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The Giver by Lois Lowry

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Cover art of the young adult book The Giver by Lois Lowry a Newbery Medal winner
Houghton Mifflin


Imagine living in a society of sameness where you find no color, no family connections, and no memory; a society where life is governed by rigid rules that resist change and resent questioning. Welcome to the world of Lois Lowry’s 1994 Newbery award-winning book The Giver, a powerful and controversial book about a utopian community and young boy’s dawning realizations about oppression, choices, and human connections.

The Story Line of The Giver

Twelve-year old Jonas is looking forward to the Ceremony of Twelves and getting his new assignment. He will miss his friends and their games, but at 12 he is required to set aside his child-like activities. With excitement and fear, Jonas and the rest of the new Twelves are bid a formal “thank you for your childhood” by the head elder as they move into the next phase of community work.

In The Giver’s utopian community rules govern every aspect of life from speaking in precise language (never use the word "love" because it is too vague and meaningless) to sharing dreams and feelings at daily family councils. In this perfect world climate is controlled, births are regulated, and everyone is given an assignment based on ability. Couples are matched and applications for children are reviewed and assessed. The elderly are honored, apologies (and the acceptance of apologies) are mandatory.

In addition, anyone who refuses to follow rules or who exhibits weaknesses is “released” (a gentle euphemism for killed). If twins are born, the one weighing the least is scheduled for release while the other is taken to a nurturing facility. Daily pills to suppress desires and “stirrings” are taken by citizens beginning at age twelve. There is no choice, no disruption, and no human connections.

This is the world Jonas knows until he is assigned to train under the Receiver and become his successor. The Receiver holds all the memories of the community and it’s his job to pass on this heavy burden to Jonas. As the old Receiver begins to give Jonas the memories of ages past, Jonas starts to see colors and experience new feelings. He learns there are words to label the emotions that are erupting inside him: pain, joy, sorrow, and love. The passing of memories from aged man to boy deepens their relationship and Jonas experiences a powerful need to share his new found awareness.

Jonas wants others to experience the world as he sees it, but the Receiver explains that letting loose these memories all at once into the community would be unbearable and painful. Jonas is weighed down by this new knowledge and awareness and finds solace in discussing his feelings of frustration and amazement with his mentor. Behind a closed door with the speaker device turned to OFF, Jonas and the Receiver discuss the forbidden topics of choice, fairness, and individuality. Early in their relationship Jonas begins to see the old Receiver as a Giver because of the memories and knowledge he is giving to him.

Jonas quickly finds his world shifting. He sees his community with new eyes and when he understands the real meaning of “release” and learns a sad truth about the Giver, he begins to make plans for change. However, when Jonas finds out that a young child he’s grown fond of is being prepared for release, both he and the Giver quickly alter their plans and prepare for a daring escape full of risk, danger, and death for all involved.

Author Lois Lowry

Lois Lowry wrote her first book, A Summer to Die, in 1977 at the age of forty. Since then she’s written more than thirty books for children and teens, often tackling serious topics such as debilitating illnesses, the Holocaust, and repressive governments. The winner of two Newbery Medals and other accolades, Lowry continues to write the types of stories she feels represents her views about humanity. On her Web site she explains, “My books have varied in content and style. Yet it seems that all of them deal, essentially, with the same general theme: the importance of human connections” (Source: Lois Lowry's Web site). Born in Hawaii, Lowry, the second of three children, moved all over the world with her Army dentist father. She raised her own family of four children in Maine, but currently lives in Cambridge Massachusetts where she continues to write. For more about Lois Lowry, read Spotlight on Author Lois Lowry.

Awards: The Giver

Over the years Lois Lowry has accumulated multiple awards for her books, but the most prestigious are her two Newbery Medals for Number the Stars (1990) and The Giver (1994). In 2007 the American Library Association honored Lowry with the Margaret A. Edwards Award for Lifetime Contribution to Young Adult Literature.

Controversy, Challenges and Censorship: The Giver

Despite the many accolades The Giver has garnered, it has met with enough opposition to put it on the American Library Association’s most frequently challenged and banned books list for the years 1990-1999 and 2000-2009. Controversy over the book focuses on two topics: suicide and euthanasia. When a minor character determines she can no longer endure her life, she asks to be “released”. To be “released” in the world of The Giver is to be killed. According to an article in USA Today, opponents of the book argue that Lowry fails to “explain that suicide is not a solution to life’s problems.” (Source: USA Today). In addition to the concern about suicide, opponents of the book criticize Lowry’s handling of euthanasia. In The Giver when members of the community exhibit frailties or weaknesses, they are released from the community.

Supporters of the book counter these criticisms by arguing that children are being exposed to social issues that will make them think more analytically about governments, personal choice, and relationships. When asked for her opinion on book banning Lowry responded: "I think banning books is a very, very dangerous thing. It takes away an important freedom. Any time there is an attempt to ban a book, you should fight it as hard as you can. It's okay for a parent to say, 'I don't want my child to read this book.' But it is not okay for anyone to try to make that decision for other people. The world portrayed in The Giver is a world where choice has been taken away. It is a frightening world. Let's work hard to keep it from truly happening. (Source: Lois Lowry's Web site)

The Giver Quartet

While The Giver can be read as a standalone book, Lowry has written companion books to further explore the meaning of community. Gathering Blue (published in 2000) introduces readers to Kira, a crippled orphan girl with a gift for needlework. Messenger, published in 2004, is the story of Mattie who is first introduced in Gathering Blue as Kira’s friend. In fall 2012 Lowry's Son will be published. Son is being heralded as the grand finale in Lois Lowry's Giver books. Readers who are curious to learn more about Jonas, the central character in The Giver, can look forward to some cameo appearances in Lowry’s quartet.

My Recommendation: The Giver

Don’t be deceived by the slimness of this book; it is a deep and thoughtful read. I first read The Giver in my late teens when my typical book fare consisted of historical and realistic fiction. This dystopian read about a futuristic society was a reading journey outside my realm of experience; this was a book that took me down a different story path and Jonas’s society did bother me. Being bothered or disturbed by a book, I think, is a sign of great writing because it means the reader is being motivated to think about content. Lowry is very careful in creating this utopian community and she allows readers to form their own opinions and come to their own conclusions about social issues and outcomes by being deliberately open ended in parts of her storytelling. A reader is free to interpret for him or herself the direction of the story.

Admittedly, when I revisited this book as an adult, I had a great deal more experience to help me understand the world of The Giver. As an adult I knew more about different types of governments and their roles, had more life experience in my back pocket regarding personal choice, and I could better analyze why a society might choose to live with rigidity and sameness. As Jonas and the Giver discuss what is happening in their society Jonas says, “We really protect people from wrong choices.” The Giver’s response is frighteningly clear that the reason the government takes away the ability to choose is because “It’s safer”. Here again Lowry provides readers with an observation of the community without rendering judgment.

The Giver is a powerful book with all the elements of a classic in the tradition of Orwell’s 1984 and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Tales of oppressive governments that stifle freedom and breed monotonous lives void of color are cautionary tales that remind us of the value of human relationships and personal choice. I strongly recommend this award-winning book for readers 12 and up. (Ember, 1993. ISBN: 9780385732550).

Additional Recommended Books for Teens

Teens who enjoy The Giver may also enjoy Lauren Oliver's Delirium and Unwind by Neal Shusterman, as well as the Hunger Games trilogy.

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