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Number the Stars

Lois Lowry

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Sep 06, 2017
Category: Fiction

Amazon says that “Number the Stars” is an excellent book for kids 10 to 12 — 5th to 7th graders — but I can’t think of a more appropriate book for Americans of any age to be reading right now. Lois Lowry published this 135-page novel in 1989. It won the Newbery Medal — the highest honor for a children’s book — the following year. It has become one of the best-selling children’s books of all time. In short, it’s that rarest of novels: important and addictively readable. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

In 1940, Denmark couldn’t have fought Hitler; its surrender was prudent. And in 1943 the German presence isn’t a concern for Annemarie Johansen, a 10-year-old fourth grader who lives with her parents and younger sister in Copenhagen. King Christian X still rides his horse through the city, and the Danes, sharing his disdain for the Germans, go on about their lives. But now life is starting to change — as Annemarie and her best friend Ellen Rosen run home from school, two German soldiers stop them, just because they can.

Small inconveniences become real threats. Jewish businesses suddenly close. Jews take unannounced “vacations.” Ellen’s parents vanish, and Ellen comes to live with Annemarie’s family. And then the Germans, aware that Ellen and Annemarie are friends, visit the Johansens in the middle of the night.

Clearly, Ellen’s not safe in Copenhagen. But where can she go? And how? That is the thriller plot of “Number the Stars,” and it’s full of twists that are too good for a kids book. Like the wake held over a coffin, which includes a reading from Psalm 147:4 — “O praise the Lord … he who numbers the stars one by one” — and links those stars to the one Ellen wears around her neck.

Something goes wrong the night Ellen is to sail to Sweden, and it falls to Annemarie to fix it. An act of considerable bravery is required — is a 10-year-old capable of it? This isn’t a spoiler: you know she is. What you don’t know is what she learns. Her uncle tells her that she risked her life. Her response: “I didn’t even think about that!” Her uncle smiles: “That’s all ‘brave’ means — not thinking about the dangers.”

In 1943, Lois Lowry writes in an afterword, the Danes appointed themselves bodyguards of the country’s Jews. In 1943, there were 8,000 Jews in Denmark. Brave Danes moved 7,550 of them to Sweden.

It’s impossible to read this book now and not think of the kids in Denver who walked out of school in solidarity with people they don’t know. And to wonder, if the worst happens in March, if Americans will become bodyguards of people slated to be deported — if we are as good as the Danes.