Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Book Review: The Giver by Lois Lowry

I knew nothing going into this book except that it's a dystopian award-winning YA novel that is now required reading everywhere (and also often challenged) and that I don't particularly like the cover (which is still true after having read it. What about a grizzled old man would appeal to young teens? Even if he is the title character?)

Jonas is growing up in a pretty ideal world. At first it seems nice - everyone gets a bike when they turn 9 - but it's also a little creepy - every morning everyone has to tell their dreams and the family analyzes them, and every evening you have to tell your emotions from the day, which are also analyzed. But overall it doesn't seem too bad. Jonas has a best friend, Asher, his little sister Lily is cute and only very mildly annoying, and it's nice to see 11-year-olds doing volunteer work with the elderly, even if it is mandatory (that you do volunteer work is mandatory, not where.) But when Jonas turns 12 he, like everyone else, is assigned to his career and beings training. And that's when you begin to discover, along with Jonas, just how controlled, limited, and rigid this society is.

As Jonas discovers more about the real world outside (or is it just before? Is the outside really the same as where he is?), he has to decide how to deal with the choices that come his way, choices which he has never made before (Big-Brother-esque cameras and loudspeakers seem to watch what everyone does.) There simply aren't choices in his life and in his community. But that means they're missing out on a lot of good, as well as bad. When war is eliminated, so is love. Adults are matched by a committee with their partners, they are assigned two children, a boy and a girl, to raise, and once those children are adults and don't need their parents any longer, the parents move into Childless Adult housing. It's true, there is no hunger, no doubt, no hurt feelings, and no fighting. But at what cost? And what, if anything, is Jonas willing and able to do about it? Can he handle the responsibility of knowing the truth?

I can really see why this is taught in schools - the moral issues are very obvious and easy topics for school papers (not that there are any easy answers to them). Jonas is a very appealing character, if a little bland (presumably that's partially imposed by the hyper-conformity of the community) and easily relatable. It was smoothly written and I whipped through it in just a few hours. It's powerful and the questions it raises about tradeoffs and costs are ones adults should ponder as well.

I'm a bit confused as to why it's one of the most frequently challenged books unless it's political. It was called "lewd" and "twisted" - huh? Also its “mature themes” including suicide, sexuality, and euthanasia, have attracted detractors, but that's silly as those are all issues that should be debated. They're not open and shut cases. I read Brave New World in 10th grade and we had to then write essays on controversial technological advances. I did mine on RU-486, the "abortion drug," and my friend Lauren did hers on euthanasia. If these topics were worth discussing in the 1980s, they certainly are worth talking about now. (And the "sexuality" is pretty light both in content and discussion in the book. Jonas has some feelings they call "stirrings" and he's put on a drug that stops them.) I suppose the people who want to ban this book are the ones who think you can just hide children from controversial topics and they somehow will be completely sheltered, and also they will 100% agree with and not question their parents' opinions, if they're not exposed to any literature that makes them think. Why on earth do we want teens to not think? Baffling. I'm glad this book is required reading in my school district (and I don't even have a kid!)

I bought this book used at the Friends of the Library sale.

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