What would people give up if they could achieve a society without poverty, hate, war, or crime? Would the loss of music, colors, love, choice and memories, both lovely and horrific, be worth living in that seemingly perfect world, or would those losses turn a utopia into a dystopia?
Such are the types of questions asked by the Newbery award-winning children’s book The Giver, a novel for kids that has been lauded and assigned in hundred of school districts across the country and challenged and banned in others. The Giver’s author, Lois Lowry, has just completed Son, her fourth and final book in the series, and will be in Houston for Inprint’s Cool Brains reading series Sunday afternoon to meet with her many fans both young and old.
"There was a time some years ago when kids were willing to be forced to use their own imagination and that seems less true now."
Lowry has been writing children’s books for more than three decades, so when I had a chance to talk to her before her Houston visit I had to ask about her audience. Do the kids of this generation want and need the same kind of stories they did when she first began writing?
Her answer is decidedly no.
“They want faster paced books," she says. "They want action and they want things spelled out. They don’t like, for example, the ambiguity of the ending of The Giver. There was a time some years ago when kids were willing to be forced to use their own imagination and that seems less true now.
"I’m over generalizing, of course, but they want things told to them. I suppose that has to do with technology. They’re just so accustomed to having information come at them all the time that when something forces them to slow down and think . . . they don’t necessarily like that."
Dystopias for Kids
This change in kids might also be the reason for the popularity of dystopian novels, like The Hunger Games series. With the publication of The Giver in 1993, Lowry became the forerunner, or perhaps the mother, of the dystopian trend, but she thinks it will eventually fade like vampire books before it.
Yet, she also thinks there might be a reason kids gravitate towards these novels.
Recalling her own childhood growing up during WWII, she says her father served in the Pacific, so of course she was aware of the war, but she was never bombarded by the images of it like children today see of their own torn and strife-filled world.
“Kids are not exempted from knowing the terrible things that my contemporaries and I were protected from as children because of the media being less of a presence in our lives," Lowry says. "I think the fact the kids are being forced to think about what the world will be like as they grow into it is perhaps the reason they’re interested in speculative fiction, books about a future world that they’ll be part of."
Lowry doesn’t believe that kids want to actually live in those dystopian worlds, but that kids do believe they can change what’s wrong with our own world.
“Nobody these days, whatever age they are, is unaware that there’s a lot of things wrong in our poor world," she says. "I think kids are very much aware of that, but I think that kids are optimistic. They believe, as they should, that they’re going to grow up and they’re going to be educated and learn stuff and they’re going to do better than the last generation.
"And maybe that’s true. I guess one has to hope that’s true."
Moments of Recognition
Like The Giver’s protagonist Jonas, Claire in Son, a 14-year-old assigned the role of birth mother in the Community, begins to recognize that there is something wrong with this community. It is only with that recognition that these young heroes can make changes, but it also proves to be an agonizing loss of innocence when they realize that the safety and security they knew in the world is all a facade.
“Nobody these days, whatever age they are, is unaware that there’s a lot of things wrong in our poor world. I think kids are very much aware of that."
When I make this observation to Lowry, she acknowledges there was probably some truth to it and notes: “It’s probably not surprising that in that particular series of books each protagonist is at the age of entering adulthood. I think with that age of entering, and that entrance into, the world of adults comes a sort of recognition of responsibilities. I think it’s my favorite age to write about for that reason.
"A boy that age, like the boy in The Giver, is still a child at the same time he’s beginning to become a man. It’s such a complicated age and very interesting to me.”
Much of Son tells of Claire’s journey and what she will sacrifice to unite with her son once he is taken away, like all “products” are taken from “vessels” in the Community.
Lowry wrote an autobiography in 1998 and in her many speaking engagements and interviews, she has been open about the fact that part of the inspiration for writing Son came from the death of her own son Grey, a U.S Air Force pilot who died in a plane crash in Germany only a few years after the publication of The Giver.
When I ask her if she is the type of writer who takes some comfort in sharing her real life with the readers of her imagined worlds, she tells the story of an actor friend who sent her a simple quote from Macbeth when he heard about her son’s death: "Give sorrow words: the grief that does not speak/Whispers the o'er-fraught heart, and bids it break."
“I think that’s an important thing to speak of our strong feelings,” she says, “And of course that relates to The Giver where people have no strong feelings to speak about with each other because they’re so deeply repressed because of the way they’re been programmed. So I do think it’s an important thing to speak about what we undergo.”
Fans old and young can speak with Lois Lowry 3 p.m. on Sunday at Johnson Middle School.