Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Reading: The Giver

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I'm not sure how twenty-one years have passed by, and I have just now read The Giver.  I've seen this book on shelves since before I was even old enough to read it, but I'd never even picked it up to read the back summary.  I didn't even know what it was about!  But FINALLY I sat down and read the book cover to cover, and I have since dreamed about it.  What has made this book so endurable sine its 1993 publication by Houghton Mifflin? It has many relevant, timeless themes appropriate for children who are coming-of-age and beginning to question the beliefs that they have long held.  And it is that self-questioning that has made some adults challenge the publication of this young adult novel.

For those who don't know about The Giver (just like myself last week), this novel tells the story of Jonas and his community of "sameness."  We learn that his entire world is in black and white, that the precision of speech is of utmost importance, and that the option of making choices is obsolete because, well, there are no options.  Or choices.  It's just easier that way.  Imagine choosing the wrong spouse or having children who are less than ideal.  Instead, this new community assigns community roles to individuals, and these roles serve as their careers.  These roles are assigned to children when they are twelve years old and upheld dutifully for the rest of their lives.  Breaking three major rules in the community leads to one's "release," a mysterious practice that we learn more about as the book progresses.  And families are not families but "units" whose bonds are broken when children reach adulthood and leave behind their parents, never to see them again.  The people in this community choose to live this way to avoid pain and suffering, words that they can't even remember.  When Jonas is given his special task, he meets with The Giver, who transits memories of the days before the community's creation.  At first, the memories are sweet - sledding, snow, Christmas! - and then they become more difficult to bare - war, hunger.  But it is important for Jonas to retain these memories to keep the community from repeating its past mistakes.  However, Jonas begins to question life in the community and its lack of morals. There has to be more out there, he thinks, and he yearns to live in a world filled with colors and feelings and truth, even if that means living in a world also with fear and suffering.  Will Jonas be daring enough to make the escape? And if he does, what will finally push him to do it?  I would tell you, but I don't want to spoil this amazing fantasy story for you!

The Giver is indeed a fantasy, but it brings to mind events of the not-so-distant past and even the present.  The community in which Jonas lives seems driven by a methodology created by Hitler himself.  Only the strongest are allowed to survive, and those who do not make the cut due to size or sleeplessness or helplessness are not. Children in the community are given pills to suppress their "stirrings," which I at first thought was a way to keep the children innocent.  I later learned that it is to prevent children from feeling or to prevent them from making mistakes that will upset the community's operations.  Still, when I hear about people wanting to ban The Giver without even understanding its message, I am reminded of the anti-stirrings pills and feel that they operate along the same wavelength.  As I've said before, families do not have to allow their children to read certain books if they don't feel it is appropriate. However, they cannot take the books away from other people's children.  And denying the messages of The Giver is hurtful, I feel, as this book teaches children that it is okay to make their own choices, to take "the road less traveled," especially if it means doing the right thing.  When Jonas learned about the ills in his community, he decided not to follow the road of sameness and to instead take his own path.  This is an important message for children, especially middle-schoolers, the target audience of this book, as they will be faced with many choices and pressure from their peers. Teasing, lying, cheating, and stealing are things that my own students deal with today in the classroom, but if they are equipped to make their own choices and to question what the majority may be doing - especially when it is morally and ethically unjust - they will be able to prevail!  

Along with teaching an important lesson, The Giver shows pride and respect for the elderly by building a relationship between Jonas and The Giver.  Although The Giver is older than Jonas - though younger than he physically appears - he and Jonas become friends, confidants, supporters.  The cover of the book even shows the face of an old gentleman, and the message that memories passed down from older generations are priceless and fundamental to the shaping of a person is also woven throughout this novel.  When Jonas acquires memories from The Giver, his world literally brightens up! He sees colors, and he feels things, such as empathy for others.  He tries to pass this on to his friends when they play a game of "war," but they do not understand because they do not have the memories.  Older generations can speak to younger generations to help them understand their world, to develop complex feelings for others, to avoid making the same mistakes.  This is what The Giver does for Jonas, and this is hopefully a message that readers of The Giver will take away so that they can make connections with families and friends older than they are before it is too late. 

It has recently come to my attention that Lois Lowry has written three more books to extend upon The Giver.  Curiosity causes me to read these books, but at the same time, I imagined my own ending and am not sure if I am willing to change that. Perhaps you would like to read and decide the ending for yourself or take part in the debate about The Giver by checking it out at your local library. 

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