This is a departure from the books I usually take on. However, I need a palate cleanser after those last two, especially if I’m going to tackle Project Sunlight.
I read this book for the first time in 2nd grade. This was handed out to all 20 members of our class in one of those torture sessions where we all had to take turns reading parts of it out loud.*
I may or may not have “forgotten” to hand the book back in when I was done with it.
It was the first time I’d heard about the Holocaust, and the only time I would study it in school.
Number the Stars is a book about 10 year old Annemarie Johansen, growing up in Denmark during world war 2. Her best friend, Ellen, is Jewish. The entirety of the book is spent keeping Ellen and her family safe.
The main protagonist is not Jewish, and we discussed in my University Children’s Literature class why that might be. One theory is that, as this is basically intro to the holocaust 101 for ten year olds, it might have been better for main character to be a bit removed from what was going on within the Jewish community. Another is that, perhaps, child readers might prefer to identify more with Annemarie than with Ellen. Readers could imagine themselves in the position of hero trying to save their best friend instead of imagining themselves as the one being hunted, which would be a whole lot scarier.
What if that were me, the child might think. Would I be brave enough to stand up and help my friend?
What if I were Ellen instead? Would I want my friend to stick by and help me?
I’d be interested in hearing other opinions on this, as this is kind of different from every other children’s book about the holocaust I’ve ever read.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.
Why Are You Running?
“Race you to the corner, Ellen!” AnneMarie calls out excitedly. Ellen is reluctant at first, but finally agrees. I like the opening paragraphs, because right away you get a sense of the two main protagonist’s personalities and descriptions. “Stocky” Ellen doesn’t want to race. “Lanky” Annemarie, who has longer legs, begs Ellen to race anyway, because she wants to practice for the athletic meet at her school. Ellen finally agrees. As they run, Annemarie’s “silvery blonde hair” flies out behind her, while Ellen’s “Dark pigtails bounced against her shoulders.”
Annemarie’s little sister, Kirsti, pouts at being left behind.
AnneMarie is tall, blonde, athletic, and “lanky.” Ellen is shorter than Annemarie, stocky, not athletic, and has “dark hair.” Ellen wants to “just walk, like civilized people,” Annemarie isn’t nearly so reserved.
Just as Annemarie reaches the corner (before Ellen), a German soldier orders her to halt. Two German soldiers, actually.
Two helmets, two sets of eyes glaring at her, and four shiny boots planted firmly on the sidewalk, blocking her path to home.
Oh and 2 rifles.
One of the soldiers asks Annemarie why she was running, and she explains that they were racing, because her school has meets every Friday. She thinks she is babbling too much, and decides she should just answer their questions without volunteering too much information. She also notes that their Danish is very poor, despite them having been in Denmark for 3 years.
This tells us approximately how far into the war we are, giving us a year. The Germans have been in Denmark for 3 years, and Google tells me they invaded in 1940. We’re told at the end of the book that WW2 ends 2 years from now(spoiler alert), so it all fits that this story takes place in the year 1943. In the next chapter, we learn that it is September. September 1943. My maternal grandma was 4 years old.
The soldier nicknamed “Giraffe” asks Annemarie what’s in her book bag, and is she a good student. Books and yes, she answers. Giraffe then asks about Ellen.
Ellen, by the way, hasn’t moved since the soldiers began talking to them.
Annemarie…. saw that Ellen’s face, usually rosy cheeked, was pale, her dark eyes were wide.
Spoiler alert: Ellen is Jewish. She would have had a lot more awareness than Annemarie about what Jews have been facing lately, even if she doesn’t have all the details, and it makes a lot of sense for her to be twice as terrified.
It’s also a good bit of foreshadowing I didn’t pick up on my first 5,000 readings of this book. Ellen is more scared of the soldiers than Annemarie. Why? I guess I just thought Annemarie was the braver of the two, but as a grown up, I’m realizing that Annemarie’s “bravery” here is actually “blissful ignorance.”
That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Annemarie reassures the soldiers that Ellen is much better in school than she is.
Kirsti finally reaches her sister, and the soldier starts asking about her. One of the soldiers reaches down to touch Kirsti’s “short tangled curls,” but Kristi yells at him to stop.
This makes the soldiers laugh. One of them says Kirsti reminds him of his own little girl. He tells the girls to go on home, and no more running in the street.
We get a brief glimpse, here, that the soldiers are human too. But not too much more because that would confuse the shit out of small children, who tend to think in terms of black and white, good and evil.
Annemarie and Ellen are wary of the 2 soldiers guarding the entrance to their apartment building as they pass them, But Kirsti rushes past, chattering.
For Kirsti, the soldiers were simply part of the landscape, something that had always been there, on every corner, as unimportant as lampposts, throughout here remembered life.
Kirsti is described as “a stubborn 5 year old.” The war has been going on for so long that for her, it’s just part of the world around her. The sky is blue, the grass is green, and there are German soldiers on every corner.
Neither Annemarie nor Ellen plan on telling their mothers what happened, but Little Blabbermouth Kirsti ruins it. She reaches the apartment first, and begins telling her mom, Mrs. Johansen, what happened. Incidentally, Mrs. Rosen is visiting Mrs. Johansen.
Mrs. Johansen and Mrs. Rosen are drinking “coffee.” Of course it’s not real coffee, but they call it that anyway. Mrs. Johansen asks her older daughter what really happened.
Mrs. Rosen is frightened, and asks where Ellen is. Wow. This sailed right over my head as a child. A Jewish woman just found out that her 10 year old daughter had a run in with the Nazi soldiers, and didn’t come in with her best friend. I fully grok why “Mrs. Rosen had a frightened look” when she asked, “Where is Ellen?!”
