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I know this isn’t a new book - in fact it's 21 years old - but it’s certainly newly in the public eye what with the upcoming movie (due to be released in theaters August 15), so I thought it was a good time to revisit it.

I first encountered The Giver when I had to teach it for a high school class in Japan. I had never heard of it before, and based on the cover I wasn't too optimistic (yes, I judge books by their covers). An old bearded guy in black and white and the silhouette of trees at twilight just wasn’t as inspiring as some of the other books in my to-read-to-teach pile. (Later, I loved finding out the story of the man on the cover which Lowry explains in her beautiful Newbery acceptance speech here.)

I'm so glad I decided to eventually read (and teach) this book, because The Giver is fantastic. 

Dystopia has become a very popular theme in YA lit recently, but Lowry did it in 1993, so I think she got the jump on the trend.

I was able to hear Lois Lowry speak last year at the Brooklyn Book Festival. She said that she didn't deliberately set out to tell a dystopian story, it just developed that way. I think this comes through in the book where the focus is really on memory and emotion and how they inform our individual personalities and give us wisdom.

"The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It's the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared."
For those who aren't familiar with the book, it takes place in a society where sameness and conformity are valued and it is impolite to point out differences. One's role in life is assigned at the age of 12 by the Elders and is based on where the child's talents seemed to lie. Later in life, their spouses and even children will also be assigned to them.

The book follows a young boy named Jonas who is just turning 12.  At his assignment he is given the role of "Receiver" - a role which is only assigned to one person per generation. Jonas is not allowed to talk to anyone else about what his assignment entails, but he discovers that he must receive the collected memories of his society from "the Giver." For the first time he is exposed to things like weather, pain, joy, music, and the idea that there is history beyond what he has seen and experienced. He learns from the Giver that memories of the past were removed from society in order to remove people's desire to choose one thing over the other and to avoid negative emotions and feelings such as jealousy and pain.
The Giver alone holds these memories and uses them to advise the council in times when they are unsure how to act. As Jonas's eyes are gradually opened to all the joy and pain that nobody else in society can experience he starts to realize the wrongness of it all and finds himself ultimately faced with a difficult decision of what to do with his knowledge. I won't spoil it totally. If you haven't read it, go read it.

I loved Jonas's gradual discover of color and the fact that when he finally could see colors he could no longer un-see them or go back to the way he used to see things. It's a great picture of what memories do to us - once we experience something it stays with us forever and shapes how we view the world.

It was very interesting to hear my students' takes on this book. Japanese society highly values conformity. US society values independent action and looks down on conformity. In our class discussions it came out that my students didn't react as strongly against the idea of sameness as I had when I read the book. They saw many aspects of the society in The Giver as positive, though they all agreed that completely taking away freedom of choice was a negative thing. Japan is hardly a dystopia, so it was through provoking to hear  how for many sameness = safety and comfort. It made it easier to sympathize with a society which had started out simply trying to protect its citizens from what was negative and painful.

I am certainly looking forward to the spin the movie will put on it. I have read some interviews with Lois Lowry and she seems pretty chill about the changes, so hopefully even if it's not 100% accurate, it will still be an awesome movie.


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