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Banned Books Week 2013: Defending The Giver by Lois Lowry (guest post by Elsa Ouvrard-Prettol)

September 22 – 28 is Banned Books Week, a week which serves to remind us that there are those who would like to ban books.  The books vary, as do the reasons.  But the bottom line should always be this: each person gets to decide for themselves what to read.  Information is power.  Story is power.  Tyrants and dictators burn books, those who believe in Democracy do not.  So this week we thought we would find some people to discuss the power and importance of some of those books that have been challenged and pulled out of schools.  Today, Elsa Ouvrar-Prettol is discussing The Giver by Lois Lowry.  

 

First confession: I did not read The Giveruntil June 2010, at the end of my first year as a librarian. While I graduated high school in 1997 and technically could have read it in H.S. since it was first published in 1993, I went to school in France, where we studied French literature. I did study English and American literatures in college, but we focused on the ‘classic’ authors. And so I came to Natomas Charter School to be the librarian, not having read one of the most well-known and studied novels of the past twenty years.

Second confession: I have always loved dystopias. And I do mean ‘always’, as in since the early 90’s when I was in middle school and discovered the genre, and not ‘always’ as in “I had never heard the word ‘dystopias’ until The Hunger Games came out, but now I love them”. So of course, I loved The Giver and Gathering Blue when I read them in 2010, and I loved Messenger and Son, when I got them later on for our collection.
I can see why some people would be troubled by the first opus of the quartet. Euthanasia, murder, suicide. Drugs. Infanticide. Violence. Sexual arousing. Life-endangering situations. The novel even starts with Jonas describing his feeling; more accurately, he is trying to find the word that pinpoints the degree of fear that he is feeling. At the same time, in just the first few pages, Lois Lowry describes Jonas’ community as a quiet, orderly place where everyone has its own role, and knows and abides by the rules. This dichotomy of Jonas being fearful in a place which makes things as comfortable as possible sets the tone for the rest of the novel, for of course, Jonas is right to be fearful. The discoveries that he makes throughout the novel (see the list at the beginning of this paragraph) transforms his view of the community to the point that he decides to leave it – a choice so radical that he will have to be presented as dead instead of runaway.
So, yes, The Giver is controversial. Of course, I would not put the book in anyone’s hands before they are ready to read it – this is the golden rule for any book, really. Give a book at someone before they are mature enough to understand it, and it will, at best, be lost on them, and at worst, turn them off from reading the book (and possibly others!) later on. But I do believe that The Giveris one of those books that middle schoolers (in that wide range of grades 6-9 that “middle school” covers throughout the country) should read at one point.
One of the lessons The Giver teaches us is about making one’s own choices, and not letting others (even well-meaning, knowledgeable ‘Elders’) make all the decisions for you. Jonas’ community might look ideal at first, and blind faith in a group of decision-makers does allow the removal of many issues: having to distinguish right from wrong, taking the risks, dealing with the possible consequences of being wrong, etc… Daily life is much easier without these burdens.
But to me, the people in Jonas’ community are more like sheep than humans. They follow blindly and willingly their leaders, trusting in their good judgment, only thinking of the bad things they are not experiencing, and having forgotten the good things they have given up. This is the lesson that I want my stepdaughter, and, in time, my daughter, to learn: knowledge is power (can you see why I became a librarian? 😉 ). I do believe in the power of knowing as much as possible about one’s situation, so as to make the best decision possible. Of course, it means that one does bear the burden of Responsibility, Consequences (good or bad), and everything that comes with them. But being one’s master is the key to one’s freedom.
These two extracts from a conversation between Jonas and the Giver seem to apply to those concerned parents who tried to ban the book:
“Why do you and I have to hold these memories?”
“It gives us wisdom,” The Giver replied.
[…]
“But why can’t everyone have the memories? I think it would seem a little easier if the memories were shared. You and I wouldn’t have to bear so much by ourselves, if everybody took a part.”
The Giver sighed. “You’re right,” he said. But then everyone would be burdened and pained. They don’t want that.”
(The Giver, Lois Lowry, p111 and 112-113, Dell Laurel-Leaf, 2002)
Note that this passage mentions two points: memories give us wisdom, and people do not want to be hurt. Let’s talk about pain first.
Parents worry about all the different ways their children can be hurt in this world, and for good reason, because there are a thousand ways to get hurt, and of course parents, out of love, want their children to be safe. But this is not just utopian (for pain is inevitable), but also deeply ironic, as the novel describes a process that every family goes through. We all ask questions to our parents, grandparents, older siblings, etc… and discover incidents, however big or small, that influenced their lives and that might shock us. Our family members’ memories are usually how we start learning about how scary the world can be.
For example: I heard World War II stories shared again and again during family meals at my grandparents’ when I was a child. That’s when I learned about my grandfather’s stepfather, who was given to the Germans by his own sons for owning a WWI German rifle. That’s also when I learned about sorrow and despair (my great-grandmother never received any news from or about her husband once he was put on a train to whichever camp whence he never returned), but also about love, for she would not have hurt as badly as she did if she had not loved him as much as she did. That is another important lesson from The Giver: there is no high without low. You do not know the true extent of love if you do not experience absence or loss. You cannot truly enjoy down time if you never work.
The other bit that we learned from the quote above is about wisdom. This is mostly why I do not understand people who want to ban The Giver, and why I will always proudly recommend it to my patrons: I want to encourage students’ critical thinking skills, I want them to read what happens to a society which gives up its powers to a small group of individuals without any system of checks and balances, I want them to become responsible citizens of a healthy society, participating in their democracy so that it remains one and not turn into a dystopian one. 
Encouraging children and teens to think for themselves can be worrisome – what if they do not learn what we deem to be the ‘correct’ lesson?! – but that is exactly what’s necessary for them to become mature and sensible adults. Literature is the safest way, as well as the most important way, to allow kids to think things through for themselves. It is the safest because these are works of fiction; if one gets too scared or overwhelmed, it is easy to close the book until one is ready to pick it up again. Parents can also read the book with their children, explaining things when the child has questions. Reading about controversial topics allows the readers to see things from another perspective without putting themselves in danger. Literature is also the most important way to help kids grow up because reading engages one’s mental capacities (understanding, deciphering, critical thinking, etc…), which are extremely valuable in the real world, especially now that information is everywhere.  The end goal of childrearing is to have an adult who is the masteroftheirfate – how will kids become that if they are never allowed to stretch out their wings or their imagination?
About Me:
I am the Library and Media Instructor at NatomasCharterSchool, working mostly with grades 6-12. 
I am always looking into how better serve my patrons, so I love to try new things! I love my OPAC (Yay, FollettDestiny!), Twitter (@NCSLibrarian), YouTube (ElsaPrettol), and I am so thankful that our school has iPads, Chromebooks, Kindles, Nooks and the whole Gmail suite for students and teachers. If you have questions about  any of those technologies, do not hesitate to email me at eouvrardprettol@natomascharter.org 

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  1. […] Ouvrard-Prettol, E. (2013). Banned books week 2013: Defending The Giver by Lois Lowry (guest post by Elsa Ouvrard-Prettol). Retrieved from http://www.teenlibrariantoolbox.com/2013/09/banned-books-week-2013-defending-the-giver-by-lois-lowry… […]

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