In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Lois Lowry

Dear Annie,

I can never get enough of Shirley Hughes. Not to mention the other wonderful British writers in Fabienne's guest blog post.  So frustrating when the classic ones go out of print.

The high point of Book Expo America, the booksellers' convention that brought me to New York last week, was hearing Lois Lowry speak, and having a chance to speak with her later in the evening at a dinner given by her publisher.  Among her better known books:

Number the Stars
The Anastasia Krupnik books (followed by the Sam books)
Gooney Bird Green books
and many more

And then there's
The Giver
and two (with a third coming in the fall) companion books.  Published in 1993, it's about a dystopian future, written well before that setting was overrepresented in kids' fiction.  It's a world where freedom, imagination, knowledge, individuality, sex, and even weather and colors have all been sacrificed for security and stability.

It's impossible to talk about this group of books without giving stuff away, so here's your spoiler alert.  Lots of 'em coming up.

In The Giver, a boy who has just started the job of holding historical memory for the community -- without communicating it to others -- realizes that a one year-old he's grown fond of is going to be killed because his sleeping patterns don't conform to the standard.  Jonas kidnaps the child and runs away.  The book gives readers -- it's hard to get past fifth and sixth grades without reading this classic -- a great introduction to the freedom vs. security discussion.  But its true and wonderful gift to children's literature is the gift of ambiguity.  At the end of the book, the exhausted near-death Jonas and baby Gabe start sliding down a snow-covered hill (it's the first time Jonas has seen snow), and they see in the distance what appear to be lights, possibly a Christmas celebration.  The End.  You just don't know if that was the real thing, or a hallucination of the dying, or heaven, or what.  Lois Lowry handed a whole generation of readers the knowledge that endings don't always give the answer, and the power to envision their own continuations of the story.  When she accepted the Newbery Medal for The Giver in 1994, Lowry said:
Those of you who hoped that I would stand here tonight and reveal the “true” ending, the “right” interpretation of the ending, will be disappointed. There isn’t one. There’s a right one for each of us, and it depends on our own beliefs, our own hopes.
You rock, Lois.

Seven years later she wrote
Gathering Blue
, about another dystopian future.  This one is also repressive and controlling, but it's primitive and brutish, with a population in poverty and distant rulers.  The main character, a weaver named Kira, is taken from her village to restore  the rulers' ceremonial robe which tells the history of the society.  As she realizes the injustice in her world, Kira becomes aware of a resistance movement, and she chooses to stay and try to change society, rather than leave as Jonas did.  In this, the ending isn't dramatically ambiguous.  My assumption was always that Lowry wanted to present the concept of staying and fighting.

The one that really hurt was the next book in 2004:
.  It's set in a village which takes in people who have fled their homes, and Jonas, Gabe, and Kira are all in it, although not the central characters.  Wham!  I was shocked and saddened.  There goes the gift of ambiguity: just tune in to the sequel.  She has said she did it because the pleas from children to tell what happened became overwhelming.  In the book, there's an ominous sense that the optimistic community created as a haven is starting to sour.  A teenager from Kira's village who is a very strong healer gives his life to try to put things right.

And now, this fall, book #4 in what is now a quartet arrives:
.  It starts in the sterile controlled world of The Giver, where teenage girls have always been selected to give birth to the new members of the community, who are immediately taken from them and raised first in a nursery, then assigned to couples.  Son follows Claire, Gabe's birth mother, in her desperate quest to find him after Jonas runs away.  It's intense.  It also seems more flawed as a story than the others.  The book ends with the teenage Gabe directly confronting Evil -- and vanquishing it.
From my notes of Lowry's speech last week:
Evil exists, has always existed.  We will face and fight it again and again....It is the young who must face it.  Young readers believe they can fix this world.
Over the years, Lowry has cited many reasons why she started The Giver.  Her 1994 Newbery speech is eloquent about the origins of different elements of the book.  She added some at last week's speech. 
The true reason I wrote The Giver is that I was wondering about something.... I think it makes more sense to write about what you don't know, about what makes you wonder.
She spoke of a letter she received from her son, who was a pilot in the first Gulf War.  Flying over the destruction and the burning oil fields, he asked his mom why people end up in wars, why they do such damage to each other.  The Giver was an attempt to show a society that had descended into such fear of difference that they gave up their selves. 

After she received the Newbery medal, before she wrote Gathering Blue, that son died in the crash of his fighter plane.  She told this to hundreds of us sitting there listening to her over breakfast.  It was public knowledge, of course, but many (me included) hadn't known.  It makes Claire's deep desire to find her son all the more moving.  And she used it to put a frame on these four books, to say that she was trying to explain the harm people inflict on each other, and to show that evil can be confronted, as Messenger did in the third book, and stopped, which is what Gabe does in the last book.  She acknowledges that it will come back, of course -- but she wanted what seems to be a happy ending.



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