72 pages 2 hours read

Lois Lowry

Number the Stars

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 1989

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Summary and Study Guide


Number the Stars is a 1989 middle-grade novel by Lois Lowry. A work of historical fiction, it focuses on the experiences of Annemarie Johansen, a 10-year-old Danish girl, living in Copenhagen during World War II. The book follows Annemarie and her family as they attempt to save their Jewish friends, the Rosens, from being sent to a Nazi concentration camp. The novel was critically acclaimed at the time of its release and won the 1990 Newbery Medal for children’s literature.

Plot Summary

Set in 1943 Copenhagen, Number the Stars is told in the close third-person point of view of 10-year-old Annemarie Johansen. Annemarie, her friend Ellen Rosen, and their families have had to adapt to many changes since the German army occupied their country three years ago. An early encounter with two Nazi soldiers illustrates just how much their lives have changed. Still, the young girls do not fully realize the danger that Ellen, whose family is Jewish, is in until Jewish businesses in the area start closing and the Rosens' rabbi is forced to give the Germans a list of Jews in his congregation.

As the Danish Resistance hides Ellen's parents, the Johansen family welcomes Ellen. They pass her off as their daughter Lise, who died two years earlier. However, after German soldiers come to the apartment late at night and challenge this story, Mr. and Mrs. Johansen decide to take Ellen and the girls to the coast, where Mrs. Johansen's brother lives. There, Annemarie is surprised to find that her fisherman Uncle Henrik is having a funeral for their “Great-Aunt Birte.” However, she knows that no such person exists. The funeral turns out to be an excuse to gather people together—including the Rosens. The Resistance will take the Rosens, along with other Jewish people, to Sweden via Henrik's boat. The Nazis do not have control in Sweden, so the Rosens and other Danish Jews can live freely.

Peter, a friend of the Johansens' and a member of the Resistance, gives Mr. Rosen an important packet to take to Henrik's boat with him. However, Mr. Rosen trips and drops it without realizing what he has done. Mrs. Johansen takes the group down to the boat but breaks her ankle on the way back. It is only on her return that Annemarie sees the packet. Not knowing what is inside, she makes the decision to run it to the boat herself, hiding it within a basket of food. As she goes through the woods, she encounters a group of Nazi soldiers and dogs. They tear up the food and open the packet, only to find a handkerchief. As this is seemingly innocuous, they let her go and she delivers the handkerchief to her uncle.

Later, Annemarie asks her uncle about the handkerchief. He explains that the Nazis have begun using dogs to search the boats that carry the Jews to Sweden because dogs have a good sense of smell. The handkerchiefs have a new chemical that temporarily stops the dogs from being able to smell. Thanks to Annemarie, the Rosens and the other members of their group are able to get to freedom.

The book concludes two years later, when the war has ended. With joy, Annemarie and her family anticipate the Rosens coming home.

Using a simple and straightforward writing style, Lowry nonetheless conveys a somber and ominous tone throughout the novel. This tone serves to highlight key themes: notably, the importance of resisting evil, the safety and dangers of ignorance, how bravery occurs in both large and small actions, and fairy tales versus reality. In addition to these more complex themes, the book also focuses on courage, friendship, and loyalty, serving as a coming-of-age story for Annemarie, who comes to understand the world in which she is living and decides how she wants to take part in it.

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