The Edwards Award-winner talks about <i>The Giver</i>’s controversial past and, yes, its enigmatic ending
By Anita Silvey — School Library Journal, 06/01/2007
Who would’ve guessed that the author of a sci-fi masterpiece would live in a Federal Colonial house with a picket fence? But then again, it’s never wise to second-guess Lois Lowry. In the early ’90s, in a radical departure from her previous 20 novels for young readers, Lowry wrote The Giver (1993), the tale of a futuristic society that appears to have everything under control, including war, poverty, and old age. The story charts the awakening of 12-year-old Jonas, who becomes an apprentice to the Giver, the keeper of the community’s suppressed memories—a steep price to pay for social stability.
Wildly successful with reviewers and readers, The Giver won the 1994 Newbery Medal and sold more than 3.5 million copies worldwide. Over the years, the provocative novel also has been among the American Library Association’s most challenged titles, with parents alleging that it encourages euthanasia and undermines motherhood, among other things. In late January, Lowry was awarded the Margaret A. Edwards Award for The Giver. The award, administered by the Young Adult Library Services Association and sponsored by School Library Journal, honors an author’s lifetime contributions to young people’s literature.
As a girl, Lowry says she dreamed of becoming a writer and “always scribbled stories and poems in notebooks.” Her father was a dentist in the United States Army, and the family lived all over the world, including Hawaii, Tokyo, New York City, and Pennsylvania. Before Lowry began writing children’s books in the mid-’70s, she worked as a freelance writer and photographer, and her photographs appear on the covers of Number the Stars (1989), the winner of the 1990 Newbery Medal, The Giver, and its sequel Gathering Blue (2000, all Houghton). I visited Lowry at her home, in Cambridge, MA, shortly after she learned about the Edwards Award. While we talked, her Tibetan terrier, Alfie, frequently presented his ears and belly for inspection and admiration.
What led you to write The Giver?
In 1992, my mother and my father, both in their late 80s, were residents of the same nursing home in Staunton, VA. My mother was blind and very frail but her mind was completely intact. My father was healthier, physically, but his memory was going. I would frequently fly down from Boston to see them. On one particular visit, my mother wanted to tell me the stories about her life. I sat and listened to her talk about her childhood, her college years, and her marriage to my dad. In the course of retelling those anecdotes, she related the details about the death of her first child, my sister Helen, clearly her saddest memory. But she wanted to retell it.
How did your father react to those visits?
My brother and I had prepared a photograph album filled with images to spark his memory. In 1956, he had had a green Chrysler that he loved. When he saw a picture of it, his eyes would always light up. That day, he came upon a picture of two little girls, and he said, “There you are with your sister. I can’t remember her name.” I told him her name was Helen. He looked a little puzzled, a little confused, and asked, “What ever happened to her?” I had to tell him that she had died; for him it was as if her death had just occurred. I turned the pages to show a house we had lived in, a dog that we had had. But within five minutes, there was another picture of the two daughters. He lit up again and said, “Oh, there you are with Helen. I can’t remember what happened to her.”
How did you incorporate those experiences into The Giver?
Driving back to the airport that day, I began to think about memory—how we use it, how painful it can be, yet how necessary. What if we could manipulate it? What if I could leave my mother with all those happy memories of puppies and picnics and take away the sad memory of the day her daughter died?
I began to play with the idea of people who had learned to manipulate memory. I realized such a story would have to be set in the future. I began creating a community quite different from the ones we now have. I never thought of the book as a science-fiction novel or that I might need to explain its technology. I still get letters from readers, usually boys, asking for specific details of how the weather was controlled or color removed from objects. But I didn’t feel a need to put technology in the book. Nor would I have known how to figure it out!
Did you always know that the society you were creating was going to be a dystopia?
In creating that community, I had to figure out what their world would consist of and what they had been able to control. They were without war, poverty, crime, alcoholism, divorce—and without the troubling memories of those things. Only gradually did I begin to understand that I was not creating a utopia—but a dystopia. I slowly understood that I was writing about a group of people who had at some point in the past made collective choices and terrible sacrifices in order to achieve a level of comfort and security.
Did you ever imagine The Giver would become a classroom favorite?
What I did not know then—and what I have over the years come to realize and been surprised by—is the number of political questions that their society raises. That’s why teachers love using the book. They can find many books with as compelling a plot as The Giver. But they can’t find many books that provoke adolescents—who are tough nuts, anyway—to see issues that confront their world and to be passionately interested in them. The inclusion of this discussion material, however, was not purposeful on my part.
What about the theological symbolism that some find in the book—those Old Testament names Jonas and Gabriel?
I wasn’t conscious of adding any theological symbolism. If I had begun to think in literally Christian terms, I would have backed off of the project because I have no interest in writing “religious” books. Still, clearly, the theology is there, inherent in the story. Many Christian churches have taken The Giver up as part of their religion curriculum, and many Jewish people give it as a bar mitzvah gift.
At the same time, some fundamentalist leaders want it removed from everyone’s hands. I am still, I must be honest, mystified by the challenges from the very conservative churches. I think, on one level, the book can be read supporting conservative ideals—it challenges the tendencies in any society to allow an invasive government to legislate lives.
