I made a foray into a children’s book this week, which I highly recommend doing once in a while. If you have kids, it’s nice to get ideas for new books for them to try. If you don’t, you’ll be surprised by some of the quality literature written for kids. We can all learn something from some of these “kids’ books”.
This week’s selection was a Newbery Award winner–usually a good sign! The Giver, by Lois Lowry (1994) discusses a utopian community (called “The Community,” cleverly enough). It’s the story of Jonas, a boy about to become twelve years old.
In The Community, everyone is as much the same as they can be. People of The Community do not acknowledge people’s differences, only the similarities they share. There are Rules to cover every possible situation. From the meals that they eat, delivered by the Food Delivery workers, to the required, nightly Sharing of Feelings, days pass in a routine. The jobs in The Community are assigned by the Planning Council, so that everyone does what he or she will do best, from Birthmother to Judge, from Pilot to Recreation Director.
Every year there is a celebration, at which the children’s achievements are celebrated. Nines (that is, everyone who would turn nine in the next year if The Community celebrated birthdays “?- which they don’t, because then everyone would have their own special day “?- can’t have that much difference!) get bicycles, for example, to show their new freedom in The Community. The Twelves get their assignments. they are given the jobs that they will hold for the rest of their working lives, until they go to the house of the Old.
Jonas is apprehensive about his Assignment. He has done the required volunteer hours in various places, but has never really focussed on any one thing. He has nurtured the new children, taken care of the Elders, and worked with younger children at the Recreation Centre. When he is chosen as the new Receiver of Memory, he doesn’t know what to expect. What he gets from the old Receiver (who calls himself the Giver, to differentiate himself from Jonas) are all the memories of our time. He learns about colour, snow, grandparents, love, war, pain and hunger -“? none of which has ever been known in The Community.
This book makes us really think about equality. Equality and sameness are not exactly identical; children who read this book can learn that. We celebrate some differences in others (e.g., one person’s cheery personality and another’s sensitivity). We also (especially as children) tease or hurt those who are different from us. For example, we make fun of one another’s difficulty with language. The very sameness of The Community is, somehow comforting, and somehow profoundly wrong. Those who cannot get along in The Community are Released. When Jonas learns what this means for the new child Gabe that his father (a Nurturer) has been allowed to bring home for an additional year, his whole world falls apart.
One of the best features (or worst, depending on your point of view) of this book is its ambiguous ending. We never know exactly what happens. I have read and re-read this book many times, and never really come to a satisfactory understanding of Jonas and little Gabe’s fate. Sometimes, I think they live happily ever after, and other times … well, I’ll leave you to come to your own conclusions.
This book is very thought provoking, even for adults. This 180-page novel is a quick read that leaves a lasting impression. If you have the opportunity to share it with a child about twelve years old, take it! Books like this one are a great way to talk about differences, acceptance, and the merits of being “the same,” “average,” or “normal.” It’s also a story about courage and doing what’s right, even when it’s very difficult, and even when it might mean leaving your whole family behind forever.
I highly recommend The Giver–As a bonus, my daughters like it too!
Reference – Lowry, L. (1994). The Giver. New York: Bantam.