmel Street while everyone sleeps. Liesel, though, sits in the basement writing her story in her journal. She survives. When she emerges from the basement, she finds the bodies of those she loves — her Mama and Papa, as well as Rudy, whom she kisses on the lips. She is taken away by air raid officers, and it is at this moment that Death finds and takes her book, The Book Thief. This is how he knows her story.
Ilsa Hermann and the mayor collect Liesel from the police station and take her home with them. Alex Steiner is relieved of duty after he hears about the bombings and finds Liesel. She tells him about Rudy, about kissing him. They spend a lot of time together, going for walks and hiking to Dachau after its liberation. She spends a lot of time with Alex in his shop, and one day, in 1945, Max Vandenburg shows up. They have a reunion mixed with much happiness and great sadness.
Death ends the story by telling us about Liesel Meminger's death, how she lived a long life in Sydney with her husband, three children, and many grandchildren. When Death goes to collect her, he sets her down so they can walk together for a while. He shows her The Book Thief and wants to ask her so many questions about humans. He cannot understand them, how they can contain so much lightness and darkness. He doesn't ask these things, though. All he can tell her is that humans haunt him.