Stories and fairy tales play an important role throughout Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars. Annemarie Johansen tells her younger sister Kirsti fairy tales to lull her to sleep each night—and even comforts herself in times of fear or danger by comparing herself to figures of fantasy such as Little Red Riding-Hood or distant, storied figures from real life, such as the Danish king, Christian. By weaving in and out of real life and fantasy throughout the novel, Lowry suggests that stories have the power to sustain an individual’s hope, courage, and sense of purpose in moments when their “real” lives become places full of darkness, fear, and uncertainty.
Throughout the novel, Lowry shows how blurring the lines between fact and fiction often proves to be a saving grace not just for her characters, but for anyone struggling to make sense of frightening or dangerous circumstances. This is especially evident through the character of Annemarie’s five-year-old sister Kirsti, a daydreamer and the youngest character in the novel. She is also the most playful, yet her desire to immerse herself in fantasies full of big pink cupcakes and fairy-tales about far-off places shows just how deeply Kirsti is affected by the turmoil happening all around her. Stories are a way for Kirsti to shield herself from the violence of Nazi-occupied Copenhagen—and for others to help shield her, too. When a bombing in the harbor interrupts Kirsti’s birthday, Mama tells her that the city has put on a fireworks spectacle just for her. Months later, Kirsti clings to the story of her amazing birthday celebration—though whether she earnestly believes it to be true or knows it to be a farce is never revealed.
Kirsti also demands bedtime stories each night from Annemarie, and loves to hear not just about Little Red Riding-Hood and the characters of Hans Christian Andersen but also the real-life figure of the Danish monarch, King Christian, who bravely rides his horse unguarded through the Copenhagen streets each morning. The stories Kirsti’s family tells her are a way for her to both understand the world and to escape it—to confront fearful situations and prepare herself to face the worst while also surrendering to the respite of a fanciful fairy tale about good conquering evil.
Annemarie is often the arbiter of stories in her family—she is the one who lulls Kirsti to sleep each night with tales both fanciful and practical, and through her games of imagination with Ellen, she helps her persecuted friend also find respite in the face of uncertainty and danger. At the same time, Annemarie finds herself dipping into fantasy more than once as a way of coaching herself through a difficult situation. While in her parents’ apartment in Copenhagen, Annemarie often opens up her dead sister Lise’s trunk of possessions and bridal linens, reminiscing about her sister and playing with her beautiful things. Though not telling herself a tale in a narrative sense, in going through Lise’s possessions, Annemarie is continuing her sister’s story and considering what might have been had Lise lived to marry Peter Neilsen and enjoy a happy life. This ritual is a balm for Annemarie as much as it is a reminder of how dangerous things are in Copenhagen—and how anyone, even good and just people like Lise, could lose their life at any minute.
Annemarie’s second major detour into fantasy occurs when, towards the end of the novel, she must deliver an important packet to Uncle Henrik’s ship—a packet without which his mission to smuggle the Rosens and several other Danish Jews to freedom in Sweden may be doomed. As Annemarie weaves her way through the dark forest between Henrik’s house and the harbor, she jumps at every sound and startles at every root her foot grazes on the twisting path. To comfort herself, Annemarie reminds herself of the story of Little Red Riding-Hood—a story she has often told to Kirsti. Because the story is so familiar to Annemarie, in telling it to herself, she is able to convince herself that she knows what’s coming next and is prepared to face it. Because of the story, even when she does indeed confront some big bad wolves—in the form of two Nazis and their large dogs—she is prepared to face them, drawing strength and courage from the intrepid figure of Little Red herself.
Through the stories within the story of Number the Stars, Lois Lowry demonstrates the power of storytelling to provide both an escape from and a roadmap to life’s most difficult problems. As her characters dip in and out of stories and fantasies, these “escapes” actually nourish them and help them carry on in the face of fear, desperation, and sadness.
Reality vs. Fantasy ThemeTracker
Reality vs. Fantasy Quotes in Number the Stars
“Mama, is there anything to eat?” Annemarie asked, hoping to take her mother’s mind away from the soldiers.
“Take some bread. And give a piece to your sister.”
