Banned Books Week: The Giver

Today, we’re taking a look at one of the more frequently challenged, removed, restored, banned, and defended titles in “young adult” literature. I put young adult in quotes not as a rub, mind you, but to let you know that this book shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed as only belonging to kids. Like the best family movies, there is something for everyone here. Unlike the best family movies, this story is much more complex and asks its audience to do quite a bit of thinking and reflecting along the way, while remaining a book that is nearly impossible to put down.

We’re talking about The Giver by Lois Lowry.

If you have not read this book, then you should stop reading right here and go find a copy. Read it. You won’t regret doing so and chances are that you’ll run through the book pretty quickly; it really is difficult to put down. But I’m also warning you now: this book and the challenges it has faced are next to impossible to talk about without spoilers. So, to that end, this article contains spoilers and this is a book you really should discover new and fresh.

So you’ve been warned.

I’ll also share with you that I love this book. I first listened to it as an audiobook when I was working down south in a library. I would listen each day in my car, the seat back down, windows open, and completely lost in Jonas’s thrilling and bittersweet journey of discovery not only of himself, but of the world around him.

The Story

The Giver centers around Jonas, a young man who is, when we meet him, eagerly awaiting the upcoming ceremony that will dictate his future career. He lives with his mother and father in a very sterile (emotionally and otherwise) environment. His father has recently brought home a sick baby from work whom he is caring for and attempting to nurse to health, named Gabriel (or “Gabe”).

Early on we see that this is a society that has been erected out of a bleak future (whether it is dystopian or post-apocalyptic isn’t too important, just the knowledge that the town and it’s rules were established to protect its residents from the Elsewhere).

In this society, there is no war, there is no violence, no hunger or suffering. Sounds perfect, right? Well, hold on a minute; in what will become a running theme throughout the book, nothing is ever quiet so black and white, and there are costs for maintaining this type of living. Everything about the lives of the citizens is pre-ordained by the Elders: what they do, who they marry, how many children they’re allowed, everything. They take medication to suppress their emotions. In short, they’ve given up any sense of individuality and freedom in exchange for a sense of security and “happiness.”

Do anything to disrupt the peace or break the rules and you are “released,” which everyone believes to mean they are sent out of the community (which is technically true, but more on that later). Reach a certain age and you are released. Babies too are subjected to scrutiny and excess children (such as a twin) or children who are deemed sick or malformed are released.

So there’s Jonas, and at the selection ceremony he is initially passed over. Immediately people begin wondering if he’s done something wrong, if he’s going to be released. Turns out, he has actually been selected for the biggest job in the community, that of The Receiver of Memory. Memory here being not just what people are up to in the present, but what has happened in the past. Jonas’s eyes are about to be pulled wide open, for the good of the community.

And here’s where the story really picks up (and the spoilers set in—final warning). Jonas learns about color and emotion and begins to question the direction of the town and whether this type of conformity and detachment actually cost people their humanity (surprise—it does). Gradually, he begins to see everyone and everything through new eyes. It’s tough on him and at times he is unsure of himself, and then he learns the one big truth that will galvanize him into action: when someone is released they are first euthanized.

He learns of this and witnesses his father “releasing” a child who has not been deemed healthy enough to remain. It further unsettles him to realize his father has been doing this his entire career and that Jonas’s friend has begun working in the same department, releasing the elderly and feeling not much at all about it.

Jonas’s mind turns to Gabe, the baby who is not getting better quick enough to satisfy the rules and might be slated for release. And so Jonas determines that he must make a drastic decision and move against the world as he knows it.

The Controversy

The above summary is only part of what goes on in the story, but it’s the biggest part. And I’ve also shown you the bits and pieces that get censors worked up the most. But let’s review some of the more recent challenges to the title (and this is not an exhaustive list, folks):

The Trials of The Giver by Lois Lowry

  • 2008
    Appalled by descriptions of adolescent pill-popping, suicide, and lethal injections given to babies and the elderly, two parents demanded that the Mt. Diablo School District, headquartered in Concord, Calif. (2007), eliminate the controversial but award-winning book from the school reading lists and libraries.
  • 2007
    Challenged, but retained at the Seaman (KS) Unified School District 345 Elementary School library.
  • 2006
    Challenged, but retained at the Seaman (KS) Unified School District 345 Elementary School library.
  • 2005
    Challenged as a suggested reading for 8th grade students in Blue Springs (MO). Parents called the book “lewd” and “twisted” and pleaded for it to be tossed out of the district. Two committees have reviewed the book.
  • Ranks #11 on the ALA’s list of Most Challenged Titles 1990-1999.
  • Ranks #23 on the ALA’s list of Most Challenged Titles 2000-2009.

Sources: American Library Associate List rankings from
Year-by-year controversies from Marshall University Library:

Hmmm… The substance of these complaints almost always point to a few very specific elements in the book: the euthanization of people and the drugs. What gets lost is that these elements are not, in any way, presented in a positive light. They horrify Jonas and he becomes convinced that he must make a stand, even if it means standing against people who are dear to him, to do the right thing.

But challenges don’t consider the whole, they prefer to focus on the bits separately and move to censor the book from other people’s eyes. The bitter irony is that in doing so, not only do they miss the point of the novel entirely, but they are, in essence, acting exactly like the Elders in Jonas’s town: attempting to scrub away the difficult and outright bad bits from our eyes.

“Nothing to see here, folks.” They say. “We know what’s best for you. Don’t think on this again.”

But do kids miss the big point? Do they understand what’s going on? Of course they do.

The Closing Argument

Let’s give the last word to Lois Lowry herself who, in a moving speech to the Newberry Prize Committee in 1994, described the origins of The Giver (including who that man is on the eponymous cover) and shared how some of the young students who have written to her have interpreted the book. During the book she mentions how students have begun to look at the book and interpret its meaning (and intentionally vague ending) by thinking about their own lives. What follows is a short section from that speech, which I encourage you to download (the PDF is linked in this article) and read all the way through:

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.

Let me tell you a few endings which are the “right” endings for a few children out of the many who have written to me.

From a sixth grader: “I think that when they were traveling they were traveling in a circle. When they came to “Elsewhere” it was their old community, but they had accepted the memories and all the feelings that go along with it…”

From another: “…Jonas was kind of like Jesus because he took the pain for everyone else in the community so they wouldn’t have to suffer. And, at the very end of the book, when Jonas and Gabe reached the place that they knew as Elsewhere, you described Elsewhere as if it were heaven.”

And one more: “A lot of people I know would hate that ending, but not me. I loved it. Mainly because I got to make the book happy. I decided they made it. They made it to the past. I decided the past was our world, and the future was their world. It was parallel worlds.”

Finally, from one seventh grade boy: “I was really surprised that they just died at the end. That was a bummer. You could of made them stay alive, I thought.”

Very few find it a bumer. Most of the young readers who have written to me have perceived the magic of the circular journey. The truth that we go out and come back, and that what we come back to is changed, and so are we.

Source: Lois Lowry Acceptance Speech, Newberry Awards Ceremony, 1994. PDF