Number the Stars by Lois LowryThe Lord is rebuilding Jerusalem;
he gathers in the scattered sons of Israel.
It is he who heals the broken in spirit
and binds up their wounds,
he who numbers the stars one by one… (from Psalm 147)
The Holocaust is a very sensitive topic; it’s not easily addressed at a child’s level and isn’t always done successfully. Children’s Literature Review explains: “Holocaust children’s literature has always been controversial. Though some feel that the subject matter is inappropriate for young audiences, others argue that children must be educated about such a significant historical event.” Lois Lowry’s historical fiction work, Number the Stars, is one of the more successful books to achieve this.
In a well-written children’s story, the child becomes involved in the characters and plot of the story, and identifies with the situations that take place. When conflicts and dilemmas arise, the reader is challenged to consider, “What are the options? What would I do in this situation? What if…?” As the character faces moral choices and experiences the results of cause and effect, the reader’s reasoning skills and understanding of self is strengthened. A common source of conflict in many fictional stories is that a primary character observes a wrong-doing or injustice and must decide what, if anything, he or she should do about it. When the author chooses a historical incident or situation, the story can be further used to analyze why such occurrences took place and what steps an individual or society can take to prevent such from happening again. Number the Stars uses this type of conflict as central to the plot.
When ten-year-old Annemarie Johansen learns that the Jews in her homeland of Denmark are being threatened, she doesn’t understand why they should be treated differently than non-Jews. When the story opens, it has been three years since the occupation of Denmark by the German Nazis, and while she doesn’t like it, Annemarie has grown accustomed to the presence of soldiers. Although Denmark has been invaded by Germany, the threats to the Jewish people begin slowly and subtly. It becomes evident to the Johansens that the Jews are in danger when they learn that the button shop is closed. Annemarie is a bright and curious little girl. She is very observant and quick to notice when something appears to be wrong. Annemarie asks, “Is Mrs. Hirsch a Jew? Is that why the button shop is closed?…What harm is a button shop? Mrs. Hirsch is such a nice lady.” In her mind, only people who are “harmful” should be punished or sent away. Annemarie comes from a strong, loving family from which she has learned to have respect and compassion for her fellow man.
Peter explains, “For some reason, [the Germans] want to torment Jewish people.” It occurs to Annemarie that if perfectly nice, harmless people can be hurt by the Germans simply for being Jewish, then her friends the Rosens may be in danger as well. Immediately upon realizing this, Annemarie wants to help and remarks, “All of Denmark must be body guard for the Jews.”
The Johansens show compassion for the Rosens when they realize they are in danger, and they take the necessary action to help them. Later Annemarie demands to know why Jews are being arrested, and her father replies, “We only know that it is wrong, and it is dangerous, and we must help.”
Annemarie is generally kind and sensitive to others. She tries to be outwardly positive and comforting, even when she may inwardly be worried. After the first confrontation depicted in the story with the soldiers, Annemarie tries to protect her mother from unnecessary concern. She tells her mother, “Don’t worry. It wasn’t anything,” then tries to make light of it and tells her mother that her sister Kirsti was exaggerating the incident. The night her friend Ellen comes to stay with the Johansens, Annemarie also tries to reassure Ellen that the soldiers will probably not come at all.
Annemarie leaned over and hugged Ellen. “They won’t take you away,” she said. “Not your parents, either. Papa promised that they were safe, and he always keeps his promises. And you are quite safe, here with us.”
Although she tries to act brave for the sake of others, she is not confident that she would be able to be brave if faced with danger. As she thinks of the Rosens, she wonders to herself, “Would she die to protect them? Truly? Annemarie was honest enough to admit…that she wasn’t sure…she was glad to be an ordinary person who would never be called upon for courage.” During the course of the story, Annemarie’s parents are examples to her of brave risk-taking in the face of danger. Although she doubts her own courage, Annemarie is willing and able to face the risks in order to save those who are in danger and need help. Of course, the time does come when Annemarie finds herself in a dangerous situation in which she must remain calm, think quickly, and carry out the important mission she is sent on.
Throughout history, there have been brave people willing to stand, speak, and fight against injustice and do what they can to stop it. Lowry shares this excerpt from a letter written by a young member of the Danish Resistance:
I want you all to remember – that you must not dream yourselves back to the times before the war, but the dream for you all, young and old, must be to create an ideal of human decency, and not a narrow minded and prejudiced one. That is the great gift our country hungers for, something every little peasant boy can look forward to…something he can work and fight for.
A person may not always be able defeat the enemy, but by reading stories like these, children may be inspired to care about those who are suffering from injustice and encouraged to make a difference in society.
While the characters in Number the Stars are fictional, they are based on real people and events that took place during the time of the Nazi invasions. Presenting historical incidents from a child’s perspective enables the young reader to identify with the character and his or her circumstances. This is especially true when the story’s characters share the same ethnic or cultural background as the reader. Lowry’s story gives children a greater awareness and understanding of what life was like during such a difficult time in history. But her purpose goes further than that. The truth about the Jewish Holocaust has been denied and suppressed by some. Lowry claims she is often asked the question, “Why do we have to tell this Holocaust thing over and over? Is it really necessary?” to which her German daughter-in-law responds, “No one knows better than we Germans that we must tell this again and again.”
There are many who would like to forget the horrors of the past. It would be more comfortable. In fact, it would be more convenient for everyone if the world were devoid of hatred, prejudice and violence, but as Lowry stated in her Newbery acceptance speech, “We can’t live in a walled world, in an ‘only us, only now’ world.” There is a benefit to becoming aware of these aspects of life. After all, without experiencing pain, one cannot know comfort; without seeing prejudice, one cannot appreciate justice; without feeling fear, one can never understand peace.
Unfortunately, social problems such as prejudice and violence will always exist. Fiction gives children a safe setting in which to confront, discuss, and understand such issues. Ultimately, such reading can be useful in equipping them with a healthy appreciation for the diversity of humanity and in enabling them to extinguish prejudice in their own spheres of influence.
I would recommend Number the Stars for ages 9-13. I have taught it a couple of times in a literature circle. It is a good way to introduce the topic of the Holocaust to children without going into graphic detail. It also provides a good opportunity to discuss the value of all life, regardless of race, color, or religious beliefs, and the importance of protecting and helping anyone whose life is threatened.
Related Sites & Articles
- Lois Lowry’s Website (www.loislowry.com)
- Lois Lowry’s Newbery Award Acceptance Speech
- Number the Stars Webquest (questgarden.com)
- Spotlight on Author Lois Lowry (childrensbooks.about.com)
- The Only Occupied European Country to Save Its Jews From the Nazis Recognizes Palestine – Google It! (my.firedoglake.com)
- Reflections on A Force More Powerful: Danish Resistance to the Nazi Occupation (metapeaceteam.wordpress.com)