“With butter?” Kirsti asked hopefully.
“No butter,” her mother replied. “You know that.”
Kirsti sighed as Annemarie went to the breadbox in the kitchen. “I wish I could have a cupcake,” she said. “A big yellow cupcake, with pink frosting.”
Her mother laughed. “For a little girl, you have a long memory,” she told Kirsti. “There hasn’t been any butter, or sugar for cupcakes, for a long time. A year, at least.”
“When will there be cupcakes again?”
“When the war ends,” Mrs. Johansen said. She glanced through the window, down to the street corner where the soldiers stood, their faces impassive beneath the metal helmets. “When the soldiers leave.”
Redheaded Peter, her sister’s fiancé, had not married anyone in the years since Lise’s death. He had changed a great deal. Once he had been like a fun-loving older brother to Annemarie and Kirsti, teasing and tickling, always a source of foolishness and pranks. Now he still stopped by the apartment often, and his greetings to the girls were warm and smiling, but he was usually in a hurry, talking quickly to Mama and Papa about things Annemarie didn’t understand. He no longer sang the nonsense songs that had once made Annemarie and Kirsti shriek with laughter. And he never lingered anymore.
Papa had changed, too. He seemed much older and very tired, defeated.
The whole world had changed. Only the fairy tales remained the same.
“And they lived happily ever after,” Annemarie recited, whispering into the dark, completing the tale for her sister, who slept beside her, one thumb in her mouth.
Now she was ten, with long legs and no more silly dreams of pink-frosted cupcakes. And now she—and all the Danes—were to be bodyguard for Ellen, and Ellen’s parents, and all of Denmark’s Jews.
Would she die to protect them? Truly? Annemarie was honest enough to admit, there in the darkness, to herself, that she wasn’t sure.
For a moment she felt frightened. But she pulled the blanket up higher around her neck and relaxed. It was all imaginary, anyway—not real. 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. Oh, there were the soldiers; that was true. And the courageous Resistance leaders, who sometimes lost their lives; that was true, too.
But ordinary people like the Rosens and the Johansens? Annemarie admitted to herself, snuggling there in the quiet dark, that she was glad to be an ordinary person who would never be called upon for courage.
Alone in the apartment while Mama was out shopping with Kirsti, Annemarie and Ellen were sprawled on the living room floor playing with paper dolls. They had cut the dolls from Mama’s magazines, old ones she had saved from past years. The paper ladies had old-fashioned hair styles and clothes, and the girls had given them names from Mama’s very favorite book. Mama had told Annemarie and Ellen the entire story of Gone With the Wind, and the girls thought it much more interesting and romantic than the king-and-queen tales that Kirsti loved.
“Come, Melanie,” Annemarie said, walking her doll across the edge of the rug. “Let’s dress for the ball.”
“All right, Scarlett, I’m coming,” Ellen replied in a sophisticated voice. She was a talented performer; she often played the leading roles in school dramatics. Games of the imagination were always fun when Ellen played.
Annemarie grinned and walked her Scarlett toward the chair that Ellen had designated as Tivoli. She loved Tivoli Gardens, in the heart of Copenhagen; her parents had taken her there, often, when she was a little girl. She remembered the music and the brightly colored lights, the carousel and ice cream and especially the magnificent fireworks in the evenings: the huge colored splashes and bursts of lights in the evening sky.
“I remember the fireworks best of all,” she commented to Ellen.
“Me too,” Kirsti said. “I remember the fireworks.”
“Silly,” Annemarie scoffed. “You never saw the fireworks.” Tivoli Gardens was closed now. The German occupation forces had burned part of it, perhaps as a way of punishing the fun-loving Danes for their lighthearted pleasures.
Kirsti drew herself up, her small shoulders stiff. “I did too,” she said belligerently. “It was my birthday. I woke up in the night and I could hear the booms. And there were lights in the sky. Mama said it was fireworks for my birthday!”
Then Annemarie remembered. Kirsti’s birthday was late in August. And that night, only a month before, she, too, had been awakened and frightened by the sound of explosions. Kirsti was right—the sky in the southeast had been ablaze, and Mama had comforted her by calling it a birthday celebration.
