This historical fiction book by Lois Lowry is published by Dell Publishing, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, which has become an imprint of Random House. It is also published by Sandpiper, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
Number the Stars is written for kids ages 9 and up. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
It's 1943, and the Johansens live in a small apartment in German-occupied Copenhagen, Denmark. Ten-year-old Annemarie Johansen and her best friend, Ellen Rosen, who is Jewish, are frightened by the soldiers who stand guard on every street corner. Annemarie's little sister, Kirsti, is bolder and scolds the soldiers who question them on their way home from school. The soldiers' threatening presence becomes more sinister when the Rosens learn that the Nazis intend to relocate Denmark's Jewish population. Ellen's parents go into hiding, and Ellen poses as Annemarie's sister Lise, who died in a car accident earlier in the war.
The first night of Ellen's stay, German soldiers barge into the Johansens' apartment. Annemarie breaks a gold clasp in a hurried effort to remove Ellen's Star of David necklace. Annemarie's father helps avert disaster by showing the soldiers old photos of his three daughters. As a baby, Lise had dark hair like Ellen has.
The next day, Mrs. Johansen takes the girls to visit Annemarie's Uncle Henrik, hoping they will be safer in the country. Henrik fishes daily in the strait between Denmark and Sweden, and the girls help with farm chores. When Annemarie is told that her hitherto unknown great-aunt Birte has suddenly died, she is skeptical. She confronts her uncle, and he confirms that Birte is a fictional creation. Annemarie understands the funeral service that evening is a ruse to mask her uncle's true activities — smuggling Jews out of Demark on his fishing boat.
Jews dressed as mourners arrive at the farmhouse and sit silently around the closed casket. Ellen's parents are among them. A carload of German officers bang on the door, asking why so many people have gathered at the farmhouse. The suspicious soldiers initially demand that the casket be opened, but they beat a hasty retreat when Annemarie's mother explains that Birte died of typhus.
When the soldiers leave, Peter Neilsen (a Danish Resistance leader who was engaged to Lise before she died) opens the casket. Instead of a body, the casket holds only blankets and warm clothes. The Jewish "mourners" bundle up for the voyage to Sweden. They leave in small groups and are escorted through the dark to Henrik's fishing boat that is docked a half-hour walk from the farmhouse. Annemarie's mother leads the last group but does not return that night.
It is almost dawn when Annemarie sees a trembling heap on the ground outside. She rushes to help her mother, who has broken her ankle. As she helps her mother up the steps, she sees a packet that Peter had given Mr. Rosen. It fell from his pocket when he tripped leaving the house. Knowing only that the packet must reach Henrik, Annemarie hides it in a basket and sets out under the pretext that she is bringing lunch to her forgetful uncle.
On the way to the boat, a group of soldiers and their dogs stop her. They question her, search the lunch and tear open the hidden packet. It contains a handkerchief, and the soldiers leave to search Henrik's boat. Annemarie is free to deliver the contents of the basket to Henrik.
When Henrik returns from ferrying the Jews to Sweden, he tells Annemarie that the handkerchief had been treated with a drug that attracts the dogs, and then temporarily numbs their sense of smell. Her actions prevented the Rosens, including Ellen, and other Jewish refugees from being detected when the soldiers boarded the boat.
Two years later, the war ends, and Annemarie waits for Ellen and her family to return to the apartment her parents have cared for during their absence. Peter has been publically executed, and she learns that Lise's death was not an accident: She was deliberately run down while fleeing a raided Resistance meeting. Annemarie retrieves Ellen's necklace from its hiding place and asks her father to fix the clasp in anticipation of the Rosens' homecoming.
Kirsti recalls sitting still in church. Ellen mentions that Lise's funeral was the only time she was in a Lutheran church. Peter reads Psalm 147 at great-aunt Birte's funeral service. Verses 1 to 4 are quoted. The book's title, Number the Stars, is a reference to Psalm 147:4, which says, "He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name." Church bells ring throughout Copenhagen when the war ends.
Mr. and Mrs. Johansen teach their children to do the right thing, even when the consequence is death. Mr. Johansen tells Annemarie the story of a boy who tells a German soldier that all of Denmark is King Christian's bodyguard. Mr. and Mrs. Johansen would die to protect their king. When Annemarie says that all Danes must also be the Jews' bodyguard, her father agrees.
The Johansens regard deception as essential during wartime. They feel it will be easier for their children to be brave when they don't know everything. Annemarie embraces this concept as a right of passage, keeping the lie about great-aunt Birte alive to protect Ellen. Mrs. Johansen tells Kirsti that a series of night explosions are birthday fireworks. Annemarie's parents say that Lise died in a car accident when she was deliberately run down.
Other belief systems
The Rosens attend a New Year's worship service at the synagogue. Annemarie and Kirsti are invited to the Rosens' apartment for the Jewish New Year. On Friday evenings, they remember watching Ellen's mother cover her head, light the Sabbath candles and say a Hebrew prayer. Ellen wears a gold necklace with a Star of David pendant. Kirsti names a grey kitten after Thor, the god of Thunder.
The Danish resistance sabotages the Germans. They deliberately sink their own Navy so the Germans can't use it. Other acts of sabotage include damaging railroad lines, damaging German cars and trucks, and bombing German factories.
A soldier grabs Ellen's hair, and a Nazi officer slaps Mrs. Johansen. Peter is publically executed and buried in a numbered grave. A German military car deliberately runs down Lise while she is fleeing a resistance meeting. Other resistance members are shot.
When asking Mrs. Johansen why Ellen has dark hair, a soldier insinuates that she has a different father than the other children in the family.
Newbery Medal, 1990
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- Annemarie and her parents say they would die to protect King Christian. Several Resistance leaders die fighting the Germans.
Would you have risked your life to protect the Rosens?
Who or what is worth risking your life for?
- The Johansens are Lutheran, but Ellen is Jewish.
How does Annemarie show respect for the Rosens' traditions?
How should you respond to people who believe differently from you?
How does showing others God's love also show them what you believe?
- Because she is an ordinary person, Annemarie doesn't think she will need to be courageous.
How are her assumptions proved wrong?
How can you show courage in your life?
- What lies do Mr. and Mrs. Johansen tell their children?
Why do they do this?
Was this the best way to protect Annemarie and Kirsti?
If not, what would have been a better choice?
How would you feel if you learned your parents lied to you? Explain.
- The Johansens take care of the Rosens' apartment while they are gone.
Did they know the Rosens were still alive?
Did they know when or if the Rosens would return?
Why did they continue taking care of the Rosens' apartment?
What can you do today to help others, even if you never get credit for your service?
Drugs/Alcohol: Peter brings Annemarie's parents two bottles of beer. The words "a carton of cigarettes" are used as a code for Jewish refugees. Mr. Johansen misses smoking cigarettes. The men at his office smoke anything available, including dried weeds rolled in paper. A Jewish baby is drugged so it will stay quiet. A handkerchief is treated with a substance that attracts dogs and then temporarily numbs their sense of smell. In the postscript, we learn it is a powder made of dried rabbit blood and cocaine.
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