What's it about?
Ed Kennedy, a working class nobody from a rough part of town, is sent a series of cryptic messages that lead him to others in his community who need his help. The tasks he does range from quick and straightforward (e.g. giving a woman an ice cream) to things that any reasonable person would struggle with (murdering a rapist). It's a journey of empathy and of realising what "doing something with your life" might mean.
Who is it for?
Theoretically, it's a YA novel and it's received awards as such. It's noted as having "crossover appeal" but really, this is the perfect example of a book that I think sits right on the cusp of YA and adult fiction. Ed and his friends are navigating those early years of adulthood and looking for an idea of what to do with their lives, but the characters he meets and the problems he solves are certainly not distinctive of "YA" problems. As an adult reading it, in some ways I was glad to be a bit older and more appreciative of the language used, and the messages about social class and empathy are just as relevant.
Would I recommend it?
Would I teach it?
There is so much potential in this book, and certainly there are lesson plans available for it all over the internet. The language is at times stunning, the ideas are poignant - just check out the goodreads quote page. It's a good introduction to metafiction because it's treated gently enough that it doesn't override the story. However, it would need to be an upper ability year 10 class or a year 11 class. If you're not in NSW, it might also be good for year 12, but I'm stuggling to think of an HSC module it would be well suited for as a related text. Besides, I'd want to be able to devote more time to it than that. If you are considering teaching it, be forewarned that you might have parents who disapprove - there's swearing aplenty and as mentioned above, rape (not explicit, but heartbreaking).
Pan Macmillan have teachers notes and a book club reading guide both of which can get you started with ideas.
There's a very detailed unit plan available on scribd.
Zusak is a rare success story with a movie deal and awards overseas. He's not really someone I'd define as a struggling Aussie author in need of more exposure, but that wasn't what the challenge is about. There is a distinctive Australian voice in this. I grew up in Sydney and I could picture the setting perfectly. It's modern, with issues that are relevant to our politics and lifestyle today, and a far cry from the bush style that has long defined Australian literature.