Number the Stars
by Lois Lowry. Novel. 144 pages. Grades 4-8.
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This was the first Newbery Award winner by Lois Lowry. For those of you who haven't had the pleasure of reading this very accessible novel within easy reach of fourth or even third grade readers, it's the story of the determination of the people of Denmark to get the Jews to safety while the Nazis were equally determined to annihilate them.
Lowry focuses our attention on the Johansen family who have coped with the occupation by the Nazis fairly well. There are the shortages of course and the omnipresent soldiers, but home and school life are relatively undisturbed.
Then, their friends, the Rosens, are endangered. Mr. and Mrs. Rosen leave their daughter, Ellen, with the Johansens hoping that she can pass as their daughter until safe voyage to Sweden can be arranged for all the Rosens. Ann Marie Johansen is the one who is most threatened by this ordeal and she shows outstanding but believable courage and enterprise in helping her friend.
No matter which of the activities below you select or the equally good ones you come up with yourselves, the important thing is to enjoy the book and Lowry's skill in creating such memorable characters.
Things to Talk About and Notice
- Start with the title. Why did Lois Lowry choose those words? What stars is she referring to? Look at her dedication: "For my friend Annelise Platt, Tusind Tak". Is Annelise, Annemarie? Look at the chapter titles. Each one represents a decision on the part of Ms. Lowry. Many of them are quotes from the story. Would you have chosen the same ones?
- Look at the characters in the story. How can Annemarie do what she had to do? Where did she get her strength? Notice her use of Kirsti as a role model when she needs to make the soldiers think she's innocent and the way she comforts herself in the woods by remembering the story of Little Red Riding Hood. Lowry makes her believable by such touches. Stay within the book for as long as you can, looking at the characters and the reasons behind their actions. The loyalty the people of Denmark had toward King Christian and his actions during that difficult time are surely worth exploring, especially as children tend to think of kings as characters in fairy tales who behave rather foolishly or as crown-wearing cardboard figures. This one is portrayed as saddened and brave as his country fell under the Nazi shadow. Which countries had kings then? Which ones still do?
- The Nazi soldier who stroked Kirsti's hair and said that she reminded him of his own little girl makes him less villainous than Lois Lowry might have shown him. Why did she do that? What is she saying about soldiers in general?
- Moving from the book to the reality of its subject, we have all the horrors of war for territory, especially as it concerned the Holocaust. The Danish Resistance did manage to smuggle almost its entire Jewish population to safety, nearly 7000 people. Research into how and why they did it when so many other countries under the Nazi scourge did not should make for some interesting reports. Children tend to glorify war and books like this help to pull its savagery, particularly this war's, into focus. The Jews, of course, weren't the only ones the Nazis tried to extinguish. Find out what happened to the gypsies, the Armenians and other persecuted groups.
- Pull geography in by finding maps of prewar and postwar Europe. Map the routes escaping Jews took from each country. Where would they have been safe. The creation of Israel is a topic for exploration as is the Berlin Wall.
- The Star of David that plays such an important role in the story should be explained by someone who knows its significance. Jewish students should show this symbol and others to the Gentile audience. Maybe the singing of some Jewish folk songs and the cooking and tasting of Jewish foods will lighten the atmosphere a little at this point. This is heavy stuff and no one can deal with it appropriately for too long without becoming despondent.
- The Danish culture and history will also add a non-threatening avenue of approach for discussion and research. The children in the novel talk about Tivoli Gardens and how they used to see fireworks from there every night. Find photographs and descriptions of it and other landmarks in Denmark and make them into a videotaped travelogue such as the travel channel might show.
- Concentrating on the escape brings us to other escapes in literature and to the Underground Railroad which doubly connects because of the Drinking Gourd, or Big Dipper, being the guiding light for the escaping slaves and the symbol for the freedom they were seeking.
- The list of books set in that time period is a long one and becomes longer every day as more and more authors choose it for a setting fraught with drama and you could easily find a different novel of World War II for every person in the classroom. If each one also reads a non-fiction book about the time and interviews a person who experienced it in some way, they will have a fairly defined context into which to put their novel.
- Move from this book to others which deal with the same period and events. The Diary of Anne Frank is an obvious choice. Perhaps the children can watch a video of the movie or hear excerpts from the diary. Look at the picture book by Chana B. Abells, Children We Remember (Greenwillow, 1986 ISBN 0-688-06372-1 Library Binding Hardcover). This book of photographs and memories of child-victims of the holocaust will haunt anyone who opens it.
- David A. Adler's We Remember the Holocaust (Holt, 1989 ISBN 0805037152 Paperback) in which survivors tell their tales of this tragic period of time in this amply illustrated book.
For the bigger picture try Catherine Bradley's Hitler and the Third Reich (Watts, 1990 ISBN 0531172287 Out of Print) showing Hitler's impact on Germany and ultimately on the world from the events leading up to World War II and through the final days in the bunker.
- Claire Hutchet Bishop's Twenty and Ten (Viking, 1952 ISBN 0-14-031076-2 Paperback) has been around a long time, but her tale of twenty French children who allow Jewish children to hide with them thus escaping from the fate Hitler has in mind for them surely has relevance here and it's also very easy to read.
- Lois Lowry wrote another book set in the same time period: Autumn Street (Dell, 1980 ISBN 0440403448 Hardcover Paperback) shows life on the home front, in this case, Philadelphia during World War II. Elizabeth and her sister and pregnant mother live with her grandparents while her father is fighting in the Pacific. Their next door neighbors are viewed with suspicion because of their German heritage. There is racial prejudice and even murder and its attendant guilt and suspicion in a taut, memorable book. It might be interesting to find out if Ms Lowry ever lived in Philadelphia.
- Miriam Chaikin's Lower! Higher! You're a Liar (Harper, 1984 ISBN 0-06-021186-5 Out of Print) gives a distant view of what's happening to the Jews in Europe as seen through a family of Jews living in Borough Park, Brooklyn during World War II. It's through the radio news as broadcast by Gabriel Heater that Molly's family learns of Hitler's deeds.
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