Reading Lois Lowry's 'The Giver' as an Adult

The Giver is one of the books you probably read as a kid, somewhere between late elementary or middle school and early high school, depending on your school and curriculum. Two of us hadn't, though, and finally did.

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The Giver is one of the books you probably read as a kid, somewhere between late elementary or middle school and early high school, depending on your school and curriculum. Written by Lois Lowry, author of such popular kids books as the Anastasia Krupnik series, A Summer to Die, and Number the Stars, it was published in 1994 and went on to win that year's Newbery Medal. It has sold more than 5.3 million copies, and is one of the most banned and challenged books of the recent decade. The society it depicts seems, at first, a utopia, but Lowry skillfully paints it, by the end, as something much more horrifying.

Following in a tradition of deftly wrought dystopian societies like that in A Wrinkle in Time, or Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, The Giver also sets the stage for the introduction of Panem, the dystopia of The Hunger Games, and introduces ideas built upon by many writers who've followed. It's a spare book, less than 200 pages, and can be read in an afternoon, but you'll think about its messages for far longer. (Note: Spoilers do follow, so if that sort of thing bothers you, make sure to read the book first.)

The main character of the book is Jonas, a boy who, at the beginning, is on the verge of turning 12. In his society, 12 is the age at which kids are no longer kids and are assigned their life's work. He's nervous, and he has reason to be: The job he's given is unprecedented, at least in recent memory. He is chosen to be "The Receiver," which means that the former Receiver, now The Giver, will pass him all of the memories he holds for the society. As for this society, it's perfect—there's no pain, fear, war, hatred—and no memories felt by its citizens, except for one of them. They have turned to "Sameness," which is part of why The Receiver exists: To hold the memories of the collective society going as far back as anyone once remembered, and, therefore, to be the only one to experience pain, suffering, and also joy.

When members of this society "don't fit"—for a baby, this includes not sleeping through the night, for an adult, growing too old or breaking the society's rules—they are "released" into Elsewhere, which is not as idyllic as it seems. They're euthanized. There is no color in this world, as it causes problems. Everyone is given pills upon their first "Stirrings," or feelings of sexuality; all marriages are arranged, and new babies are born only by selected Birth Mothers (à la The Handmaid's Tale), who never actually meet their offspring. Two babies are doled out to each married couple, who apply to receive them.

Jonas, a boy who has rare pale eyes in his community of dark-eyed people (The Giver, along with several other key characters have these eyes: Could they all be related?), is chosen as the Receiver of Memory after a 10-year period following something that's gone terribly wrong with the previous Receiver. We don't find out what, exactly, until the end, as no one wants to talk about it. In the process of his work with The Giver, though, he learns pain, he learns to see color, and he learns love. He then also learns the truth about his world, and when Gabriel, the baby his father has been taking care of to "improve" him enough so he can go to his own adoptive home—i.e., get him to sleep through the night—is scheduled to be released, Jonas is driven, with the help of The Giver, to do something to change his and his society's fate.

This book is required school reading for most kids of a certain age, despite (or maybe because of) those banned booklist challenges. Somehow, though, I'd never read the book, and neither had Y.A. author and McNally Jackson bookseller Kate Milford, who's written the upcoming, really great novel The Broken Lands and its companion novella The Kairos Mechanism, both out in September. Kate and I both read The Giver and then talked about what we think it means, why it's an important part of the kids' book canon, how it impacted books that came after, and how it felt to read it as adults. The Giver is the first in a series that includes Gathering Blue, Messenger, and the upcoming Son, out in October. We'll be reading and discussing each of them in the next few months.

Jen Doll: In your email to me you told me that you had a really intense reaction to finishing the book—particularly, to the scene at the very end when Jonas escapes from the society and is on a sled, heading for another community, with the baby Gabriel, whom he's saving. It's ambiguous—we don't know if they'll survive or not; it's not even totally clear he's still alive, as all of this could be some kind of memory or even hallucination. Can you describe how it made you feel?

Kate Milford: I'm sitting there reading it on the beach, I remember getting to the end, and I was holding my breath for the last scene. I heard myself shudder, and I think, I'm going to cry—I'm going to go inside right now. It's such a good argument for things I'm not good at, elegance and brevity, for example.

Jen: The most dramatic, oh-my-God moment for me was learning that Jonas' dad was not the nurturing, sweet caregiver to infants we thought he was. The scene in which The Giver shows Jonas his father giving a "subpar" baby a lethal injection is brutal and horrifying, and I keep thinking back to that, and trying to merge that with the way the father seemed so happy and loving in the beginning. It's so well done.

Why do you think, though, that you hadn't read the book until now?

