The Importance of Dark Stories; or, Kate Talks for a Long Time about Lois Lowry and Crying a Lot

Wednesday night I got to meet Lois Lowry and spend 45 minutes in conversation with her before her appearance in conversation with Anna Holmes and Lizzie Skurnick of Jezebel.com. I was the guest of Jen Doll at the Atlantic Wire (you can read her interview here), because the two of us are reading The Giver Quartet for her YA for Grownups column (first part here), and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt had asked if we’d like to meet Ms. Lowry since she was going to be in NYC. (Tough decision, no?)

Well, last night, by the time I got to the café at the 92nd Street Y/Tribeca I was shaken and pretty sure I was going to burst out crying (I’ll explain this below), and desperately afraid that I was going to babble too much, but there were things I really wanted to talk about. I think Ms. Lowry and I have certain themes in common in our writing, especially the idea of memory (both human and social) and what it means to be a story-keeper. I also wanted to talk about ideas that many writers for young readers tend to share: the conviction that hope lies in children rather than in adults entrenched in their own worldviews; the belief that it’s necessary for children to question their elders; the idea that books are safe spaces (to paraphrase Ms. Lowry’s own words during that evening’s event) to practice overcoming things adults want badly to shield them from. I wanted to talk about all these things. I was in weird headspace, though.

This is going to be a bit of a longish and meandering post, and it’s going to involve a lot of me telling you about a lot of crying I did. Unlike many of those who’ll read this, I didn’t become a Lois Lowry fan until recently. I was a fan in the sense that I was and am still in awe of her contribution to literature for young readers, but that was it. But I have had something of a year of Lois Lowry, and it’s been a very emotional year.

Before I go any further, though–if you’re reading this and don’t consider yourself a kidlit person, please, read it anyway. This post is perhaps the best argument I can make for why children’s literature matters so very much—as much, if not more, than adult literature—and why adults should read it, too, and share it, and discuss it, even when it makes them uncomfortable.

Back up to the Children’s Book and Author Breakfast at this year’s Book Expo America; it’s a good place to begin. I had somehow managed to get myself up to be there on time, and I had (equally miraculously) managed not to knock my orange juice over onto either of my neighbors at our little table over near the wall. Walter Dean Myers gave the opening remarks; Chris Colfer was the master of ceremonies; John Green and Kadir Nelson each spoke, and all four were delightful, thought-provoking, wonderful to listen to. Then came Lois Lowry, who proceded to talk about her books, which I’d never read, and she made me cry.

Yes, you caught me: I had never read The Giver. I graduated high school in 1994, and although there are books from my childhood that I revisited often in the meantime, I didn’t begin reading new (or new-to-me) childrens’ books again until I began writing for children, which was sometime in 2005 or 2006. I completely missed The Giver and its companion books, which were released in the years 1993-2004. Then I sat in the audience and listened to Lois Lowry. I listened to her repeat the phrase young readers believe they can fix the world. I cried. I tried to hide it, because I am deeply afraid of embarrassing myself and for some reason I thought smudged mascara would be a bad thing. I don’t know why. I’m good at worrying about irrelevant things at odd times.

That breakfast followed oddly closely on the heels of a two-day school visit I did at Deer Hill School in Massachusetts. On the second day, the discussion somehow turned to how these fifth-grade kids felt about endings. I honestly do not know how we got there. But the topic came up, about five hands shot into the air, and the first kid I called on said something along the lines of, “Like at the end of The Giver.” Immediately five more hands went up and started waving. We spent the rest of my time in the classroom talking about the ending of a book I’d never read. And it was awesome.

Now, I sure wasn’t about to admit I hadn’t read it–I wasn’t quite brave enough to do that–so I asked questions like, why do you think she chose to do that? What did it accomplish that a more concrete ending might not have? What is it about the possibility of the unanswered question that makes you so uncomfortable? And, since the class seemed to be fairly evenly divided about whether Jonas and Gabe survived or not, why do you not simply feel that you can decide what you think happened afterward? It was a really lively discussion, and I was fascinated by how strongly these kids felt about it. I decided it was time to read the books, and it happened to coincide with Jen reaching out to McNally Jackson about some other kids’ book-related question, and she decided to read them, too, thinking then we’d discuss them and she’d write about it.

I read The Giver on the beach in North Carolina in August and Gathering Blue and Messenger this past Tuesday and Wednesday while laid up with bronchitis. I didn’t make notes on the beach; I couldn’t put the book down. The best I could do was manage not to get sunburned. But this week, because I was going to get to meet Ms. Lowry and I didn’t want to forget what I wanted to ask, I made notes like:

  • Casual violence, especially between families
  • Artistry valued, but only to meet needs of society/perpetuate approved mythology
  • Use of “worship object”–reduced to fairly meaningless object to genuflect to
  • Chilling reading this on eve of 1st Presidential debate
  • Seeing that woman hit her daughter at Emphasis and coming back to this…not cool
  • Giving of true names both is and is not like the giving of occupations
  • Messenger vs. healer, beautiful distinction–right now, in religion message is all, so little emphasis on actual healing

I watched the BEA speech again before I left for the 92nd Street Y Wednesday night and once again I cried. I was amped up emotionally. I’d just finished Messenger (the ending of which carries pain), and earlier that day, less than 24 hours after the note I’d made about casual familial violence in Gathering Blue, I’d seen a young mother hit her toddler on the girl’s face because she wouldn’t stop crying. This happened at my local diner (ref. my fifth note above). I think this was the first time that, as an adult, I’d ever witnessed another adult hit a child. On the heels of that event I watched the speech again, and this time I was struck even more forcibly by an earlier part in which Ms. Lowry explains that before writing The Giver she’d gotten a letter from her son, then serving in Iraq, in which he asked, why do people do such terrible things to each other? 

