Lois Lowry on 'The Giver' and the book's new sequel
Before Katniss Everdeen, Tris Prior, and dozens of other teenage characters began raging against dystopian machines, there was a 12-year-old kid named Jonas — protagonist of The Giver, a slim novel first published in 1993 that’s become a modern children’s classic. The Giver was Brave New World for the under-18 set before books about futuristic totalitarian societies became a dime a dozen — and most of today’s popular dystopian stories are in Lowry and The Giver‘s debt.
Middle schoolers and former middle schoolers across the world know that Lowry’s Newbery winner ends on an ambiguous note; it’s unclear whether Jonas and Gabriel, the baby he’s rescued from their colorless community, find the safe haven they’ve been seeking or freeze to death on a hillside. In 2000, Lowry decided to partially answer that question by inserting an oblique reference to Jonas into another futuristic novel, Gathering Blue. Jonas reappeared for the first time as a full-fledged character — albeit under a different name — in 2004’s Messenger, a sequel to Gathering Blue. And today, his saga (and Gabe’s) finally comes to an end with the release of Son, the first direct sequel to The Giver. The novel travels back to the community Jonas fled to tell the story of Claire — a 14-year-old girl drafted to be a Birthmother who finds that she, too, cannot live in a society devoid of love.
Before Son‘s release, I spent half an hour chatting with Lowry about everything from her childhood favorite reads — The Yearling and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, for the record — to the unfinished Anastasia Krupnik book sitting on her hard drive. Most of our conversation, though, focused on her now-finished Giver quartet. Read on to learn why she elected to continue Jonas’s story, what she thinks about the dystopian trend, and why she believes The Giver has been one of history’s most frequently challenged children’s books. (Want even more? Check our Inside Movies blog for Lowry’s comments about the long-gestating Giver movie.)
Scholastic’s reading guide for The Giver includes an interview in which you’re quoted saying that you would never want to write a sequel–
Uh huh. Oh, how I wish I had never said that publicly! [laughs] It comes back to haunt me. I didn’t have any intention of writing a sequel. I liked the ambiguity of the ending. Over the years, though, it became clear that younger readers in particular did not. The amount of mail I got passionately asking what had happened to Jonas — I suppose after a period of time, it made me wonder as well. So I guess it was in response to the kids who didn’t quit asking and wondering.
Unlike that of The Giver, Son’s ending is very unambiguous. (The book literally concludes with the words “THE END.”) Was that intentional?
[laughs] Well, I have definitively said — I hope I won’t regret this as well — this is the fourth and final book. And part of that is because I’m 75 years old — how long can I keep churning these out? [laughs] But it does feel finished to me. You pretty well know where all the characters are at the end of this fourth book, and you can predict what will become of them.
How do you think this sequel affects The Giver‘s own ending?
Well, I told you already that I had liked the ambiguity of it, and the fact that it led one to wonder and to think about the characters. And if people continue on to read the other books, they won’t have that anymore. But they don’t seem to want that. I would have liked it as a child, I think. But we live in times that are in many ways ambiguous. Maybe that’s why kids want precision in what they read — they don’t like that moral ambiguity.
Son is very different from The Giver. It’s a lot longer, and it’s also a lot more epic.
Yeah. What happened was, I started out to write about Gabe. But I discovered he had questions that became my own questions. He was wondering about his origins, and when I wrote about him wondering that, I turned my attention to this new character, who became the girl named Claire. So she became the main figure of the book for at least the first two thirds. And starting with her giving birth, I then had to account for fourteen years. And so right away, it was doomed to be a longer book than the previous ones. Plus I had a lot of characters to bring in from the other books — and dispose of them, or at least account for them.
Was it difficult to go back to this community you had created so many years ago?
It was difficult only logistically. I hadn’t reread The Giver in a long, long time. So I had to go back , and I had to draw a map of where things were so they would match up. So that part — “difficult” is the wrong word. It was just necessary, and a little tedious, to be honest. But then from there, I was able to go on to create new worlds, which is always fun and easy for me.
When you revisited the community, was there anything about it you wish you hadn’t established in The Giver?
One thing I remember — having created Claire, I had to describe the young women who are the birth mothers. I hadn’t thought about what it would be like when you enter that building where women are sitting around, waiting to have babies. And I realized that it’s an excruciatingly boring place because they have all this time to spend while they’re pregnant, and there are no books. And there’s no music, and there’s no television — none of the ways in which we spend leisure time exist in that world. And so I didn’t dwell on it because it would have been so boring. I got out of there as quickly as I could.
Was it important for you that this book have a female protagonist?
