Friday, August 15, 2014

Number the Stars: A Newbery That Doesn't Stink!


Hooray!  In my unofficial Newbery Challenge, I've successfully completed Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, and I liked it.

I know, I'm as shocked as you are.  

You're probably wondering what sort of planet I'm from because I had not previously read this for school.  I went to a private school (gosh, not like that--I was a scholarship student!) and so we didn't have to stick to the traditional curriculum for grade school English.  I rather wish we had read Number the Stars, because then it would have given me a ray of hope when we did our historical fiction unit.  Johnny I-fused-my-thumb-to-my-palm-with-molten-silver Tremain and Across Five Aprils (Civil War yawnfest) nigh on sucked the life out of reading for fifth-grade Pam.  We read those out of School Tradition.  Yuck.  When studying the Holocaust, we read The Diary of Anne Frank, which was, of course, outstanding.

So here I am, a grown-up librarian, reading Number the Stars.  Full disclosure: I read it at the gym.  It's a really quick read, but a surprisingly powerful one.

Annemarie's reality has been the Nazi occupation of her home country, Denmark, for the last three years.  She knows to be careful around the soldiers, and spunkily despises them for their inability/refusal to learn Danish.  Annemarie lives with her parents and little sister Kristi in Copenhagen, and goes to school with her friend Ellen Rosen, who lives in their building.  She knows that Ellen and her family are Jewish, and has a child's curiosity about other traditions.  Ellen's family is pretty awesome and open about their beliefs, and they allow Annemarie and Kristi to observe Shabbat preparations.  However, Annemarie never thinks of her friend as being different because of her religion, but rather simply observes that it is a part of Ellen and who she is.

One night, Annemarie's parents bring Ellen home with them, explaining that her parents had to go out of town.  In reality, the Nazis announced that they would be relocating all of the Jews in Denmark on the night of one of their holy days.  Annemarie's parents don't understand the full scope of what relocation entails, but they know that it is dangerous and wrong, and so they help the Resistance hide their Jewish friends and neighbors.

Lowry creates so many impactful yet simple visuals with this book.  In order to conceal Ellen's heritage from the Nazi soldiers, Annemarie yanks Ellen's Star of David necklace off of her neck and clenches it in her palm the whole time that the soldiers search the apartment.  At the end of the chapter, she opens her hand and sees a Star of David imprinted on her palm.  Like the necklace, Annemarie's decisions and actions leave a mark on her and shape her character.

It's a very short book, but there's a lot of great information in here on the Danish resistance, the Danish monarchy, and the mass evacuation of the Danish Jewish population to Sweden.  Lasky's endnote is particularly illuminating.

What I think I liked most about this, however, was the lack of what most kids would call "a real ending."  As in The Giver (the first book I ever read that had an ambiguous ending!), Lasky doesn't give everyone a happy ending, nor does she explicitly describe everyone's lives after the war.  Yet, it's also a satisfying ending, for no matter what happens, we--and Annemarie--know that she showed true courage and friendship, and that's not something to be taken lightly or be forgotten.


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