This weekend, Hollywood will release the movie adaptation of Lois Lowry's The Giver, a film many of us have been waiting for since our junior high years. And in a world of Hunger Games, Divergents and many more popular YA novels, we'd like to talk about why this slightly older book still matters.
After crunching the numbers, "Show of hands, who has read The Giver?" I can soundly say that if you're younger than 34, you've probably read (and perhaps been required to read) the 200-page young adult novel. And if you haven't read it, you should. The Newbery Award-winning (remember the golden seal?) book with the scraggly grandpa face is not only a great gateway drug for science fiction, but it's also still a sound piece of YA that is, unfortunately, getting buried under the glut of its own genre's popularity. But after pulling it out, dusting it off and giving The Giver another read, I can honestly say this book deserves a better shake—because it is better. But let me break it down for you.
For those of you unaware, The Giver is set in a far-off future where the governing party has weeded out everything different and emotional. The future society reveres sameness, and dampens the emotions of the public with medication. No one experiences real pain (there's medication for that) or love, or grief or any emotion at all because all unpleasantness (and pleasantness, for that matter) has been whittled away in this new society. The story centers around Jonas a young boy who is chosen to be "The Receiver," an honored position within the society. And his teacher would be "The Giver." Together they would pass on the memories that contained less-than-desirable attributes for future society to possess. Naturally, things fall apart.
In my blurry memory of the required reading syllabi of my past, few books empowered my developing brain more than The Giver. The main protagonist, Jonas, is a boy who has just turned 12. That's young. And yet he's a bright individual who can sniff out BS pretty fast. Granted, his life has been heavily manipulated by the government, so it takes him some time, but he picks up on things rather quickly.
Then there's his job. Jonas is assigned the task to "receive" all the unpleasant (and pleasant) memories of the world from the Giver. And they're not all sweet memories of sledding down a hill; Jonas is burdened with the memories of pain, and war and intense hatred. The book's relentless pace foists atrocity after atrocity into Jonas' mind. And he handles it. This doesn't mean he isn't shocked or repulsed, but the idea that a 12-year-old's brain could comprehend such horror was wonderfully validating. Every unfortunate memory Jonas received was digested in a manner that was respectful to the character's intelligence. The memories themselves didn't coddle the reader either—that sled disaster always stuck in my mind. In the memory, Jonas is sledding down a hill when he falls off breaks his leg, exposing blood and bone and his mind to a new sensation of pain. In response, he vomits in the snow. And there's the memory where an elephant is hacked to death by poachers. The Giver was telling the younger generation that they can handle bigger things than they know. It was incredibly legitimizing to read as a child.
To quote our own Robbie Gonzalez, "It was clearly something none of us had experienced before. It runs counter to most stories you're told at that age. The reason it spread the way it did was we all had this revelatory feeling of 'whoa,' and when we told people about it, it was always, 'Read it. Just read it,' which most people should recognize as a unique form of praise when it's coming from an 8-year-old."
A common current YA trope is the big bad adult against the headstrong kid. President Snow (Hunger Games), Jeanine Matthews (Divergent), Dr. Cable (Uglies) Serafine Duchannes (Beautiful Creatures) are all greed and power-motivated adults. They are the problem, and it's up to the young protagonist to take them down. There is no such bad guy figurehead in The Giver. There's no hand-wringing villain pulling the strings trying to take Jonas down a peg as he grows. In fact, the society only encourages Jonas to succeed at his job as the Receiver so they can continue on living in their unaware, colorless world. The institution is the problem. Jonas must question the very world he lives in and the values he was raised to believe in all on his own. The Giver empowers him to question the society he lives in, not the imaginary floating head of some wizard. Omitting a physical antagonist turned unaware civilians and Jonas' loved ones into the very problem our main character would have to face. It told readers to question the very system they are a willing participants in. It informed young minds that problems won't always arise with a face; the problem may be an ideal. And it may be something that your own parents subscribe to, but that doesn't make it right.
The Giver briefly handles blossoming sexual urges of the youth in an interesting manner. The book calls these feelings "stirrings." Jonas' first encounter with his own sexual stirrings are shared in a dream: "I wanted her to take her clothes of and get in the tub." Jonas struggles to name the emotion he is experiencing, but he can describe the wanting. After revealing his stirrings, he's given a pill that suppresses his growing sexuality. And that's that.
But, as The Giver quickly threads through the book, this censored lifestyle is not a good, healthy way to live. It's a colorless life without deep passion or strong emotions. And by handing out pills to suppress sexual urges, the novel is asserting that sexuality is an important part of life. It's giving the OK to teenagers having sexual desires. Granted, the book doesn't spend too much time exploring the depths of pre-teen sexuality (and the various forms, this is just from Jonas' POV) but just stating that it's something that shouldn't be suppressed is a big help to a young mind.
Author Lois Lowry's creation of the neural net was a wondrous scifi concept that was never fully fleshed out in the books, but it inspired many to think a little wider about the potential for telepathic connections. The credit for bringing up the neural net goes entirely to writer and editor Dave Gonzales, who shared what the neural net discovery means to him:
"As a story, it was my first time as a young science fiction fan really contemplating the idea of a neural network in a human population. If Jonas and The Giver are able to store and share memories, memories that had to be catalogued and saved, there would have to be an unbelievable degree of telepathy in the future evolution of the human race, or - the more entertaining thought experiment - the human population mastered the neural net before the book begins. The Elders use listening devices in the homes, so it's probably not a remote-access neural network, but to control a population to the degree that they stop seeing color would be a lot easier if you could monkey around with the thought systems of each non-released member of society. And if this net gets buggy? "Release" the error. I thought about this so much it eventually lead me to the William Gibson's Burning Chrome that included Johnny Mneonic, which was turned into a not-so-good movie with a guy named Keanu Reeves who expanded my thinking on the neural net into The Matrix in 1999. It started with The Giver though, and sketches in my 7th grade English notebooks of trees of wires lighting up Jonas' cranium."
The Giver wasn't the first dystopian book ever penned, but as you can see, it was often one of the first scifi books many folks read. It wasn't quite my first science fiction novel (that was Ender's Game), but it was my first dalliance into the idea of a dystopia. The Giver lead to finding The Girl Who Owned A City, Brave New World, 1984, and eventually a bit later, High-Rise and Logan's Run. It was a fire starter for scifi reading, and it was penned in an accessible way that would open younger minds to branch out into genre reading.
The Giver may have been published more than 20 years ago, but the themes and material inside the book still matter today. And it accomplished all of this without having to murder a bunch of kids on an island or inject some sort of love triangle. It's a relentless page-turner from start to finish that pushes younger readers to question their own existence and place in this world.
Even the ending is a challenge, omitting any follow-up stories or author interviews. If you simply read The Giver cover to cover, you don't actually know what happens to Jonas in the end. Its conclusion is open-ended. Maybe he made it with baby Gabe, or maybe they were just imagining this new world and died in the snow. You weren't told what to think, which was the point. So go ahead and fight about it—that's ok.