When I was a child and read this book, I thought that the Nazis didn’t start persecuting the Jews until like, about the 3rd chapter or so. And they may not have done it openly until then, but the Rosens, at least, would have been all to well aware of the fact that these things were happening in other countries.
Ten year old me never thought Ellen was in danger at the start of the book.
Annemarie reassures Mrs. Rosen that Ellen, not knowing her mom was visiting the Johansens, is downstairs in the Rosen’s apartment. Annemarie tells the women what really happened, under exaggerating to balance out Kirsti’s exaggeration.
Kirsti says she slapped the soldier’s hand and shouted at him, but Annemarie quickly reassures her mother that this didn’t happen. And she’s half right. Kirsti didn’t slap him.
Mrs. Johansen speaks in a low voice to Mrs. Rosen. She tells her the soldiers must be uneasy because of the bombings in Hillerod(sp) and Norrebro(sp). Mrs. Johansen read about it in De Frie Danske– The Free Danes, an illegal newspaper. Peter Nielson brings it to them, and the paper is burned after Mr. And Mrs. Johansen read it. But Annemarie hears them talking, of course. Because 10 year olds are a lot more aware of things than most people give them credit for.
Annemarie also knows what the resistance is, and we get a very brief child appropriate cliffs notes version. Essentially it boils down to “they hurt the Nazis in any way they can.”
Mrs. Rosen leaves to go find Ellen, making Annemarie promise to walk to school a different way. Annemarie does, but asks why it matters, when there are soldiers on every corner. Mrs. Rosen gives Annemarie and Kristi a useful piece of advice:
They will remember your faces. It is important to be one of the crowd, always, be one of the many. Be sure they never have a reason to remember your face.
And with that, Mrs. Rosen makes her exit.
Kristi reassures her mother that the soldier will remember her face, because she reminds him of his daughter.
Mrs. Johansen wonders aloud why, if that’s true, he doesn’t go back to her, like a good father.
From the 21st century as a non Jewish person I can sit here and say that he might not have wanted to be there any more than the Danes wanted him there. I recall reading somewhere that not all Germans joined the Nazis voluntarily.
The good people of Denmark likely don’t have the luxury of such thoughts, And I can’t say I blame them.
Annemarie, trying to distract her mother, asks for some food. Her mom says she can have bread. Annemarie asks for butter, but of course there is none. Mrs. Johansen reminds Annemarie that she should know and be used to this by now. Kirsti says she remembers cupcakes, despite the fact that there hasn’t been any sugar or butter for frosting 3 out of her 5 years.
“When will there be cupcakes again momma?” Asks Kirsti.
“When the war ends,” Mrs. Johannsen replies. “When the soldiers leave.”
This is where the chapter ends.
This chapter was very well written. It gives us a good idea of what life is like in Copenhagen from a ten year old’s perspective. War, for Annemarie, means:
1. Soldiers on corners with rifles
2. No butter for bread or sugar for cupcakes
3. No coffee
5. Secret newspapers
There’s more, but we don’t learn about them till later and I hesitate to give out too many spoilers.
I’m always looking for writing advice, and I really got some here. This whole chapter is an example of why showing is better than telling.
When you think about it, this chapter, really, could be summed up in a paragraph:
There were soldiers on the street corners nowadays, in the year 1943. Ten year old Annemarie remembered a time before they were there, but she knew 5 year old Kirsti didn’t. The soldiers were very scary and intimidating, and they still couldn’t speak Dutch. Annemarie and Ellen were both very scared of the soldiers, but Kirsti was too young to know she should be. Ellen seemed more scared than Annemarie for some reason.
Annemarie was tall, lanky athletic girl with blonde hair. Her friend, Ellen, was stocky and had dark hair and dark eyes. Ellen was more reserved than her friend.
Did you fall asleep? Did you even finish reading all that? Probably not, because those paragraphs I wrote are boring. (They’re also not very well organized, but set that aside.)
I think, in this first chapter, Lois was trying to get across to his (her?) audience how scary the German soldiers were, and a little bit of background about the main characters and their time period.
But instead of saying, “the soldiers were scary,” over and over, Lois writes about the 2 protagonists just having a little harmless fun, and the German soldiers reacting negatively to it. The way the German soldiers react to the girls’ race is indicative of just how German occupation of Denmark is. There aren’t just soldiers on every corner “like lamp posts,” they’re there and they intimidate little girls.
Even after Annemarie is stopped by the soldiers, she doesn’t think to herself, these people are scary. Instead she sees their shiny boots, their cold eyes, their helmets. Likewise, Lois doesn’t write, “Ellen was scared.” Instead, “Ellen had a white face, and her eyes were wide. She stood motionless.”
Lois doesn’t beat us over the head, or even tell us straightforwardly, that these people are scared. The German soldiers are something to be afraid of. They are terrorizing the entire country.
Lois, by telling us a story about Annemarie and Ellen having a run in with the soldiers, isn’t just demonstrating how scary the Nazi solderis are, it’s also demonstrating that the war is not just an abstract thing that only adults are having to deal with. Lois is telling his (her?) readership that you, ten year old child reading this, would be affected by the presence of soldiers on every corner. You too would be affected by the food shortages. You too would’ve been affected, one way or another, by what the Nazis were doing to the Jews.
*Seriously teachers, why? Why do you do this? The fast readers just get frustrated and angry having to sit there and wait for the slow readers to stumble through, while the slow readers get to be thoroughly embarrassed that you have brought their inability to read out loud to the attention of the rest of the class.
There have GOT to be better ways to do this.