he Giver is about Jonas, an eleven-year-old boy who lives in a futuristic society where life appears to be nothing less than idyllic. If everything in this world is so perfect, what‘s the rub? Why was The Giver banned? Why has it been one of the most controversial books since its release in 1993?
Like most books about so-called utopias, this society has a dark underbelly. And the most frequent reason for the book’s ongoing challenges is the claim that it’s “unsuited” to the middle-schoolers it is primarily assigned to. Parents of a 2007 challenge summed up this sentiment with their characterization of Lowry’s book as “too dark” for preteens.
The novel’s first notable banning came in 1994, when California parents complained about passages that deal with sexual awakening. In 1995, a Kansas parent challenged The Giver over references to suicide and murder, as well as a perceived “degradation of motherhood and adolescence.” In 1999, it was challenged in both Ohio and Florida by parents offended by mentions of suicide, infanticide, and euthanasia. Challengers in 2007 added “adolescent pill-popping” to the list of objections. The Giver continues to appear on the American Library Association’s list of 100 most banned and challenged books for all the same reasons.
Granted, the society Lowry created contains some dark elements. There’s a reason for that. These dark elements prompt the reader to think about topics like ethics, democracy, and human interdependence. As one teacher points out, “there’s a lot of strength and power” in discussing questions like “what makes a good society?” and “what is my role in society?” with middle-schoolers. They’re beginning to grapple with such issues. So, is The Giver really too dark for preteens? No. It’s just dark enough to spark a conversation about what kind of world they’ll want to build when their generation takes the reins.
Despite some challengers’ misguided ideas, The Giver is not a portal to the dark side. In fact, a careful reading like the one that follows, reveals that it’s a lesson in how to avoid going to the dark side.
Liberal Arts — Rx for the Human Condition.
“You and I are the only ones with access to the books.” This comment by The Giver seems like a throwaway line having more to do with his apprentice’s future living arrangements than anything. But it isn’t. This typically overlooked remark is actually the key to unlocking Lois Lowry’s novel, especially when considered alongside a similar statement made by The Giver later in the book… “Jonas, you and I are the only one who have feelings.”
How are access to books and having feelings related? Ursula K. Le Guin sums it up nicely:
We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel—or have done and thought and felt; or might do and think and feel—is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become… And a person who had never listened to nor read a tale or myth or parable or story, would remain ignorant of his own emotional and spiritual heights and depths, would not know quite fully what it is to be human. For the story—from Rumpelstiltskin to War and Peace—is one of the basic tools invented by the mind of man, for the purpose of gaining understanding.
One example of the way literature broadens our horizons can be found in James Baldwin’s anecdote about a time when he was very young. He “assumed that no one had ever been born who was only five feet six inches tall, or been born poor, or been born ugly.” “No one,” he believed, “had ever suffered” the way he did. Then, after reading Dostoevsky, he realized that such concerns are common, if not universal. Baldwin described this realization as a “liberation,” one that empowered him to take charge of his life and write about such social issues, which lead him to become the cultural icon he is today.
Lois Lowry set out to seduce the reader with a world that “seems familiar, comfortable, and safe.” On its face this unnamed community is an orderly and peaceful place where life appears to be nothing less than idyllic. Lowry got rid of everything she “fear[s] and dislike[s],” things like poverty, pain, inequality. And according to one of her young fans, the cherry on top of this utopian sundae is that the people in this world don’t even “have to do the dishes.”
All that sounds great! However… the very word utopia indicates that they don’t exist. The term is derived from the Greek ou-topos meaning “no place” or “nowhere.” It was coined by Thomas More for his sixteenth-century book of the same name, as a pun on the nearly identical Greek word eu-topos, or “good place.” So, Jonas’ world may be void of poverty, pain, and inequality, but what else is it missing? Read more here…