For our second-annual Banned Books Celebration, PEN America once again reached out to PEN members, supporters, and staff—writers and editors of all backgrounds and genres—who sent us their reflections on the banned books that matter most to them. Today’s piece comes from PEN’s own Sarah Hoffman, Freedom to Write Program Coordinator. To find out more about how you can get involved with Banned Books Month, click here


“Brave?” Annemarie asked, surprised. “No, I wasn’t. I was very frightened.”

“You risked your life.”

“But I didn’t even think about that! I was only thinking of—”

He interrupted her, smiling. “That’s all that brave means—not thinking about the dangers. Just thinking about what you must do. Of course you were frightened. I was too, today. But you kept your mind on what you had to do. So did I.”

-Lois Lowry, Number the Stars


In February 2010, I received an email from PEN Member Lois Lowry alerting me to a worrying message she received from a teacher at Tarsus American College, a private high school in Turkey. Apparently, her Newbery Award-winning young adult novel, Number the Stars, had been removed from the school’s library and banned from the curriculum after investigators from the Turkish Department of Education visited the school. At the time, we were concerned that it could have been some strange retaliation for a pending U.S. House of Representatives resolution condemning Turkey for the Armenian genocide.

The controversy blew over, or it was whitewashed—whatever you call it, the book reportedly was back in the schools after a time and all was seemingly well. But to this day, I’ve wondered why this book, which my mother bought for me soon after its 1989 publication and likely shaped my interests and who I am today, was even questioned.

Number the Stars, told from the perspective of 10-year-old Annemarie Johansen, takes place in Copenhagen almost exactly 70 years ago, in late September 1943—at the start of the Jewish High Holy Days—as the occupying Nazis begin their quest to wipe out Denmark’s Jews. Annemarie’s best friend, Ellen Rosen, lives in the same apartment building; their parents are close. When, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Rosens learn from their rabbi that the Nazis had lists, that they were coming for them for “relocation,” Denmark’s resistance movement was called into action. So was Annemarie.

“How brave are you, little Annemarie?”

The story asks the question of each of us. What would you do if your neighbors faced annihilation? Not all of Europe scored well on that test of decency. In fact when I visited my ancestral hometown of Bedzin, Poland, after our bi-annual PEN International Writers in Prison Committee conference earlier this year, barely a trace of my family, my family’s friends, their ancestors, could be found. Overturned headstones covered in moss and obscured by tall weeds were all I could find of that town’s once majority Jewish population. All those I came into contact with that day stared at my grandmother’s Star of David hanging from a chain around my neck, questioning, wondering, all a little wary, it seemed.

But in Denmark the story was different. In Denmark, entire communities banded together to protect the “other,” the “stranger,” and saved nearly all of the country’s 7,000 Jews. How brave, indeed? This story, and the fact that it was challenged in an obscure Turkish school, made me think of another brave woman: Ayşe Berktay. Ayşe, an ethnically Turkish woman on trial for her peaceful activism for Kurdish rights, could be considered a present-day Annemarie. She, too, put her life on the line to defend the rights, the lives, of others. A translator, Ayşe believes in keeping cultures alive, creating bridges across them. She’s fought for the right of the Kurdish people to use their own language—the destruction of which, by another people, another nation, could be considered a form of genocide.

That takes courage: to speak for the other, for the many stars that would remain unnamed if we were not to recognize each of them. This was what I learned growing up, reading stories like these, but it’s not always easy to do—certainly not in a country where punishment could be death, as in Nazi-occupied Denmark, or prison, in Turkey. But it’s a question we should ask ourselves each day. How brave are you?