Lois Lowry’s 1993 young adult hit The Giver has a more complex history than you may have known.
1. A visit to Lowry’s father in a nursing home helped inspire the novel.
In his later years, Lowry’s father lost much of his long-term memory, which got Lowry thinking about the power and importance of memories: Without them, there can be no pain. She began to imagine a society where the past was deliberately forgotten so that the members could live in “peaceful ignorance.” This version of reality may relieve the people of pain, but its fatal flaw is that it also takes away valuable connections to the past and the possibility of lasting human relationships.
In a 1994 speech, Lowry touched on this visit and the questions it sparked: “We can forget pain, I think. And it is comfortable to do so. But I also wonder briefly: is it safe to do that, to forget?”
2. The Giver on the cover was celebrated in his own right.
In 1979, years before she wrote The Giver, Lowry was working as a journalist when she interviewed painter Carl Gustaf Nelson. The Swedish-born painter had lived in New York and taught painting in Boston before retiring to Maine’s Cranberry Island. Nelson’s art earned him spots in prestigious shows like the Whitney Biennial, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection contains two of his pieces. Lowry visited Nelson at his home off the coast of Maine, and while there she got the chance to photograph him.
3. Nelson may also have inspired the Giver.
In her 1994 Newbery Award acceptance speech, Lowry reminisced about meeting Nelson: “I spend a good deal of time with this man, and we talk a lot about color. It is clear to me that although I am a highly visual person—a person who sees and appreciates form and composition and color—this man’s capacity for seeing color goes far beyond mine … Now and then I wish, in a whimsical way, that he could have somehow magically given me the capacity to see the way he did.”
4. Nelson had something in common with the Giver.
Nelson passed away in 1988, but his face stuck with Lowry. She loved the interesting picture of Nelson so much that she held on to it, and later turned it into cover art. The choice of Nelson as the cover model would turn out to have a deeper meaning for Lowry. The artist had spent the last few years of his life in blindness, which sparked a connection. As Lowry explained in a 2006 interview with Teachingbooks.net, “[His] life was filled with color … for him to lose color, as the Giver in the book begins to lose color, seemed such a wonderful analogy that I’ve always been glad his photograph is on the cover.”
5. Some readers condemn the book as pro-euthanasia or pro-abortion.
The book’s concept of “release,” depicted by a man killing a newborn baby with a lethal injection, has been cited as evidence that Lowry is promoting euthanasia, suicide, or possibly abortion, but she debunks these theories. She says that those sorts of accusations are often from people who haven’t read the book thoroughly, and therefore are missing her point altogether.
6. The book received some harsh reviews …
Like many successful YA novels, The Giver hasn’t been a critical darling. Author Debra Doyle complained, “Personal taste aside, The Giver fails the Plausibility Test for me. … Things are the way they are because The Author is Making a Point; things work out the way they do because The Author’s Point Requires It.”
7. … But it won over other critics.
On the other hand, The New York Times’ Karen Ray wrote that although there were “occasional logical lapses,” the book is still “sure to keep older children reading. And thinking.” Lowry also claimed the annual Newbery Award for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children."
More importantly, the novel reached its target audience. It resonated with young readers so well that it’s sold over 12 million copies. A 2003 review by Rome, Ga., seventh-grader Michael Butler leads off with a view that’s shared by many of his peers: “The Giver is one of the many great books in our society today.”
8. Lowry got the news of her Newbery win in an odd place.
Lowry had already won the medal in 1990 for Number the Stars, but the committee had trouble locating her to share the good news about her second win in 1994. Eventually, the committee reached the author by radiogram, a necessary step since she was traveling in Antarctica. “I was feeling on top of the world, though, technically speaking, I was actually at the bottom,” she quips on her personal website.
9. It took Jeff Bridges over 20 years to turn the book into a film.
The actor became interested in adapting the novel for the screen in the early ‘90s but repeatedly got jammed up by studios and battles over ownership rights. The original plan was for Bridges to direct his father, Lloyd Bridges, in the title role, but this plan was canceled with the elder Bridges’ death in 1998. The film remained stuck in development hell for almost 15 years until Bridges was given the green light in 2012. The movie was released in 2014 starring Bridges (as the Giver), Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites, Odeya Rush, Cameron Monaghan, and featuring Katie Holmes, Alexander Skarsgård, and Taylor Swift.
10. Readers inundated Lowry with questions about the ending …
Lowry loved the novel’s ambiguous ending, but it drove readers crazy. She even mentioned it in her Newbery speech: “Those of you who hoped that I would stand here tonight and reveal the ‘true’ ending, the ‘right’ interpretation of the ending, will be disappointed. There isn’t one. There’s a right one for each of us, and it depends on our own beliefs, our own hopes.”
Lowry was so sold on the novel’s ambiguity that she even told interviewers that she would never write a sequel to clarify Jonas’s fate even as reader letters requesting closure flooded her mailbox.
11. ... until she finally gave in.
The passionate reader reaction made Lowry reconsider her anti-sequel stance. In a 2012 interview in Entertainment Weekly she explained, “I didn’t have any intention of writing a sequel. I liked the ambiguity of the ending. Over the years, though, it became clear that younger readers in particular did not.”
Lowry set out to give the people what they wanted, a mission that yielded three more novels. Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son round out the “loose quartet” set in this universe, but Lowry did not intend to create a series. In an interview with The Wire in 2012, Lowry said, “I had not intended [Gathering Blue] as even related to The Giver, I was creating another interesting world, to me, where things were different, and as I went along I realized I could answer some questions … I put in, at the end of Gathering Blue, the reference to the boy Jonas. … Four years later I did the third book, and they were not sequels, really, they were set at a different place at more or less the same time.”