Book Review: Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

I loved this book as a child, and I re-read it for educational purposes—I’ll be presenting some workshops on using literature to encourage closer reading later this year. The book was even more poignant than I remembered it, and I love the freedom theme running through it.

The novel follows Annemarie and Ellen, two girls in Copenhagen during Nazi occupation in the 1940s. While they’re just trying to live their lives, they are introduced to things they barely understand: Jewish shops that are forced to close, shortages of goods, explosions, people who seem to disappear, and growing Nazi presence. Early on, Annemarie snuggles in bed, “glad to be an ordinary person who would never be called upon for courage” (26). This introduces an important theme, as she is called upon later to help save her friend.

Upon first re-read, Lowry’s verb choice struck me. Though written for young readers, Lowry uses strong verbs that help to characterize each group. For the soldiers, she uses menacing verbs (and other diction). There is also the theme of freedom and being called to be part of a Resistance mentioned as early as the first chapter. In bedtime tales, the theme of an entire country being willing to die to protect someone else introduces the theme of sacrifice for a greater goal. In this case, people must be willing to stand up to a monster, even at the cost of their own lives.

There is also symbolism and literary relevance woven throughout the tale. For instance, Annemarie’s older sister has died, but when Annemarie’s family takes Ellen into their home to pretend to be a sibling (to hide from the Nazis), her father says, “Once I had three daughters. Tonight I am proud to have three daughters again” (38).

What I respect about this book is: even though it’s for young readers, its use of details “respect the reader.” The details help to build the world the characters are forced to inhabit. They add historical relevance as well as characterization. Motifs and themes, such as the use of fairy tales as metaphors, emerge and re-emerge, adding meaning to the tale. Many books for young readers simply skip such details. It’s a book I recommend for readers of any age. I read it as a child (many times). I treasured it then, and I enjoyed it just as much this time.