Kate: I graduated in 1994 [the year it was published], and I just think we missed that. But recently I was talking to a group of school kids, a class of 5th graders, and we got to the subject of endings, what makes them satisfying or not. Someone brought up The Giver, and there was just this clamor. Most were really bothered by it, the idea of having to decide yourself what happens. It made it far less comforting for them. It wasn't enough for them to say, "I can just decide." They felt it was really unfair not to have been given the answer. You can read it in many different ways, though. Having read it, I can see either/or. Lois Lowry did the keynote speech for BEA this year, though, and in her keynote speech, she says Gabriel is the main character in her fourth piece, Son. I wish I'd have read the book before then and had known to watch and see what people's reactions were to that.

Jen: What did you think happened?

Kate: I think I felt in my gut that he didn't make it. I went inside from the beach, got on the computer at 2 p.m. on this gorgeous day, shut myself inside, and started doing mindless work. I didn't want to think about it. But since then, over and over, I've been thinking about it. You have to decide what you want to think.

Jen: It makes me wonder if the ambiguous ending of the book is a purposeful parallel of the message of the book itself, the ability to choose versus having things told to you, dictated, or prescribed. Choosing is harder, but in a free society, we have to be able to do it for ourselves, and of course, we value that. The ending itself becomes about this idea of choosing versus having your choice taken away, which is obviously a big part of the theme of the book.

Kate: That makes sense and feels right. It's harder with choice and individual freedoms. You face the possibility of all that pain and all those memories, and that's why, in this society, they take them away.

Lowry talking about The Giver and Son at BEA:

Kate: You know what's really funny, two nights ago, my husband and I watched Drive, and it ends in almost the same way as The Giver. [Drive spoiler alert:] The main character very nearly dies in the end, and the camera is left on him; he's looking dead for a full minute, and all of a sudden the finale music starts coming up. His eyes are vacant, and you're like, Shit, that's going to be the ending. Then he blinks and drives away, and then it's nighttime, and he's still driving. There's this girl who goes to his apartment, and you can tell she's been knocking and knocking on his door and no one answers. The ending is ambiguous. You think, He can't go back to her, there are still these guys after him. Or maybe he's driving back to her, but also, there's no proof he didn't die. You have all this incredible emotional buildup but an ending that doesn't give you closure, and you're afraid to think too much about it.

Jen: Lowry has written that she doesn't think it was a sad ending, and that she didn't think they die. As part of a teacher's guide on Random House's site, she explained, "Many kids want a more specific ending to The Giver. Some write, or ask me when they see me, to spell it out exactly. And I don't do that. And the reason is because The Giver is many things to many different people. People bring to it their own complicated sense of beliefs and hopes and dreams and fears and all of that. So I don't want to put my own feelings into it, my own beliefs, and ruin that for people who create their own endings in their minds." She added, "I will say that I find it an optimistic ending. How could it not be an optimistic ending, a happy ending, when that house is there with its lights on and music is playing? So I'm always kind of surprised and disappointed when some people tell me that they think that the boy and the baby just die. I don't think they die. What form their new life takes is something I like people to figure out for themselves. And each person will give it a different ending." And, yes, the boy's name in Son is Gabe. That's more than a clue!

Kate: I think sometimes as you're writing you have to know what the answer is, but that doesn't mean you have to decide for everyone. That's a hard line. It's funny, readers want to know if they get emotionally invested in the characters and world. As a writer, there's a part of me that says, I don't have to answer questions about things I haven't given you. That's part of the fun, not having your interpretations or imagination curtailed. I think writers figure out so much of the backstory, and readers want to know everything that they're passionate about, but do you have to answer all the questions you get asked?

Jen: Do you think the story would be somehow less if there was a very clear ending?

Kate: Yes, because I would have an excuse to stop thinking about it. It would still be beautiful storytelling; it would still be perfect. Either ending you imagine, neither is any less powerful than the other. That's the thing about darkness in Y.A. and kids' storytelling—it has all the point in the world if there's hope. Ending it on a negative note but having the kid come to all these realizations and leaving to improve the lives of others, the struggle has merit. There's merit either way. But if you knew, you'd have closure, and the lack of that is what keeps messing with me. I can't stop thinking about it. The fact that there's no closure brings you back over and over again.

There are also so many things there, so much more there than just the ending. You know that releasing someone, even before you know it's putting them to death, that it can't be good. And the idea of Elsewhere as "heaven" or some other place ... it's ominous. I wonder also, his mother is a lawmaker and a judge, a justice of some ilk. She's a quietly darker figure from the beginning, a little bit stricter. The fact that their father has a little more humor about things makes it feel like you're in a safer place, that softens it. Then to find out that he's the one killing these kids! When Jonas sees his father do this and the dad is so cheerful about it....

Jen: That was the most upsetting scene for me! So creepy.

