WOW Review: Reading Across Cultures

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Number the Stars
Written by Lois Lowry
Houghton Mifflin, 1989, 144 pp.
ISBN: 978-0395510605

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This Newbery Award winner has been well-known and well-read for over twenty years. The novel tells the story of how Annemarie Johansen, a ten-year-old Danish girl, bravely helps her family save Danish Jews during the Holocaust. Annemarie’s heroism can be attributed, in part, to the fact that her best friend Ellen is a Jew who must escape Nazi-occupied Denmark to flee to free Sweden, as well as to the Danish resistance to the Nazis and their policy of exterminating Jews. While a piece of fiction, Lois Lowry writes in her afterward that, “Annemarie is a child of my imagination, though she grew there from the stories told to me by my friend, Annelise Platt, to whom this book is dedicated.” Lowry goes on to tell her readers that most of the plot is based on history, and ends her afterward with this line, “I hope this story of Denmark, and its people, will remind us all that such a world [of human decency] is possible.”

The book succeeds in helping readers appreciate the generosity of the Danish people toward the Danish Jews, but Number the Stars fails as a piece of historical fiction in the Holocaust genre because it only focuses on the goodness of the Gentiles, leaving the Jews as hapless victims, others, who must be rescued by their Christian saviors. Unfortunately, the novel is considered a “Holocaust book” by many sources. According to Amazon.com, it is number three on the list of “Bestsellers in Holocaust fiction for children.” Wikipedia’s entry for Number the Stars says the novel “is a work of historical fiction about the Holocaust of the Second World War by award-winning author Lois Lowry.” A Jewish source, the Holocaust Teacher Resource Center, lists the novel as an appropriate book for young children, while, it is interesting to note, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum does not include Number the Stars on its reading list.

Number the Stars is a book about an exceptionally brave and kind girl and her family and her entire country–it just so happens that the plot was set during the Holocaust. The Holocaust continues to be used as the setting for books that glorify the righteous Gentiles at the expense of the victimized Jews (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and A Faraway Island are two recent examples). While the Gentiles of Denmark did save their Jews, and are examples of humanity in the midst of inhumanity, the story of the Danish resistance to the Nazi occupation of their country is a story about the Danish people, not a story of the Jewish Holocaust. In fact, Number the Stars devotes almost no space to describing the Rosen family. Only the daughter, Ellen, is sketched lightly as a “stocky ten-year-old, unlike lanky Annemarie” (p. 1), a great student (p. 4), and used to nice things (p. 29). These scant details can be seen as stereotyping, further evident in the only other description of a Jew as a boy who is, “a tall teenager with thick glasses, stooped shoulders, and unruly hair” (p. 20).

In their actions, the Jews in this book reflect the idea of Jew-as-Victim. The Rosens hide and are saved thanks to Annemarie’s family. The Jewish family is given no subjectivity; all action is given to the Gentiles. The climax of the story has Annemarie, a ten-year-old, saving a boatload of Jews after one of them, an adult, forgets to bring the item that will foil the Nazi’s attempt to stop them at the border. This particular group of Jews is portrayed as not only victims, but inept.

There are excellent children’s books in print that tell the story of the Jewish Holocaust. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s web site offers annotated bibliographies as well as philosophical and methodological guidelines. An excellent source for primary source materials that could be used to create a jackdaw to accompany a text set, www.ushmm.org has experts on the Jewish Holocaust available to help teach Ha Shoah ethically, thoughtfully, and accurately.

Number the Stars will continue to be read and enjoyed by countless children in classrooms. My plea is that we become aware that while it may be a well-written and finely plotted book, it is not a novel of the Jewish Holocaust, but a historical fiction novel about World War II and the Danish people’s resistance to the Nazis.

Melissa B. Wilson
University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados

17 thoughts on “WOW Review: Reading Across Cultures

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  8. Brittany Drechsel says:

    I read Number The Stars and felt as if the book gives a different view on experiences during this time era. I highly recommend this book if you haven’t already read it! It is a great book to use in schools to teach older elementary kids about the Holocaust.

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  10. Joanna Montoya says:

    Tropical Secrets is written in verse format, resulting in a simple but yet sophisticated and developed story line. The author portrays a unique perspective on Jewish refugees in Cuba. I never would have thought there were Jewish refugees who ended up in Cuba before learning about this book. This book would be a great teaching aid about Nazi Germany. Suggested for upper elementary/middle school.

  11. Ana-Alicia says:

    Tropical Secret is really moving and makes the reader think about how many struggles those that escaped went though during WWII. There are of course many books focused on the holocaust and WWII, however, most are views from within Europe. I appreciated the different perspective Engle gave in this novel. Another thing i enjoyed about it was the style in which she wrote in in. It is very child friendly read that still includes descriptive wording and stimulating vocabulary. It is an inspiring and interesting read for students of many ages and adults.

  12. marigold says:

    “Tropical Secrets” illuminates an untold history of Cuba’s role as a sometimes safe harbor for Jewish refugees during WWII. The narratives are lyrical and as alluded to in the conclusion, “Tropical Secrets” could be the title of a favorite fable sung in the corner of a dark cafe accompanied by the flamenco guitar Jewish refugee Daniel is gifted by native daugther Paloma.

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