Essays and Criticism
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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Newbery Medal Acceptance
"How do you know where to start?" a child asked me once, in a schoolroom where I'd been speaking to her class about the writing of books. I shrugged and smiled and told her that I just start wherever it feels right.
This evening it feels right to start by quoting a passage from The Giver, a scene set during the days in which the boy, Jonas, is beginning to look more deeply into the life that has been very superficial, beginning to see that his own past goes back further than he had ever known and has greater implications than he had ever suspected.
Now he saw the familiar wide river beside the path differently. He saw all of the light and color and history it contained and earned in its slow-moving water, and he knew that there was an Elsewhere from which it came, and an Elsewhere to which it was going.
Every author is asked again and again the question we probably each have come to dread the most: How did you get this idea?
We give glib, quick answers because there are other hands raised, other kids in the audience waiting.
I'd like, tonight, to dispense with my usual flippancy and glibness and try to tell you the origins of this book. It is a little like Jonas looking into the river and realizing that it carries with it everything that has come from an Elsewhere. A spring, perhaps, at the beginning, bubbling up from the earth; then a trickle from a glacier; a mountain stream entering farther along; and each tributary bringing with it the collected bits and pieces from the past, from the distant, from the countless Elsewheres: all of it moving, mingled, in the current.
For me, the tributaries are memories, and I've selected only a few. I'll tell them to you chronologically. I have to go way back. I'm starting forty-six years ago.
In 1948 I am eleven years old. I have gone with my mother, sister, and brother to join my father, who has been in Tokyo for two years and will be there for several more.
We live there, in the center of that huge Japanese city, in a small American enclave with a very American name: Washington Heights. We live in an American-style house, with American neighbors, and our little community has its own movie theater, which shows American movies, and a small church, a tiny library, and an elementary school; and in many ways it is an odd replica of a United States village.
(In later, adult years I was to ask my mother why we had lived there instead of taking advantage of the opportunity to live within the Japanese community and to learn and experience a different way of life. But she seemed surprised by my question. She said that we lived where we did because it was comfortable. It was familiar. It was safe.)
At eleven years old I am not a particularly adventurous child, nor am I a rebellious one. But I have always been curious.
I have a bicycle. Again and again—countless times—without my parents' knowledge, I ride my bicycle out the back gate of the fence that surrounds our comfortable, familiar, safe American community. I ride down a hill because I am curious, and I enter, riding down that hill, an unfamiliar, slightly uncomfortable, perhaps even unsafe—though I never feel it to be—area of Tokyo that throbs with life.
It is a district called Shibuya. It is crowded with shops and people and theaters and street vendors and the day-to-day bustle of Japanese life.
I remember, still, after all these years, the smells: fish and fertilizer and charcoal; the sounds: music and shouting and the clatter of wooden shoes and wooden sticks and wooden wheels; and the colors: I remember the babies and toddlers dressed in bright pink and orange and red, most of all; but I remember, too, the dark blue uniforms of the schoolchildren-—the strangers who are my own age.
I wander through Shibuya day after day during those years when I am eleven, twelve, and thirteen. I love the feel of it, the vigor and the garish brightness and the noise: all such a contrast to my own life.
But I never talk to anyone. I am not frightened of the people, who are so different from me, but I am shy. I watch the children shouting and playing around a school, and they are children my age, and they watch me in return; but we never speak to one another.
One afternoon I am standing on a street corner when a woman near me reaches out, touches my hair, and says something. I back away, startled, because my knowledge of the language is poor and I misunderstand her words. I think she has said "ki-rai-desu," meaning that she dislikes me; and I am embarrassed, and confused, wondering what I have done wrong, how I have disgraced myself.
Then, after a moment, I realize my mistake. She has said, actually, "kirei-desu." She has called me pretty. And I look for her, in the crowd, at least to smile, perhaps to say thank you if I can overcome my shyness enough to speak. But she is gone.
I remember this moment—this instant of communication gone awry—again and again over the years. Perhaps this is where the river starts.
In 1954 and 1955 I am a college freshman, living in a very small dormitory, actually a converted private home, with a group of perhaps fourteen other girls. We are very much alike. We wear the same sort of clothes: cashmere sweaters and plaid wool skirts, knee socks and loafers. We all smoke Marlboro cigarettes, and we knit—usually argyle socks for our boyfriends—and play bridge. Sometimes we study; and we get good grades because we are all the cream of the crop, the valedictorians and class presidents from our high schools all over the United States.
One of the girls in our dorm is not like the rest of us. She doesn't wear our uniform. She wears blue jeans instead of skirts, and she doesn't curl her hair or knit or play bridge. She doesn't date or go to fraternity parties and dances.
She's a smart girl, a good student, a pleasant enough person, but she is different, somehow alien, and that makes us uncomfortable. We react with a kind of mindless cruelty. We don't tease or torment her, but we do something worse: we ignore her. We pretend that she doesn't exist. In a small house of fourteen young women, we make one invisible.
Somehow, by shutting her out, we make ourselves feel comfortable. Familiar. Safe.
I think of her now and then as the years pass. Those thoughts—fleeting, but profoundly remorseful—enter the current of the river.
In the summer of 1979, I am sent by a magazine I am working for to an island off the coast of Maine to write an article about a painter who lives there alone. I spend a good deal of time with this man, and we talk a lot about color. It is clear to me that although I am a highly visual person—a person who sees and appreciates form and composition and color—this man's capacity for seeing color goes far beyond mine.
I photograph him while I am there, and I keep a copy of his photograph for myself because there is something about his face—his eyes—which haunts me.
Later I hear that he has become blind.
I think about him—his name is Carl Nelson— from time to time. His photograph hangs over my desk. I wonder what it was like for him to lose the colors about which he was so impassioned.
I wish, in a whimsical way, that he could have somehow magically given me the capacity to see the way he did.
A little bubble begins, a little spurt, which will trickle into the river.
In 1989 I go to a small village in Germany to attend the wedding of one of my sons. In an ancient church, he marries his Margret in a ceremony conducted in a language I do not speak and cannot understand.
But one section of the service is in English. A woman stands in the balcony of that old stone church and sings the words from the Bible: Where you go, I will go. Your people will be my people.
How small the world has become, I think, looking around the church at the many people who sit there wishing happiness to my son and his new wife, wishing it in their own language as I am wishing it in mine. We are all each other's people now, I find myself thinking.
Can you feel that this memory is a stream that is now entering...
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The Sand in the Oyster
Once in a long while a book comes along that takes hardened young-adult reviewers by surprise, a book so unlike what has gone before, 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 our neat little everyday categories and judgments hanging useless. Books like Robert Cormier's I Am the Cheese or Terry Davis's Mysterious Ways are examples of these rare treasures. But after the smoke of our personal enthusiasm has cleared, we are left with uneasy thoughts: Will young adults understand it? Will the intricate subtleties that so delight us as adult critics go right over their heads? Will the questions posed by the...
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