Kate: She makes much of the voice he uses, for Gabe, for Lily [Jonas' 7-year-old sister], and that's really creepy. But that's the ultimate sucess of the place, there's no distinction for these guys in those matters [of life and death]. The second that you start saying someone's going to be "released"—they talk about sending off the old dude, and it's clearly a funeral with the guy present. I think that was ominous from the use of the word release. Also, the pills they have to take, and the idea of the Birth Mothers felt ominous from the beginning. The terrible sadness of the Giver, and the discussion of the girl, when he's talking about Rosemary [the previous Receiver] who asked to do her lethal injection "release" shot hersef, knowing full well exactly what she was doing. And the bravery of that! The weight of that memory and that sadness. I was so suspicious of when Jonas left because it seemed so easy, but on the other hand, there's no reason in the world to expect that anyone would want to get away from this world. It's the perfect expression of what it is.

Jen: When you talk about that courage and bravery, how do you think the characters of Jonas or Rosemary compare to future characters—Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen?

Kate: In The Hunger Games, the point is survival and the act of escape. This is the realization and the sacrifice, it's almost skipping all the excitement. It's not an adventure.

Jen: Do you think that The Giver has informed those books?

Kate: It would have to have, I think. Kids are capable of acting selfishly. It is of greater merit that what motivates Jonas is saving this child, Gabe. When Katniss has to save her sister...same thing. We're all capable of being selfish, but the point at which going through horrible things makes more sense, especially in books, is when characters are allowed to be noble in sacrifice. We'd all like to think we'd be noble if the circumstances demanded it. That's what saves this book if he fails; he died for something that he couldn't have stood to the side on. 

Jen: What did you want more of?

Kate: I wish we  could have seen the world after he leaves. I wish we'd heard more about what happened when Rosemary died, not because it's a flaw in storytelling, but because the macabre part of me wants to know. We'd get to see and could hope that he did make a difference. I hope in the next books, we'll get some sense of what happened when he left. I want to know how widespread it is, this "Sameness"—are there other communities where there is music and color, and what happens next?

Jen: This book is almost 20 years old. Do you think it could have come out this year and been so successful?

Kate: I couldn't put it down. I read it in one sitting; I got two pages in and moved my towel under the umbrella and finished it there. It's so lean, the pacing is so good, and it's brutal and unrelenting and all those words that sound like movie blurbs. It lacks the romance or the humor or anything that would be that spoonful of sugar, but that's a testament to how perfect a piece of storytelling it is. There's all this wonderful realism, no one is having normal reactions, but the humanity comes though. We get the [Harry Potter-esque] Sorting but it's scary.

Jen: Do you think it's similar to any other kids or Y.A. books?

Kate: I thought of The City of Ember, they have those same sorts of traditions that no one really knows where they came from. It was unclear how much the elders believe in The Giver. It's so engrained, this has been going on so long. And there's genuine affection—these scary people are scary in a totally different way than, say, [the self-interested, power-hungry] President Snow in The Hunger Games—for them, it's coming from a good place. Something that makes it so powerful is the idea that, even with the best intentions in the world, when you try to stop conflict by trying to make everyone the same you lose all the voices and music and books. The idea of going to Sameness and stopping people from being able to see colors is probably most similar to Fahrenheit 451, with Bradbury's rants against political correctness. I think in some ways the Chaos Walking series also puts you thorough the ringer and doesn't give you an easy answer, but those books are 500 pages... Or Paolo Bacigalupi's books, Ship Breaker, The Drowned Cities. They're lean and brutal and a world you can imagine being in, and they're not easy in the end. Whoever reads them will not be able to stop thinking about them

Jen: How has reading it made you feel about your own work?

Kate: I feel like what I'm going to be doing as a writer next is asking, How do I tell a story that lean and crisp and perfect? And as a bookseller, I'm thinking, I have to get this in the hands of everybody who comes in having read The Hunger Games. 

Jen: Any favorite moments?

Kate: The really beautiful thing, I loved that it hit me all of a sudden, was the removal of color. When something happened to the apple, and then something happened to Fiona's hair, and The Giver says, you're seeing red. It was seeded so wonderfully. The hint is there, rendered perfectly. But also that there are so many things for your brain to latch onto: The stirrings, the pills, you could have the discussion about sexuality and the threat that poses, or you could focus on the idea that he's forced to take a pill. Love and relationships. You can look at the thing that's really disturbing or you can look at these other things. Kids books that manage darkness really well throw it in there but don't call it its name. You're talking about something horrific without really talking about it.

Jen: How did you feel differently reading it as an adult, do you think, than you might have had you read it earlier in life?

Kate: It's funny, there's a part of me that feels that I've been missing something. I majored in English and graduated magna cum laude and I'd never read Hemingway until three years after I graduated college. It's the same thing, he has this spare way of writing I don't have. I think, How did I go all this time and it's right here all along? But on the other hand, I just got to read it for the first time. I can re-read it at any time, but the experience of reading it the first time—now I can learn from it, the writing, the storytelling. Also, I didn't enjoy a lot of what I read in school; I don't remember enjoying anything except The Great Gatsby! I might have written it off, so i think it was better for me to be reading it now. I'm so excited to just have read it.

I think if I can give any piece of advice: Find somebody else to read it with you. This would be a perfect book for a book club.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.