I was also looking forward to the first Presidential debate, and I was in one of those mental states where you read something and everything, it seems, has relevance to you and your life right exactly at that moment. A good dystopia ought to have that effect–otherwise what’s the point?–and The Giver Quartet is exceptionally good dystopia. Immigration, the rights of women, the place of the arts and the government’s role in fostering them, and on, and on, and on…

The net effect of all of it is that I was in a state of high emotion on my way to the meeting. So much so that I was so afraid I would cry again while talking to Ms. Lowry and–remember I said I worry irrationally about things?–I wrote an apology letter in advance and took it with me.

So what was the conversation like? Much of it is covered by Jen’s interview, and although she recorded the whole thing since she was going to be writing it up, I didn’t take notes. I just listened, and talked sometimes. Maybe too much, or maybe that’s just me worrying unnecessarily.

We talked a bit about reading the quartet as an adult and in 2012–in particular I’d been fascinated by Messenger‘s Village as a group of its citizens traded away pieces of themselves and demanded the closing of the borders to fugitives. I’d been struck by the way that, in Gathering Blue, artists are of use only if what they create helps to perpetuate the narrative the ruling forces have created. As a somewhat-religious person who’s furious about the uses of religion in politics, I was fascinated by the presence of the “worship object” in Gathering Blue and delighted by Leader’s giving of the name Healer to Matty even though Matty himself had hoped to be called Messenger. “There have been other messengers, and there will be more to come,” Leader says. But only Matty was able to go beyond messages to actually undo some of the real damage scarring his world and dividing it and turning its people against each other. Reading the beginning of Son as a female outraged about what I see as threats to my access to health and reproductive care at the same time as I’m trying to become a mom–well, that’s a killer. Ms. Lowry added that often times readers had pointed out that one of the woven scenes of destruction Kira repairs in Gathering Blue sounds like a description of the World Trade Center falling, and that many readers assume that’s exactly what it is–but that book had been published in 2000.

In much the same way, I guess, so many of the disaster-future elements of the quartet seem troublingly and specifically relevant to the world I live in, even if the author herself hadn’t actively been setting out to push all of those buttons when she’d written them.

This is where, if you haven’t read the books, you’re wondering how on earth all of this is jammed in there for fifth graders to find and absorb and process. And the answer is, of course, it isn’t. It isn’t jammed in there, but it’s there to find, because the world and the characters are beautifully drawn, because they are complex, because a world is a complicated thing and a good book is a world. A young reader encountering this book will find much in it to provoke thought, but certainly not the same set of thought-provocations as a 35 year old writer angry about certain things and sad about others and afraid of a still different set of concerns. Nor will they find the same set of thought-provocations as a 35 year old writer with two nephews as well as an adopted child out there somewhere waiting to find his way home. (Also, I am not always angry, sad, and afraid.)

What we bring to the reading of a book is what enables us to find meaning in it. This is why so many adults read The Giver and find themselves up in arms. And this is why, to a fifth-grader, in many ways the ending is the most troubling part—what lies ahead of Jonas and Gabe, not what they escaped. Kids are so resilient, and for all the darkly good intentions and perfectly-constructed dysfunctionality of Jonas’s community, Jonas and Gabe escaped. Nothing that they experience beforehand is so frightening as the possibility that their escape was for naught. The importance of the book, for them, is that the boys overcome that which is not right in their world.

Lois Lowry said in her speech, then to Jen and I, and then again in the event that followed that over and over kids had written to her wanting to know what happened to Jonas, but even more than that, they wanted to know what happened to the baby he fled with. This raises an even more tantalizing possibility about what The Giver inspires a child to think about. Certainly kids who read the book aren’t projecting themselves onto the baby Gabriel; they’re far more likely to be identifying with Jonas, who is twelve at the time of most of the events of the story. Both boys are on the verge of death at the end of The Giver. Jonas has given up so much to try and save the baby. How wonderful would it be to think that it’s not only important to young readers that the young protagonist manages to overcome the things that stand in his way and survive in a troubling world, but that even as a child he is able to save someone even more helpless than himself?

I have often wondered whether the trouble adult readers often have with the world of The Giver–and with dark books that require sacrifices of children, in general–has less to do with the specific things that challengers cite as problematic and more to do with the fact that that books like these tend to be tales in which adults (at best) cannot protect children from the world they’ve helped to shape and/or (at worst) are actively antagonistic to the best interests of the children–although there’s almost always a good reason for it, from the adults’ point of view. They are worlds that require sacrifices of children like Jonas, Kira, Matty, and Claire, and adults—particularly parents—do not like to think about children being put at risk, to say nothing of children having to knowingly put themselves at risk or even to die in order to save someone else. That’s supposed to be what adults are for, and it’s that very protective wish for peace and comfort and trust that makes them leery of kids reading things that are potentially upsetting. But it’s also that same protective wish that causes a lot of the evil in the world, and in the worlds of these books. It would not be difficult, if you were of a particularly defensive turn of mind, to think that books like these send messages like, adults are not to be trusted, religion is not to be trusted, governments are not to be trusted.

I don’t personally think that’s what these books say, by the way. I think what they say is subtly different, and critically important: sometimes the entities you should be able to trust will make mistakes, at least. Sometimes you will have to trust yourself to survive.

And then, the most important bit:

And you can do it.

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