No — as I say, I started out thinking about the boy [Gabe]. And in addition, I became caught by the plight of a woman who has lost a child. I mean, the infant is taken away from her the day it’s born. She finds a way to keep track of it, and she loses it a second time when the boy [Jonas] runs off with the baby. And so I think that was probably influenced by the fact that I’ve lost a child. [Lowry’s son Grey was killed in a plane crash in 1995.] It’s worse for her because she knows the child is alive. When you lose a child in an accident as I did, it’s final — you’re not caught in this longing for him, to search for him, knowing he’s out there some place. That became very compelling for me.
NEXT: Lowry on The Hunger Games — “It troubled me” — The Giver‘s controversial history, and the one question Son doesn’t answer.
What inspired the seaside community where Claire ends up?
This was very pragmatic, but I had to account for a number of years. So I needed a place that would be very, very difficult for her to leave. Then I realized that what I also needed or wanted to include was some element of physicality. I don’t do much of that in books; most of my books are introspective rather than physical.
Were you thinking at all about other contemporary young adult books when you wrote Son?
I don’t read young adult or children’s books, now that my grandchildren are beyond the age of my reading to them. I read reviews, and so I’m aware of what’s out there. But I tend not to read the books.
So then, something like The Hunger Games—
Oh, you know, I did read the first volume of The Hunger Games because I was required — the year it came out, I judged a contest. And I had to read I think twelve popular young adult books from that year. So I did read the first volume.
What did you think of it?
I could see why kids love it and find it very compelling. I was troubled by the fact that it’s about children killing children. I just had a hard time with that. I don’t think kids do, but they’ve become kind of inured to violence. I have grandsons who are now 11 and 14, and sometimes we go to the movies together. And I find myself covering my eyes when people are being destroyed in various terrible ways, and the boys don’t care. They’ve seen it a thousand times.
Contemporary books for kids — especially the dystopian books that have been released in the wake of The Hunger Games — are definitely very violent. If you had to hazard a guess, why do you think dystopian literature for young people is so popular right now?
Um… [pause] Well, I of course don’t know the answer. But I think there are trends — you remember five years ago, every other book was about vampires. And this is a trend, and I think it will seep away and some new trend will overtake it. But at the same time, I think it’s quite fascinating to speculate about what the world might be like in the future. If you’re a writer and you’re writing stories, you can’t help but wonder about things like that. And when The Hunger Games became so popular, after The Giver having been so popular, of course publishers were eager to [publish] dystopian novels. I think it will probably drift away in a bit.
So the trend didn’t play into your decision to write this book?
Oh, no. I hadn’t even thought about it until you asked the question. No, the decision to write this book really just came about when I sat down to speculate about what had happened to the boy. And it no longer felt dystopian to me. It’s futuristic, I guess — it’s set in this unnamed time, unnamed place. But aside from the opening section, I don’t think there’s a dystopian element to it.
Interestingly enough, those other dystopian books don’t seem to be as controversial as The Giver has been.
Yeah. If The Giver had been published this year, maybe no publisher would have wanted it because it’s, it’s–
Tame compared to the others. Would it have been controversial? I suspect not, because those people who are out there sharpening their knives and waiting to pounce on a book have plenty to choose from now.
What exactly have The Giver‘s opponents objected to?
Well, they have pulled out of context a few things. A mention of the Stirrings, an oblique reference to sexual feelings. And the other thing that they lament is when the father kills the infant. They have accused me of promoting infanticide and abortion and euthanasia. But I think what they’re really objecting to, and they’re not admitting this to themselves, is the fact of a boy, who’s 12 in the book, perceiving the hypocrisy of his parents’ generation, and breaking the rules in order to free himself and others of that.
Do you think there will be objections to Son as well?
[laughs] No, I don’t think they’ll find anything objectionable in it, except that one person is troubled by the fact that the girl kills the baby birds. If that’s the worst thing they can find in the book, then I’m not going to worry about it.
That moment comes at the culmination of Claire’s journey from naive girl to self-possessed heroine.
She emerges from this place where everything is prescribed for her, and she has no choices to make. Her knowledge is so lacking, and so she has to acquire all of the things that most of us have taken for granted. She finds mentors of various sorts — the old woman, the young man who helps her and trains her. But with all of those people to support and guide and help her, she has to do it on her own [in the end].
The one thing this book does leave open, though, is what happened to the community Claire and Jonas left behind.
Yeah, and that’s the one thing kids have asked me about that I haven’t attempted to do. There’s the implication in the first book that once the boy is gone, taking the memories with him, that the community will change. And there’s a hint at the end of the first book when he hears music. I live with the belief that a hint is enough. It’s the kids who often don’t accept that. I do hear from kids who want to know exactly what that community is like afterward. And the fourth book, Son, leaves the community at the same time. So we really have no way of knowing. I can live with that, and I guess readers will have to, because I’m not going to go back there. [laughs]