19 December 2012

The Giver (Lois Lowry)

I think I'm supposed to remember Lois Lowry for Number the Stars, an Important Holocaust Novel--and I'm sure I read that one in my youth--but as an awkward smartypants little girl with glasses, I'm most indebted to her for writing Anastasia Krupnik and its sequels. Kept Love and Hate lists for years. (Oh, and looking at her bibliography, I also loved Taking Care of Terrific and The One Hundredth Thing About Caroline, which both look to be out of print, boo.) Anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying that I hadn't read The Giver,, which won 1994's Newbery; now that I have, I wish it had been published ten years earlier, because I would've loved it as a kid. Beginner's dystopia, so much better and more complicated than The Hunger Games!

It's written from the point of view of almost-teenaged Jonah, though his community doesn't reckon ages like we do--every December, all children born that year become Ones, the next year Twos, and so forth. Each advancement is celebrated in a ceremony attended by all, and each new "age" brings with it a new set of responsibilities: Sixes receive the bikes everyone uses to get around, Eights give up their "comfort object," a stuffed animal of species none of them recognize, like elephants and bears. Jonah is about to become a Twelve, the last numbered ceremony, when all the children are told what position they'll hold in the adult community--Nurturer (like Jonah's father), Pilot, Law, Birthmother, and so forth. Jonah is assigned to train with the Receiver, who holds the collective memory of what mankind was like before it adopted the strict ranks and rules of their community . . . pleasures, pains, colors, music.

The Giver's not didactic--too well-written for that--but it raises questions not usually put before middle-grade readers (and they should be, they should!): what are peace, safety, security worth giving up? Can we gain from unhappiness and injury? How should we treat the very young, the very old? And (as Jonah struggles with his knowledge of the world before Sameness) when we begin to feel that authority is wrong, what can--or should--we do to change things?

Lowry wrote two other middle-grade dystopias related to The Giver--2000's Gathering Blue and 2004's The Messenger--before bringing the storylines together in this fall's Son. I'm not gonna lie, I'm a little disappointed in this giving in to the series fever endemic to kids' books these days; I also really liked that The Giver has an ambiguous ending, and it's too bad that now there's a canonical continuation for the characters. But you know what? I'll bet they're good.

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