Number the Stars is set in 1943 in Copenhagen. King Christian X of Denmark surrendered his land to the German invaders in 1940 because Denmark's army was small and any attempt to match military might with the Nazis would have resulted in destruction and suffering. Even after Copenhagen is occupied by the Nazis, the king continues his habit of riding his horse through the streets of the city every morning, without benefit of a bodyguard. When a Nazi soldier asks a young boy where the king's bodyguards are, the boy replies that all of Denmark is the king's bodyguard. Later, when it becomes apparent that the Nazis plan to relocate the country's Jews, Annemarie says, "Now I think that all of Denmark must be the bodyguard for the Jews, as well."
Across a narrow straight from Denmark is Sweden, which has not yet been invaded by the Nazis. The Johansens' efforts to smuggle Ellen and her family to Sweden in Number the Stars accurately reflect the actions of countless Danes who helped their Jewish neighbors escape the country during World War II.
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In Number the Stars Lowry uses small details to illuminate larger events. A scene as mundane as Mrs. Johansen and Mrs. Rosen sitting and sipping from cups together is transformed when the reader realizes that the two mothers are actually drinking hot water flavored with herbs. There is no coffee, tea, or sugar in wartime Copenhagen, and this shortage is just one of many revealed matter-of-factly through Lowry's prose. The children play with paper dolls cut from old magazines; the men who work with Mr. Johansen roll dried weeds in paper in order to smoke; Mr. Rosen corrects school papers at night by candlelight, because there is no electricity; Kirsti gets new shoes, but they are ugly ones, made out of fish skin rather than leather.
Told in the third person, Number the Stars reflects a child's view of the Nazi occupation of Denmark. To Annemarie, the Nazis are impersonal and inscrutable figures. The first time the reader sees the soldiers it is through Annemarie's eyes: 'There were two of them. That meant two helmets, two sets of cold eyes glaring at her, and four tall shiny boots planted firmly on the sidewalk, blocking her path to home." The image of these "shiny boots" runs throughout the book; the Nazis themselves have no identities of their own. Annemarie realizes that the best defense against the Nazis is the preservation of her own identity and ideals. By remaining true to an innate sense of justice, Annemarie and the other members of...
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Number the Stars is a story that honestly approaches the tragedy of the Holocaust and uses the events of the war to show humanity's potential for courage and decency. In the weeks following the Jewish High Holidays in 1943, nearly seven thousand of Denmark's Jews were smuggled across the sea to Sweden. Lowry does not talk about the Nazi concentration camps or the Jews' struggles elsewhere in Europe. Instead, she chooses to focus on one country—and one particular set of characters—in order to emphasize that ordinary people were involved in the Resistance movement. The Johansens are willing to let Annemarie risk her life to carry the handkerchief to Uncle Henrik. Mother and daughter learn the importance of acting on their beliefs rather than waiting for others to act for them.
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Topics for Discussion
1. Why does Mrs. Rosen tell Annemarie that "it is important to be one of the crowd, always"? Can you think of any times when this advice is not valid?
2. Why is Annemarie so upset that the Nazis have been in her country for three years and still cannot speak her language?
3. Why do Uncle Henrik and Mrs. Johansen pretend that their Great-Aunt Birte has died?
4. How does Uncle Henrik explain bravery to Annemarie? Do you agree with his definition?
5. Why do Peter, the Johansens, and Uncle Henrik risk their own lives to save their Jewish friends?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. It has been said that Kirsti heightens the tension of the book because she is an unpredictable character. Find examples in the text where this is true. Rewrite one of the scenes in the novel—such as the Nazis' search of the Johansen household—from Kirsti's point of view.
2. What role does Denmark's King Christian X play in Number the Stars? Research King Christian and compare Lowry's portrayal with the historical facts that you gather.
3. Research and report on the World War II Resistance movement in another occupied European country, such as France or Austria.
4. Read Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl, the story of a Jewish teenager who is hidden in a Dutch attic during World War II. Compare this real-life story with Lowry's tale. Do you think Number the Stars conveys the horrors of the Holocaust as effectively as Anne's diary? How do the young protagonists, Anne Frank and Annemarie Johansen, compare? What special lessons about courage does Anne teach? What lessons does Annemarie teach?
5. Read one of Lowry's other books for young adults. Compare her writing style in this book with Number the Stars—in particular her creation of compelling characters, and her use of telling details.
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For Further Reference
Haley-James, Shirley. "Lois Lowry." Horn Book 66 (August 1990): 422-424. An inside view of the author, written by a close friend.
Lowry, Lois. "Newbery Medal Acceptance." Horn Book 66 (August 1990): 412-421. Lowry talks about winning the Newbery Award for Number the Stars.
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