Controversial Themes in The Giver
Critics respond to Lois Lowry's novel, The Giver, with nearly universal praise. The book has received more than ten prestigious awards, including the highly coveted Newbery Medal, which the American Library Association awarded it in 1994. (The ALA awards the Newbery Medal to the best book published in the United States for children or young adults in the preceding year.)
One reason for the novel's nearly unprecedented acclaim is that its storyline captures the interest of a wide group of readers and critics. For example, many scholars consider the novel to be dystopian (about a miserable society), and compare it favorably to adult classics like Brave New World (1933), Fahrenheit 451 (1953), and 1984 (1940) as well as to children's classics like White Mountains (1967) and A Wrinkle in Time (1962). Other scholars, like Patty Campbell, praise the novel for capturing the moral imaginations of its readers. Campbell lauds the novel for taking "hardened young-adult reviewers by surprise." The novel, she says, is so "rich in levels of meaning, so daring in complexity of symbol and metaphor, so challenging in the ambiguity of its conclusion, that we are left with all of our neat little everyday categories and judgments hanging useless."
While critics', librarians', educators', and students' responses to the novel seem like veritable fanfare, the novel has nevertheless become the center of a spirited censorship debate. To the surprise and indignation of many of the novels' enthusiasts, The Giver, according to a report by the People for the American Way, was the second most frequently challenged book in 1996. Parents in cities as geographically dispersed as Las Vegas, Nevada, Columbia Falls, Montana, Palm Springs, California, and Brecksville, Ohio, have protested use of the novel in public schools because it contains adult themes like infanticide (baby killing) and euthanasia (mercy deaths). In one particularly controversial scene, Jonas, the protagonist in the novel, watches as his father carefully directs a needle "into the top of newchild's forehead, puncturing the place where the fragile skin pulsed." His father says cheerfully, "I know, I know. It hurts, little guy. But I have to use a vein, and the veins in your arms are still too teeny-weeny." Jonas's father pushes in the plunger, then says, "All done," and sends the small corpse down a trash chute. Would-be censors object to the scene because it is so graphic, and because it transforms Jonas's once beloved father into a cold-blooded murderer.
The irony of censorship attacks on the novel is that The Giver dramatizes the plight of an individual living in a society that censors its peoples' language, emotions, and behaviors. This irony is compounded by the fact that most who would like to see The Giver censored confess that they have never read the novel in its entirety. However, would-be censors raise important questions, not just about Lowry's novel, but about all novels for youth. For example, parent Anna Cerbasi of Port Saint Lucie, Florida, who asked school board members to remove the novel from middle-school shelves, objected to the book because "Nobody is a family. They kill the baby who cries at night. I read it and thought—no way. Not for sixth grade. Maybe high school, maybe." Ms. Cerbasi's concerns about the novel raise legitimate questions about who should decide which books are appropriate for which children, and whether or not disturbing stories are appropriate for youth even if they teach a valuable lesson.
However, these large questions cannot be answered on the basis of one book. In fact, a surprising number of books written for youth contain graphic and disturbing materials. It seems likely that Lowry's novel has been more controversial than most, not because it is any more "dangerous" than other books, but because it has been so widely integrated into school curricula and has therefore caught more parents' attention than less accessible books. Given the size of the question—how can one evaluate whether or not terrifying materials are appropriate for a youthful reader—it is most realistic to respond to would-be censors' concerns by presenting a constructive reading of The Giver, a reading which is consistent with educators' efforts to discuss controversial scenes in sensitive and responsible ways.
Critics and censors all agree that Jonas's situation in The Giver is horrifying. Through a series of shocking events, he discovers that "release" is actually murder, that his people literally have limited vision (they can only see in black and white, so do not notice racial differences, or colors of any kind), and that his people have no way to think for themselves, or to make decisions without The Giver's help. (They have no memories of pain and pleasure, and they are sedated so as not to...
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