Happy Anniversary: Number the Stars

Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1989. It won the Newbery Medal in 1990 and celebrates its thirtieth anniversary in 2019. 

 

Thirty years after its publication, Number the Stars by Lois Lowry remains one of the best literary introductions to the Holocaust for children. Set in Denmark in 1943, it tells the story of ten-year-old Annemarie, a Christian girl who doesn’t see herself as brave — and how she becomes brave to help save her Jewish friend Ellen and her family. 

The story, which won the 1989 Sydney Taylor Book Award (and is written by a non-Jew), tells of how Annemarie’s (fictional) family, and other Danes, helped smuggle Jews out of Nazi-occupied Denmark and into Sweden during World War II. Lowry’s writing is lyrical but un-flashy, with evocative sensory descriptions of Annemarie’s surroundings. “The little red-roofed farmhouse was very old, its chimney crooked and even the small, shuttered windows tilted at angles…The meadow ended at the sea, and the gray water licked there at damp brown grass flattened by the wind and bordered by smooth heavy stones.” 

This lovely place seems like a refuge from the outside world’s horrors (“here in this sunlit kitchen, with cream in a pitcher and a bird in the apple tree beside the door…suddenly the specter of guns and grim-faced soldiers seemed nothing more than a ghost story, a joke with which to frighten children in the dark”). But of course, the world is too much with us. Then and now. 

Number the Stars is a friendship story, a family story, a horror story, an adventure story, a reflection on storytelling itself. (Lowry explicitly draws connections between Annemarie’s growing-up-and-confronting-evil journey and Little Red Riding Hood’s.) It’s a page-turner and a folktale about courage and loss, all crammed into an economical under-140 pages. 

Annemarie’s bravery and her acts of resistance feel manageable; she’s not a larger-than-life hero. Her small, cumulative steps into the woods lead to her becoming a sadder, wiser, better grownup. Number the Stars meets the guidelines of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for good Holocaust education: avoid generalizations and stereotypes; contextualize history; don’t imply that the Holocaust was inevitable; don’t romanticize history by overemphasizing heroism or luxuriating in evil. While the museum notes that dwelling on the role of rescuers “can result in an inaccurate and unbalanced account of the history,” the story of Denmark really is the story of rescuers. (And for what it’s worth, Number the Stars doesn’t propagate the false story of the King of Denmark wearing a yellow star.) It doesn’t universalize too much, and it doesn’t leave a very young reader feeling hopeless. 

Look, I am on record as disapproving of the Holocaust’s outsize place in Jewish storytelling and self-concept [see “Enough with the Holocaust Books for Children!” from Tablet magazine, April 15, 2015]. We Jews are more than just our suffering. I long for an abundance of children’s books reflecting the complexities of contemporary Jewish identity; tapping into six thousand years of peripatetic history; using Sephardic and Ashkenazic folktales, myths, and legends as jumping-off points for fantasy and science fiction. Alas, the Holocaust is an integral part of our story too. And while I’d like to see more middle-grade and YA novels that center self-rescuing, Nazi-punching Jews, too many of those would give a false picture of a nightmarish time.  

So: Number the Stars remains one of the most artful ways to introduce the enormity of this subject to young readers. And as a work of literature in its own right, it’s ravishing.

 

From the July/August 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards.

Marjorie Ingall

Marjorie Ingall is the author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children; a columnist for Tablet magazine; and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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Angela Fowler

Wonderful article

Posted : Aug 27, 2019 03:29


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