Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

“The whole world had changed. Only the fairy tales remained the same.”

I love love love historical novels and to discover one written so well for children is a real find!

Number the Stars is a novel about a young girl’s contribution to the resistance movement in Denmark during World War 11.

Set in 1943, when the Nazis occupied Denmark, 10-year-old Annemarie Johansen is asked to perform a heroic deed and help her uncle to smuggle Danish Jews across the sea to Sweden, where they will be safe. She has already lost her older sister, Lise, in the Danish Resistance, and now her best friend, Ellen Rosen, is in danger too.

The Johansen family look after Ellen, while her parents are relocated somewhere outside of Copenhagen. When it becomes clear that the Danish Jews aren’t safe, Mrs. Johansen takes her children and Ellen to Uncle Henrik’s house on the coast. Until now, Annemarie has accepted the secrets and unusual silence of her parents, but when it falls upon her to deliver a mysterious packet to Uncle Henrik’s fishing boat, she conquers her fears and learns the real meaning of courage.

Lois Lowry weaves together strong themes of bravery and family to demonstrate the power of small acts of heroism. Annemarie has strong role models and these help her to be brave when she needs to be. She admires the Rosens for their strong family traditions and religious beliefs, which they continue to practice until the day they are forced to leave their Copenhagen apartment.

This book is great with upper KS2 classes and always opens up thoughtful discussions and debates; I’ve read it with several classes during my years of teaching and have always been impressed by the quality and depth of discussions with children.

Good themes and questions to explore are:

How can one person make a difference? What is bravery?

What is prejudice and why does it exist? What is the significance of Ellen’s Star of David necklace?

How important is trust?

“It is much easier to be brave if you don’t know everything.” Debate which characters demonstrate bravery and how they do this. Discuss how the Johansen’s bravery contributes to the courage of the Rosen family.

Describe Annemarie’s responsibility to herself, her family, and the Rosens. How do Uncle Henrik and Mrs. Johansen communicate their trust in Annemarie and instil in her a sense of responsibility?

Ask students to discuss how Ellen’s Star of David necklace symbolises hope. Discuss the significance of Lise’s yellow dress as a hiding place for Ellen’s necklace. How do the citizens of Denmark offer hope to their Jewish friends and neighbours?

Explore the role of fairy tales in the novel. For example, discuss how Annemarie uses the story of Little Red Riding Hood to give her courage to deliver the packet to Uncle Henrik. Who is the wolf? Little Red Riding Hood? The Grandmother? What represents the basket? What is the symbolism of the woods?

And above all … enjoy the book. After writing this, I’m going to have to go and reread it myself!

Vicky Windross


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