In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Number the Stars

Dear Annie,

I'm so glad you wrote about the poem scene in Anastasia Krupnik -- that's the one I always think of with that book.  And as you say, the parents are wonderful -- and very deadpan, as I recall.

Before we leave the multi-talented Lois Lowry, I have to sing the praises of her first Newbery winner:
Number the Stars
.  Horrifying times in history are sometimes presented in kids' books through their heroic moments, rather than through the experience of cruelty.  We've talked about that in relation to slavery, and this book by Lowry builds on an amazing piece of Holocaust history that took place in Denmark in October 1943.  Just as the Nazis were about to start deportations, non-Jewish Danes hid that country's Jews, transported them to the coast, and ferried more than 7000 of them to safety in Sweden.  Only 5% of Danish Jews were caught by the Nazis.

Number the Stars is the story of 10 year-old Annemarie Johannesen and her friend Ellen Rosen.  Ellen's parents go into hiding and Annemarie's family tells the Nazis Ellen is their child. They take her to an uncle's home on the coast, where she's smuggled to a boat and then to Sweden.  There are several terrifying moments when Nazis confront the family, but they manage to deflect the attention.  The feeling of constant threat opens the story, when Annemarie and Ellen race each other home from school and are stopped by German soldiers:
Annemarie stared up. There were two of them. That meant two helmets, two sets of cold eyes glaring at her, and four tall shiny boots planted firmly on the sidewalk, blocking her path to home.... And it meant two rifles, gripped in the hands of the soldiers. She stared at the rifles first. Then,finally, she looked into the face of the soldier who had ordered her to halt.... "Why are you running?" the harsh voice asked. His Danish was very poor. Three years, Annemarie thought with contempt. Three years they've been in our country, and still they can't speak the language.
The book stays with Annemarie's point of view throughout.  In Lowry's 1990 speech accepting the Newbery medal, she talked about trying to show the events from a child's perspective.  She told the story of a Danish friend who had been a child during the Nazi occupation.  "When I asked Annelise to describe, through the eyes of her own childhood, the German soldiers themselves, she said: 'I remember the high shiny boots.'"  Lowry emphasized the boots in the book, to the extent that her editor suggested she cut out some of the references.  During the time she was trying to decide how to deal with his suggestion, she met a Dutch survivor of the era, who as a very young girl had been hidden under floorboards while her mother was taken away by Nazis.
I asked her, as we sat there talking, if she remembered any of it.  She said the memory was very vague, because she had been so very young.  There was only one thing, she told me, that she recalled clearly from that day when she had peeked out through a crack in the floor.
   She said: "I remember the high shiny boots."
   So when I went back [to my editor], I asked him to leave the boots there in the book -- every reference -- again and again and again.  I decided that if any reviewer should call attention to the overuse of that image -- none ever has -- I would simply tell them that those high shiny boots had trampled on several million childhoods and I was sorry I hadn't had several million more pages on which to mention that.
Over the years, Number the Stars has been published by two different companies, but it's always had that cover photo of the blonde girl and the Star of David necklace.  At the dinner I attended with Lowry two weeks ago, she told us that she had taken the photo.  The girl was the daughter of Swedish diplomats who were friends of the Lowrys.  She was 21 by the time the book was published, and gave her permission for its use.  Although Lowry stayed in touch with the parents, she lost touch with the daughter over the following decades.  This spring the daughter came to an event where Lowry was speaking, and there was a cheerful reunion.  She pulled out her iPhone at the restaurant and passed around the picture she'd taken.  It was of a very attractive 45 year-old blonde woman, wearing makeup and a dress which showed off her curves.  She looked like someone I might enjoy meeting, and one could see the girl on the book in that woman's face.  But the iconic photo had definitely grown up.



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