Monday, July 14, 2008

Genre #5: Historical Fiction - NUMBER THE STARS

Bibliographic Data:

Lowry, Lois. 1989. Number the Stars. New York: Dell Publishing. ISBN 0440403278

Plot Summary:

In this book, two young girls come face to face with the horrors and destruction of Nazism as they endure the Nazi occupation of their home in Copenhagen, Denmark. Set in 1943, Annemarie Johansen and her friend Ellen Rosen try to live a normal life, though the German soldiers in the streets and the closing of Jewish businesses make them realize that life is not normal.

While Ellen is staying with Annemarie one night, the soldiers come searching for Danish Jews. Annemarie is determined to spare her friend, a Jew, so the family convinces the soldiers that Ellen is one of their daughters. After this tense situation, the family recognizes even more the importance of getting the family out of Copenhagen. To do this, Annemarie takes a perilous journey traveling to her Uncle Henrik’s boat, carrying with her a package containing a handkerchief that helps keep the soldiers and their dogs from discovering the true plan of this family and others involved in the resistance movement – to evacuate Jews from Denmark to safety in nearby Sweden.

Critical Analysis:

This book presents a detailed and moving account of what life was like in Denmark in 1943 as the Nazi occupation spread. The characters of Annemarie and Ellen and those of their family members bring this historical time period to life as the reader is able to feel what it would have been like to have grown up in such terrifying circumstances. While in the midst of so many unknowns, Annemarie and Ellen continue their friendship and try to do regular activities, thus allowing the reader to get a glimpse of these young girls’ friendship. The initial childhood innocence of these two characters paves the way for the almost unexpected dramatic events of the book, reflecting the ways in which life under the Nazis could change so dramatically and quickly.

The plot moves along simply, despite the deep and complex subject matter it is covering. Lowry’s incorporation of dialogue and details add to the depth of the characters and the setting, allowing the plot to move without hesitation or questioning. Also, the subject matter and the development of suspense and intrigue through Annemarie and her parents’ actions as they work at getting people to Uncle Henrik’s boat keeps the plot moving as the reader is aware of the seriousness and the complexity of the situation at hand.

With references to specific places in Denmark (i.e. public square at Ryvangen, the corner of Osterbrogade), the setting of the novel is emphasized and becomes a crucial part of the story. Annemarie’s observations of the houses, apartments, and even the path to the coast reiterate what life was like in Denmark in the 1940s.

Like many other historical fiction works set during the time of the Holocaust, Number the Stars has a timeless message that reflects the goodness of many people and their selfless acts during times of horrible circumstances. While the details of the novel focus on two fictional girls and their friendship in the midst of an awful time in history, the dialogue and the actions taken by the characters highlight the importance of standing up for what you believe in and staying true to your friends.

At the end of the book, Lowry includes an Afterword that discusses how she embraced the facts of this time in history and meshed them with her craft as a fiction writer. She alludes to specific events that occured in history and highlights the characters and details that she created to expand upon these historical events. Ultimately, Lowry balances historical information about the Nazi resistance in Denmark with engaging characters that embody friendship and family life during wartime. These things create a work of authentic historical fiction that invites readers to understand more deeply the events of this time period.

Review excerpts:

Newbery Award Medal Winner

Starred review from Booklist – “Lowry tells her story well, fashioning a tense climax…”

Starred review from School Library Journal – “[A story of] Denmark and the Danish people, whose Resistance was so effective in saving their Jews.”

Horn Book – “The whole work is seamless, compelling, and memorable – impossible to put down; difficult to forget.”

Personal Reaction:

This book was inspiring as it painted another picture of the hundreds of people who risked their own lives and safety to further the safety of those who were persecuted by the Nazis. Annemarie’s story and her dedication to her friendship with Ellen is an emotional one, as it is so difficult to imagine what these two girls had to endure during their childhood.


· Discuss Annemarie and Ellen’s friendship. Would you have been able to risk that much for a friend? Why or why not?

· Read more about the Danish resistance at

· Watch the film “Miracle at Midnight” to explore more about the resistance movement in Denmark.

· Research other countries that fell to Nazi occupation and discover other resistance movements that saved people’s lives.

Related Readings

The Holocaust

Anne Frank: Beyond the Diary by Ruud van der Rol

Darkness Over Denmark: The Danish Resistance and the Rescue of the Jews by Ellen Levine

Children in the Holocaust and World War II: Their Secret Diaries by Laurel Holliday

Children of the Resistance by Lore Cowan

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