The summer of 1994 was an odd one for me. It was the summer between middle school and high school, the last year I had a real summer of leisure—that is, when I wasn’t busy being a caregiver for my younger siblings. After that, any breaks in school were the domain of music camps and summer jobs. 1994 was the last year I had a librarian, or whatever my concept of that was when I was growing up—a person assigned to me whose job it was to help me discover my literary taste. I’ve been a reader since I’ve been making memories, and my fondest childhood memories often involve another larger human shoving a load of books in my arms (antisocial from the start). Usually that person was a teacher or a librarian or my grandmother. Bless each and every one of ’em.
That summer, I went to the public library once a week or so get books. Each week I brought my ninth-grade reading list along, just in case I decided to get started on that. Also a procrastinator from the start, I don’t think I checked out a single book from that list until the week before school started. The titles just seemed so boring and not grown-up. “Animal Farm? To Kill A Mockingbird? No way, animal books are for kids, and I’m going to high school, for crying out loud. Besides, I’m an Accelerated Reader! No books with animals for me.” (Remember when such distinctions were of life-and-death importance? Kids always need a gang to represent.)
I was a rather self-sufficient kid. It only ever occurred to me to ask for help once a situation had gone from problematic to completely disastrous. But I also liked the idea of accidents and happenstance, so I usually didn’t asked the librarian for her recommendations. But one day, I just couldn’t find anything I wanted. That was the day two books were placed in my hands: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and The Giver. My history with the former is another essay for another day, but I still remember my reactions to the latter. This was the year of The Giver’s coronation. Released the year before, it had just won (or was just about to win) the Newbery Medal—another distinction that I assumed meant it was not for me; that award was for kids’ books. But it was late, and I knew my mom was waiting. I took both.
A general rule of thumb—and one I find to be completely bogus—is that the best age to read a YA book is when the reader is about the same age as the protagonist. By this benchmark, I was a little old for The Giver, as most of the book takes place the year Jonas is 12. While I do think it’s possible to age out of certain books, I find such generalizations to be dangerously dismissive. People should read whatever sparks their interest, and people who are growing will branch out when it’s time to do so. I don’t remember all of my thoughts about the book upon that first read, but I do remember liking it a lot and feeling proud that I understood it. At least I thought I did. At 14, I wasn’t completely up on my critique of the inherent oppression of fascist societies, but I definitely knew the confusing, horrifying experience known as puberty. And as an eldest child, I knew of responsibilities to your community. Yet, reading The Giver in my 30s, I’m still not sure I grasped all the themes Lois Lowry weaves into this relatively simple coming-of-age tale. This time it was such a richer, more layered experience.
Dystopian YA lit and fantasy has become such a hackneyed go-to genre in the last decade that it’s difficult to conceive that just two decades ago, such a plot was considered revolutionary, perhaps even too disturbing to be teaching children (as evidenced by the book’s frequent billing on the American Library Association’s Most Frequently Challenged Books list.) By 2014 standards, The Giver is relatively tame. The kids are too young for a romantic plot (a detail worked around in the film adaptation by aging them up to 16); puberty is only alluded to as a “Stirring” to be medicated out of adolescents; and the concept of sex is never so much as broached. In fact, one of the most surprising aspects of this re-read was how little “action” is actually in the book. These days, we’re conditioned to expect “noble teens on the run” adrenaline-pumpers. The Giver is basically 200 pages of an adolescent boy musing on his memories and his feelings while having instructive conversations with the adults responsible for his care. It’s an extremely meditative book about the death of childhood, responsibility to one’s community, and rebellion against corruption. The final few chapters provide an impetus for real suspense, but that’s about it.
Context is an interesting notion that gets applied frequently in book criticism, but I often wonder how necessary is to enjoy a piece of art. In fact, I often wonder if it can be a hindrance. Does knowing a band is on the brink of a breakup make that final album any better? Does knowing an author or a director’s life story a requirement to really “get” the book or the film? Similar thinking can be applied to reading The Giver now and thinking of dystopian lit in general. Reading The Giver now, it’s easy to see how the seeds of future novels may have been planted by this book. The rituals and distinctions of Jonas’ community feel as if they gave birth to the sorting ceremony in Harry Potter, the reaping in The Hunger Games, the factions in Divergent, and so on. Reading The Giver now, I know that Lowry was reacting to a certain response to her earlier novel, Number The Stars, a reaction that can only be described as Holocaust-literature fatigue. She was pondering the loss of her father’s memories. She was pondering the relief she felt when she’s watching the news and discovered the latest horrible thing has happened elsewhere. It’s of interest to me as a critic, but not as a reader—perhaps a distinction without a difference.
It’s also interesting to note that Lowry intended The Giver to be a standalone novel. After being asked repeatedly for years what became of these characters and the world they inhabit, she eventually expanded the series to include four books, the last of which was published in 2012. At 14, that original ending seemed a lot happier to me than it does now. I never even read any of the follow-up novels. But perhaps I willed myself out of seeing all the ambiguity then. At 14, I read about Jonas the Receiver and I contemplated the price of conformity while I waited for high school to begin. My empathy remained with Jonas, the intrepid protagonist. Twenty years later, I realize the importance of the title; the book’s not called The Receiver. This time, I read about an Elder and a young one. I contemplate the price of utopia, and my empathy is with the two Receivers who were chosen before Jonas. My empathy lies with The Giver. And I realize there is a terrible cost to knowing, to remembering when everyone else forgets.