Annemarie Johansen and Ellen Rosen are ten years old. They are best friends and live in Copenhagen, Denmark. The story begins in 1943, and Germany has occupied Denmark for the past three years. All around Copenhagen, German soldiers patrol the streets, searching for Jews and Resistance members.
Annemarie and Ellen race home from school, while Annemarie’s younger sister, Kirsti, trails behind. Annemarie hopes to win the running race at school the following week. As they barrel down the sidewalk, two German soldiers suddenly stop them. The tall soldier, whom Annemarie calls ‘The Giraffe,’ asks why they are running and questions them about their identities. The girls are scared but the soldier breaks the tension when he tries to touch Kirsti’s hair and Kirsti slaps his hand away. The Giraffe says that Kirsti reminds him of his own daughter back home. The soldiers let Annemarie and Ellen go, reminding them not to run because it makes them look like hoodlums.
Ellen, Annemarie, and Kirsti arrive at their apartment building. Ellen lives on the second floor and Annemarie and Kirsti live on the third. They agree not to tell their mothers about being stopped by the Germans because it will upset and worry them. However, Kirsti races ahead and starts talking about the Germans before Annemarie can stop her. Ellen’s mother, Mrs. Rosen, happens to be having coffee with Mrs. Johansen, Annemarie and Kirsti's mother. Both women are very upset when they hear about their daughters' encounter with the soldiers, but Annemarie does her best to assure them that everything is fine.
Mrs. Rosen makes Annemarie promise to walk to school a different way tomorrow. She explains that it is important for the girls to blend in with the crowd so that the Germans will not be able to remember their faces. Annemarie asks for a snack for herself and Kirsti, but all they get is bread without any butter. Because of the war, many Danes are facing severe food shortages. Many basic items like butter and coffee are unavailable in Denmark. Mama explains that they’ll have food again when the war ends.
In the first chapter of Number the Stars, Lowry introduces the main characters. In some instances, she directly states certain personality traits, such as Annemarie’s love of running and the depth of her friendship with Ellen. However, the girls' behavior in the opening scene is indicative of the ways in which their personalities will develop later on. For example, Annemarie talks to the German soldiers, showing that she is brave and protective of her friend and her sister. She also tries to prevent her mother from worrying about the soldiers, because she is sensitive to the fear that surrounds her.
Lowry also introduces the historical context of the novel in this opening chapter. She explains the German invasion of Denmark and how it has affected the lives of children like Annemarie. Even though children kept going to school and followed a relatively normal routine, the occupation disrupted their lives in many other ways. Because of food shortages, they could not indulge in simple pleasures like cupcakes and trips to the seashore. More importantly, Jewish children like Ellen had to live in constant fear that German soldiers would capture their families and send them away to concentration camps.
In Chapter 1, Lowry foreshadows the Johansen family’s role in the Resistance. She mentions briefly that Annemarie’s parents read an illegal resistance newspaper, and Mama’s close friendship with Mrs. Rosen is evidence of their tolerance. In later chapters, Lowry reveals that Mama and Papa have tried to keep their level of involvement in Resistance activities hidden from Annemarie and Kirsti. However, when the Rosens find themselves in mortal danger because of their Jewish heritage, the whole Johansen family must work together to save them.
That same night, Annemarie tells Kirsti a bedtime story to help the little girl fall asleep. When Kirsti finally nods off, Annemarie thinks about King Christian X, the King of Denmark. All of the Danes love King Christian, who rides his horse around Copenhagen each morning to greet citizens. Annemarie and her older sister, Lise, once watched him pass by, looking on in admiration.
Annemarie remembers a story her father told her about King Christian when the Germans first invaded. A German soldier saw King Christian riding down the street but did know who this man was. The soldier asked a young Danish boy who was riding past. The Danish boy informed the German that this was Denmark's King, and the German asked where the King’s bodyguard was. The boy replied, "the whole population of Denmark is the King’s bodyguard."
Back then, Papa explained that every true Dane would die for King Christian, including himself and Mama. Annemarie, only 7 at the time, stated that she would die for the King, too. Looking back, Annemarie wonders why King Christian chose to surrender rather than fight the Germans. Papa had explained that many Danish people would have died if they had chosen to fight because the German military is much more powerful than Denmark's. Annemarie muses that the Germans occupy many European countries now, but Sweden is still free.
Annemarie also thinks about her eighteen-year-old sister, Lise, who died in an accident two weeks before her wedding. She was engaged to Peter Neilsen, who still visits the family often. He talks to Mama and Papa about the Resistance and brings them De Frie Danske, an illegal newspaper. Before Lise’s death, he was cheerful and fun-loving. Now, he seems stressed and unhappy.
Although Number the Stars is a book for young people, Lowry does not shy away from writing about death. Papa is honest when Annemarie asks him about the war. He tells her that Resistance members are sometimes killed for their activities, and that many more Danes would have died if Denmark had not surrendered to Germany. He also explains why many Danes are willing to die for their king and their country. Although it is unlikely that Papa would have these conversations with his ten-year-old daughter under any other circumstances, Annemarie knows that there is turmoil brewing around her and her parents make sure that she understands the level of the threat.
Although Chapter 2 is relatively uneventful, Lowry foreshadows future plot points. Annemarie mentions Sweden, a free country, and observes that it is visible from her uncle’s house. Annemarie's memory about her Uncle Henrik pointing out Sweden is an organic way for Lowry to establish the geographical context of the story.