“You said that we would hide her. How can we do that? Where can she hide?”
Papa smiled. “That part is easy. It will be as your mama said: you two will sleep together in your bed, and you may giggle and talk and tell secrets to each other. And if anyone comes—”
Ellen interrupted him. “Who might come? Will it be soldiers? Like the ones on the corners?” Annemarie remembered how terrified Ellen had looked the day when the soldier had questioned them on the corner.
“I really don’t think anyone will. But it never hurts to be prepared. If anyone should come, even soldiers, you two will be sisters. You are together so much, it will be easy for you to pretend that you are sisters.”
Annemarie and Ellen got to their feet. Papa suddenly crossed the room and put his arms around them both. He kissed the top of each head: Annemarie’s blond one, which reached to his shoulder, and Ellen’s dark hair, the thick curls braided as always into pigtails.
“Don’t be frightened,” he said to them softly. “Once I had three daughters. Tonight I am proud to have three daughters again.”
“Ellen,” [Annemarie] whispered urgently, “take your necklace off!”
Ellen’s hands flew to her neck. Desperately she began trying to unhook the tiny clasp. Outside the bedroom door, the harsh voices and heavy footsteps continued.
“I can’t get it open!” Ellen said frantically. “I never take it off—I can’t even remember how to open it!”
Annemarie heard a voice just outside the door. “What is here?”
“Shhh,” her mother replied. “My daughters’ bedroom. They are sound asleep.”
“Hold still,” Annemarie commanded. “This will hurt.” She grabbed the little gold chain, yanked with all her strength, and broke it. As the door opened and light flooded into the bedroom, she crumpled it into her hand and closed her fingers tightly.
Terrified, both girls looked up at the three Nazi officers who entered the room.
“So, Henrik, is the weather good for fishing?” Papa asked cheerfully, and listened briefly.
Then he continued, “I’m sending Inge to you today with the children, and she will be bringing you a carton of cigarettes.
“Yes, just one,” he said, after a moment. Annemarie couldn’t hear Uncle Henrik’s words. “But there are a lot of cigarettes available in Copenhagen now, if you know where to look,” he went on, “and so there will be others coming to you as well, I’m sure.”
But it wasn’t true. Annemarie was quite certain it wasn’t true. Cigarettes were the thing that Papa missed, the way Mama missed coffee. He complained often—he had complained only yesterday—that there were no cigarettes in the stores. The men in his office, he said, making a face, smoked almost anything: sometimes dried weeds rolled in paper, and the smell was terrible.
Why was Papa speaking that way, almost as if he were speaking in code? What was Mama really taking to Uncle Henrik?
Then she knew. It was Ellen.
“How brave are you, little Annemarie?” [Uncle Henrik] asked suddenly. She was startled. And dismayed. It was a question she did not want to be asked. When she asked it of herself, she didn’t like her own answer.
“Not very,” she confessed, looking at the floor of the barn.
Tall Uncle Henrik knelt before her so that his face was level with hers. Behind him, Blossom lowered her head, grasped a mouthful of hay in her mouth, and drew it in with her tongue. The kitten cocked its head, waiting, still hoping for spilled milk.
“I think that is not true,” Uncle Henrik said. “I think you are like your mama, and like your papa, and like me. Frightened, but determined, and if the time came to be brave, I am quite sure you would be very, very brave.
“But,” he added, “it is much easier to be brave if you do not know everything. And so your mama does not know everything. Neither do I. We know only what we need to know.
“Do you understand what I am saying?” he asked, looking into her eyes.
Annemarie frowned. She wasn’t sure. What did bravery mean?
“So little Red Riding-Hood carried the basket of food and hurried along through the woods. It was a lovely morning, and birds were singing. Little Red Riding-Hood sang, too, as she walked.”
Sometimes she changed that part of the story, telling it to Kirsti. Sometimes it was raining, or even snowing, in the woods. Sometimes it was evening, with long, frightening shadows, so that Kirsti, listening, would snuggle closer and wrap her arms around Annemarie. But now, telling it to herself, she wanted sunlight and bird song.