Thursday, 21 September 2017

Too Dark for Children: Lois Lowry's The Giver

Ever since I was asked to participate in ALSO's Persisting Beyond Margins event on September 28th, I've been doing a lot of thinking about banned books and why people ask for books to be banned.

In the case of Lois Lowry's The Giver, the number one reason why people want it banned is because they feel it's too dark for the intended audience (10-12).  The story is about Jonas, a young boy in an egalitarian society where everyone's birthday is celebrated on the same day with the same presents.  He is about to turn Twelve, the age when children are apprenticed to their adult assignments.  The decisions are made by the Council.

Normally, this would be a story about an underclass revolution or showing the horrors of having one's life determined by others, but Lowry's book is different.  The people of Jonas's community are actually happy.  The kids are pleased with their assignments and the Council has obviously done a great deal of work based on the child's personality and skills.  Families discuss their feelings every evening.  Food and medicine are available on demand.  There's no poverty or abuse.  It's the happiest dystopia that I've ever seen.

It's only when Jonas is assigned to be The Receiver that he begins to understand the flaws in his society.  The Receiver holds the memories of the society before this one (our world).  He or she uses them to deal with unexpected problems.  Those memories can be transferred to the new Receiver.   

Jonas remembers love, hate, war and laughter.  He begins to see colour.  He realizes the price of complacent conformity is a flattening of the emotional experience.  People experience contentment, not happiness, and irritation, not anger.  He finds himself more and more isolated as the story progresses.  But the tipping point comes when he learns that the Ceremony of Release, which is done to underdeveloped infants, and the old, is actually a euphemism for lethal injection.  He's horrified when he realizes that the baby in their household will be released and escapes into the night.

The story is dark.  There's no promise of a happy ending, no sign of a revolution.  Just one boy trying to understand how his world can be so different from the one that everyone else experiences.  

That's the part that I feel is so valuable for children.  It introduces the concept that what they experience might be different from what others experience, but it doesn't mean that it's wrong.  It introduces the concept that adults can lie to them and that comforting euphemisms can gloss over horrible things.  It can serve as the start of a discussion about the dangers of an "equal" society (ie, where everyone is forced to be the same) and the nature of happiness.  

When my children were young, I was deeply annoyed by the constant "everything is fine" riff in children's shows.  If something was destroyed, all was forgiven with a smile or a song.  If someone was being a bully, all they needed was an invitation to friendship.  Everything always works out with very little effort.  The optimistic message is helpful for children, it makes them feel safe and encourages them to make social efforts.  But it's not a true depiction of the world.

At ten to twelve, children can begin to understand the complexity of the world.  Lowry's book is well written and introduces several difficult topics.  I think that those who complain that it is too dark are indulging in some wishful thinking about both their children and the world in general. 

I've never been a fan of banning books, especially controversial ones.  (Although I admit that I've been tempted to ban some horribly written and trite books.)  Books are a way to live dozens or hundreds of lives, giving insight into cultures and experiences that would otherwise remain unknown.  Readers tend to be more tolerant, more thoughtful and more curious than non-readers.  They're exposed to different ideas, making them less likely to accept things at face value.  Limiting the number or types of ideas isn't helpful.  The real solution is to expose them to more and then encourage them to think and talk about what they've read.  Recognize their reactions and thoughts and have discussions.  Teach them to recognize convincing lies and euphemisms.

Next week, I'll be at Heartwood House (404 McArthur Avenue), enjoying some wine and cheese, as well as some amazing authors and books.  The ticket money goes toward supporting adult and family literacy, so it's a good cause.  Please consider joining us on Thursday, September 28th from 7 to 9.  It looks like it's going to be a lot of fun, but it's also an opportunity to stand up against imposed silence.  I hope to see a lot of Ottawa people there and hopefully we'll have a sold out event.

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