Can you talk a little about your writing process? You have an amazing ability to create descriptions that seem specific and yet are general enough to give readers a chance to create their own images.
I tend to be very visual; I see things as I am writing. I select the details that I am seeing to help the reader envision the same scene. I got a letter many years ago from a child in Denver who said she wanted to be a writer. She had read A Summer to Die (Houghton, 1977). She talked about the meadow scene in the book, and said, “I could just see that meadow. How did you make it possible for me to see that meadow?” I wrote back and said I can’t describe everything, so I have to choose details that will create a scene in a reader’s mind. The meadow that she was seeing would not be the one I am seeing, but I had put enough details for her to envision her own meadow. Later I got another letter from her, with a folded page of the Denver Post. Her picture covered half the page, and the caption read, “Blind child wins writing award.”
How many drafts did The Giver go through?
I always rewrite as I write, so there was never any moment in the writing of a first draft that I went back and redid the whole thing. I intentionally left the ending ambiguous. I then presented Walter Lorraine, my editor, with what I considered a finished version of the book. (I always know, of course, that he will react to a manuscript and then I will rewrite.) Because the book was so different from anything else I had written, Walter had two other editors prepare full editorial notes on the manuscript, something that only happened on this one [book].
What changes did you make?
In the original manuscript, the boy sees color for the first time in a red ball. One of the editors raised the question as to why this community would be manufacturing items with color when they have no color. I changed the object to an apple, and then when Jonas sees color, it occurs in a natural object. In the end, I left most of the manuscript as it was, including the ambiguous conclusion.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
I always wish I had expanded that final section after Jonas leaves the community. It was supposed to encompass a great deal of time and distance, and it feels too fast-paced for me, finished too quickly. But the book was approaching 200 pages. At some point, I had been told that if a book went over that length, the price of the book had to go up, and in retrospect, I think I was overly concerned about that. However, if I had made it an extended journey with only two people in it, there might not have been enough happening to hold the reader’s interest.
I liked the ambiguity of the ending, but I always felt that there was optimism to it. It never occurred to me that people would believe that Jonas had died.
How do you feel about the way the book has been adapted for stage and screen?
It has been adapted for the stage and performed in a number of cities, and a musical has been written. I saw the musical version in production in New York last fall before they took it on the road. The music is terrific, somewhat Sondheim-like. The movie has been in the works for years, being developed by Jeff Bridges along with others. But movies are always dependent upon financing, and there is some question about whether the film will actually ever be made. Three screenplays have been written, and the current one is excellent. I have no rights over the script, but they have allowed me to read each version. The screenwriter even asked for words, and at one point, I wrote the anthem that the schoolchildren chant. Naturally, they have had to add visual elements not in the book, but everything is very true to the [story].
If the movie gets produced, will the opening sequences be in black and white?
Yes, they intend to desaturate the film and create a black-and-white world. Onstage in Milwaukee, where they recently performed the play—and invited me to come—they used a particular kind of lighting that made the people and set all appear in grays, whites, and blacks, very monochromatic. Then very gradually, at first with an apple and then with books, by shining a light to permeate this world, color was added. It was quite dramatic, quite amazing.
What attracted you to writing books for children?
Melanie Kroupa, then at Houghton Mifflin, saw a story of mine in Redbook and asked me to consider writing a novel for young people. The resulting book became A Summer to Die. I was divorced the year that the book appeared, and for the first time I had to earn a living, not something easy to do as a writer. A Summer to Die won the International Reading Association’s children’s book award, and I started to hear from readers. Their letters were very moving, and I began to think that writing children’s books could be not only a viable way to support myself, but also a way of affecting young people at a time when they are vulnerable and open.
What are some of the most memorable things you’ve heard from readers of The Giver?
An eighth-grade teacher in South Carolina, who worked in a poor rural area, wrote to me about a day when they had had snow. Snow was so rare there that the schools closed down. She’d been reading The Giver to her class, and the worst troublemaker, the most disruptive boy, called her at home and demanded that she read the next chapter to him. He said he couldn’t live another day without hearing more of the book.
Another boy came up to me at a recent book signing. He had just graduated from high school, and he gave me a letter and asked me to read it later. In this note, he told me that he went to a private school, and in senior year each student had to speak to the entire school at an assembly. When his turn came, he went up on the stage and said that he learned more from reading one book than anything else that had happened at school. It affected him more than any class he had taken or any lecture he had heard. Consequently, he wanted to share that book with the assembly. He began to read The Giver aloud; the 30 minutes for his speech time came and went. But then he said, “I am going to read this whole book; you can come and go as you want.” Many got up and left, and some stayed, and some came back. Over the course of the next several hours, he read the complete text of The Giver.
Why do you continue to write for young people?
Although I enjoy writing lighthearted stories—like the books about Anastasia, Sam, and Gooney Bird Greene—I love knowing that I have also written books that can affect young people’s lives. That knowledge keeps me at it. That, and the entire book community, which has become something of a family—the most supportive kind of family—to me over the years. The Margaret A. Edwards Award is a kind of culmination of that support. But I would like to think that it doesn’t imply a conclusion, and that when it uses the term “lifetime,” it is with the awareness that my lifetime is still going strong, and that there are a few more books yet in me!
To watch a video of Lois Lowry discussing The Giver, visit TeachingBooks.net/Llowry.