Published in 1993, The Giver by Lois Lowry was one of my all-time favorite books as a teenager. I read it in eighth grade, and then again in high school, and then again whenever I had some downtime during my college years. I’d been delighted to learn, upon taking my first middle school job, that The Giver was part of the curriculum for my seventh grade students.
So when the boys started asking about the book, I mistook their curiosity for literary enthusiasm and broke from my first-day script to tell them yes.
They erupted in groans. “Do we have to read it? The kids who read it last year said it was really bad.”
“Well, maybe you’ll feel differently after you read it yourselves.”
“I read it,” shouted a boy in the front row. “I read it already. And it really is bad.”
I shrugged off their negativity. I mean, they weren’t the first kids I’d seen who didn’t want to read a book in English class.
But a few days later, as I was gave my standard Back-To-School-Night speech to a room dull of parents, one mother nearly jumped out of her chair and said, “Can you please not read The Giver?”
I kept my composure well enough to politely sidestep the question, but I knew the battle was far from over. Because when parents don’t like a book, that’s when the real headache begins.
As the months went on, both parents and teachers alike approached me with concerns about Lowry’s book. One mom worried that her son couldn’t handle the scene in which an infant is killed. Another thought that the sexual “stirrings” felt by the novel’s teens was inappropriate material for seventh graders. “Worse than swearing,” she called it. Finally, several parents–and some students–were concerned with the book’s ambiguous ending. Do the characters live, or do they die? And how dare the author not just spell it all out for us? Isn’t that what the author is supposed to do?
For those who may be unfamiliar with the book, it’s worth pointing out that The Giver is the story of a utopian future society where the people know neither extreme suffering nor extreme pleasure. Things start to change when a twelve-year-old boy named Jonas is chosen to gain wisdom through the intense memories of the past, and is exposed for the first time to both evil and joy in the forms of love, war, death, color, pain, and so on. The bottom line: Many parents react to the The Giver–a story about the dangers of shielding people from painful, comfortable truths–by trying to shield their kids from the painful, uncomfortable truth.
This irony has not been lost on the author herself, who said on her website, “I think banning books is a very, very dangerous thing… It’s okay for a parent to say, ‘I don’t want my child to read this book.’ But it is not okay for anyone to try to make that decision for other people. The world portrayed in The Giver is a world where choice has been taken away. It is a frightening world.”
I’d go a half step past Lowry here. Because while I do agree that parents should have the right to say, “I don’t want my child to read this book,” I still wish they’d say that a little less.
The general morality of book banning aside, I was baffled by the all the parent hate I saw heaped on The Giver. How could anyone read a such a beautiful, thought-provoking book, and walk away thinking, “I must prevent my child from seeing this.” Was this all just a part of working in a religious school? Maybe, but that doesn’t explain away the controversy that has plagued The Giver in public school districts since the days of it’s original publication.
The more research I did, the more shocked I became at the sheer number of parents who had fought so hard to ban a book that more people really should read.
One mother was so against her son reading The Giver (he was too sensitive for the death scenes, she said) that she took her complaints directly to my supervisor. I was later called into my supervisor’s office, and the two of us came up with an alternate assignment for the boy to complete while the rest of the students stuck to the curriculum. Months later, as I was preparing to begin my Giver unit, the mom shocked me by saying never mind, the boy can read it–just keen an eye on him and make sure he doesn’t get too upset. My guess is that she’d hoped that I’d dump the book entirely, and didn’t want her son singled out when she realized I was definitely going ahead with it.
True to my word, I kept a close eye on the boy. No emotional breakdowns. He did write a pretty excellent final analysis essay on The Giver, though. If he’d been traumatized, he’d hidden it well.
With the movie coming in August, I hope more people–adults and young adults alike–will read The Giver. And I hope they’ll let me know if they do, because I’d love to discuss it with them. I’ve already had a blast discussing the book with my students.
Most of my kids said in the end that they enjoyed the book. Some did not, but that’s to be expected. I closed the unit by asking the students to freewrite on the question: “Should The Giver be banned from schools?” Aside from one boy who answered that it should be banned because it was “stupid,” the overwhelming majority supported the book.
These kids could teach their parents a thing or two.