Lois Lowry's children's book Number the Stars has enchanted young readers for over twenty years. This is partly due to the fact that, in addition to interesting characters and plot, the book contains a number of important themes that children can relate to as they are exiting elementary school and entering their middle school years. Among these, courage and freedom are the most clearly defined and expanded upon.
Freedom is introduced from the very beginning, when Lowry places the reader in Denmark during World War II. When Annemarie, her friend Ellen, and her little sister Kirsti are stopped by a German soldier on the way home from school, Lowry portrays the event as frightening for the older girls, but nonetheless unsurprising. All three are accustomed to seeing them walking the streets of Copenhagen on a daily basis, and Kirsti cannot even remember a time before they came.
As the reader learns in coming chapters, the Danes are not strong enough to drive them out, but have nonetheless maintained their identity and have not forgotten that the Germans are foreigners. Some have even created a newspaper called The Free Dane, which reports on "unfavorable" news the Germans would normally have suppressed. Annemarie learns of it because Peter Nielson, a family friend and the former fiancee of Annemarie and Kirsti's dead older sister, brings the newspaper on occasion to her family's house. The spirit of freedom and desire to continue to maintain their identity and to regain independence is clear among Annemarie's family and friends, and remains strong to the end.
It is within this context of Nazi occupation that the Annemarie begins to learn about courage. At the beginning, she thinks it takes special people, great people, people more extraordinary than herself to show courage, and that courage would never become an issue for her in real life. "It was only in the fairy tales that people were called upon to be so brave, to die for one another. Not in real-life Denmark." Then her friend Ellen's family discovers they are in trouble. They are Jewish, and the Nazis are planning to deport them.
Although, as the Annemarie's father tells, her Danish people don't know the details, they do know this is dangerous. So they - through the Danish resistance - find a way to protect their Jewish friends. Gradually, through observation, Annemarie learns that the people around her are already being brave - for themselves, for each other, and her - and that they are showing even more courage when they learn that their friends and families are in danger. The learns what courage means to them also - that sometimes, secrets are kept and lies are told to protect in dangerous times, and that having courage doesn't mean she can't be afraid. It only means she does what she must in spite of the fear, in spite of the danger. She also discovers that she, too, can be courageous in order to protect what is valuable to her.
In little more than a hundred pages, through a story based on actual events, Number the Stars teaches young readers about themes and values that are important in their own lives and in the lives of those around them. Readers walk away with the sense of admiration for Annemarie and her people, and with the sense that they, too, should strive to fulfill the ideals these themes represent.