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Lois Lowry's Newbery-winning 'Giver' still ignites debate

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

By Karen MacPherson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Published in 1993, "The Giver" by Lois Lowry has become a cultural lightning rod. The book, which has sold 3.5 million copies, has sparked countless passionate discussions among middle school and high school readers.

Click photo for larger image.


"Black and White and Read All Over" is at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Carnegie Library Lecture Hall, Oakland. Admission: $7; 412-622-8866.

Lowry will also discuss "Crafting a Novel: One Writer's View" at 4 p.m. Friday 2/20 in the Sanger Lecture Room, Coolidge Hall First Floor, Chatham College, Shadyside. This event is free, and open to the public.

A number of American towns and cities have chosen it for communitywide reading projects, and the book is a popular gift for graduations and bar mitzvahs.

But "The Giver," which won the 1994 Newbery Medal, also is among the most challenged books in the nation, according to the American Library Association. These challenges are filed by adults who contend that the book supports euthanasia, abortion and infanticide. Lowry, as well as the book's many fans, vehemently deny these charges.

"The reasons that people give for challenging the book make it clear that they haven't read it," Lowry said. "It's saddening and frustrating because it seems to me that this is a very moral book."

While Lowry has written 30 books, and even won another Newbery Medal (in 1990 for "Number the Stars"), it's clear that "The Giver" is the most talked-about book she's ever written. A few years ago, she published a companion book, "Gathering Blue," as an answer to readers who loved "The Giver" but hated its ambiguous ending.

Now, Lowry is about to publish "Messenger," the third -- and, she insists, final -- installment. Because of the success of "The Giver," there's been a lot of buzz among both booksellers and readers impatient for "Messenger."

"My other Newbery book is also very popular. But it doesn't spark the constant debate and discussion that 'The Giver' does," Lowry said.

Critic Anita Silvey, in her forthcoming book "100 Best Books for Children," calls "The Giver" not only one of the greatest novels of the 1990s for children, but also one of the greatest science fiction novels for young readers of all time.

Lowry will talk about her work Saturday at the Carnegie Library's "Black, White & Read All Over" program. She's heard that people planning to attend the event want her to discuss her lighthearted "Anastasia Krupnik" series, as well as the novel she published last year, "The Silent Boy," which is set in Pennsylvania.

"But I know people will also want to talk about the new book ['Messenger'] because of its connection to 'The Giver,' " Lowry said.

Lowry, 68, got the idea for "The Giver" years ago when she was traveling regularly to visit her parents, who were in a nursing home. Her father was still in decent physical health, but his memory was failing. Her mother was very ill physically, but her memory was intact.

"I would travel home with that in my mind, and I began to think a lot about the concept of memory. When it was time for me to begin a new book, I began to create in my mind a place and a group of people who had somehow found the capacity to control memory," Lowry said.

In "The Giver," the characters live in a place that seems an ideal world, where there is no poverty, conflict or injustice. The main character is a 12-year-old boy named Jonas, who is apprenticed to the Giver -- the keeper of the community's memories.

Through his apprenticeship, Jonas, called "one of literature's most impassioned young protagonists" by Silvey, begins to question the assumptions on which his utopian community rests, especially after a scene in which an adult kills a baby. Eventually, Jonas must make a wrenching choice that will determine his path and that of his baby brother Gabriel for the rest of their lives.

The book ends on an ambiguous note, as Lowry leaves it up to readers to decide what happens to Jonas. "I saw it as an optimistic ending. I didn't feel the need to further explain it, or go on with a sequel," Lowry said. "What I like about provocative books in general is that they allow readers to bring their own beliefs, political as well as religious, to the fiction, to fit them in, to find the symbolism."

In fact, middle and high school teachers often use the ambiguity of the ending of "The Giver" as a jumping-off point for students, and ask them to write an essay about what they think happens to Jonas. Lowry has received many of these essays over the years.

But she also received a torrent of complaints from readers, both children and adults, who wanted her to write a sequel. Although she was at first adamantly opposed to the idea, Lowry eventually decided to do a companion book, in which readers get a sense -- however vague -- of how Jonas ended up.

"Now, I don't generally cater to the reading public's whims and wishes. But their reaction affected me, I think, in that it made me want to sort out things for myself," Lowry said.

"Although I had felt comfortable leaving Jonas where I left him, I had also begun to think a lot along the lines of, what if society had not evolved in the highly technological way it was in Jonas' world? What if, after some cataclysmic event, society had reverted to a quite primitive state?"

The second book, "Gathering Blue," focuses on a girl named Kira. Recently orphaned and lame, Kira fears that she will be cast out of the society. But Kira's talent for embroidery saves her, and she is given the task of restoring an important ceremonial robe.

Through her work, and with the help of a young boy named Matt, Kira comes to question the society in which she lives. As with Jonas, how Kira responds will change her life forever.

"But then I was left with a second ambiguous ending and another character I loved and didn't want to let go of: Matt," Lowry said. "So I simply decided to follow Matt as he moved on in his life, and to portray the others, like Jonas, Gabe and Kira, in the places they had made for themselves," Lowry said.

In "Messenger," Matt is now a young man, who lives in the Village, a utopian community. The story follows Matt as he journeys through the dangerous Forest to try to persuade Kira to return with him to the Village before its gates are closed forever.

"I don't intend to write another book" in this series, Lowry said. "A trilogy is a nice thing."

Meanwhile, Lowry has begun work on another, very different book. Although she won't talk much about her work in progress, Lowry did disclose that it is "a lighthearted book, a bit of a romp, with a lot of stock characters, mistaken identities, romance, villains with black underwear and bad breath and a happy ending all around."

Karen MacPherson can be reached at or 1-202-662-7075.

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