Okay, I don’t ‘hate’ Lois Lowry’s famous children’s novel.
I loathe it. I’m disappointed by it. I’m extremely irked by it, and what it has said about ‘mainstream’ Middle-Grade and YA writing for over 20 years.*
I am too old to have suffered through it in my own school years, but I had the opportunity to read it seven years ago, when it was on the curriculum of a friend’s private school. I’d of course heard about it for years: it was ‘groundbreaking’, ‘compelling’, ‘controversial’. Schools were either lining up to ban it for (gasp!) sexual references, or celebrating it as an absolutely necessary socially-relevant rite of passage for all students.
Since the book is less than 200 pages, that was about an hour’s effort for me at cruising speed.
My first thoughts on reaching the final page? I felt sorry for the kids who had to read this drivel. Where was the goddamn ending? Oooo, ambiguous ending, how literary and philosophical – not.
Or the worldbuilding? Some critics say you can’t create a rich setting and backstory in a short book for pre-teens and teens, but nope, other authors did just fine in books just as compact. I’ve already read this plot or seen it in numerous forms, all of them better-done than Lowry’s book.
Try ‘Pleasantville‘, for one. Or Jeanne DuPrau’s ‘City of Ember‘ books, which attempted worldbuilding on a far better scale.
Going wide from Lowry’s plot, into general coming-of-age stories, here are some great examples. I’ve said before that Patricia McKillip’s ‘The Changeling Sea‘ is probably one of the finest YA fantasy novels I’ve ever read, for emotional portrayals of a girl weathering both grief and magical upheavals. Or the late Kage Baker’s magnifcent, gentle YA story ‘The Bird of the River‘ – the story of a teenage girl discovering her aptitudes in a vividly-detailed fantasy world, with recognizable real-world problems and triumphs. Terry Pratchett is one of the masters of doing this sneakily, and well. His YA ‘Tiffany Aching‘ books are worlds better than Lowry’s. They actually teach worthwhile messages while giving us characters and settings we adore.
That ‘The Giver’ is meant for children is no excuse. Yes, there are vocabulary and cognitive thresholds present in stages of childhood development, and great books for those age ranges take such thresholds into account. Pre-teen to teen readers should have a better awareness of story and theme, and enough exposure to better examples to call their own private bullshit on Lowry’s supporters.
I’m not a huge fan of dystopias in general, since I find most of them one-dimensional, illogical, and depressing. There’s a belief in YA publishing that holds ‘YA readers love dystopias because most teenagers can identify with such dramatic high-stakes worlds.’ Okay, maybe. But give them better books, please. ‘The Hunger Games’ has giant plot holes. The ‘Divergent’ series, often believed to be HG 2.0, is objectively even worse. ‘The Giver’ falls back to the root of that trend, I suspect: excusing any level of technical mediocrity because of the important message or teenage affinity codes within such books.
Fuck that. Authors: if you’re going to plaster a message in your book, kid’s or adult’s, look toward Baker and Pratchett for great examples. Wrap it up in the story and let your readers find it on their own. Don’t hit them over the head with it, screaming ‘Behold my glorious message!’ I’m an old fart, but largely forgiving when it comes to hot plot messes. Millennial and younger readers are nowhere near as kind; what they do in social media when they scent incompetent and dishonest blood in the water? Makes Shark Week look like Disneyland.
Most of all I’m angry with the branding on ‘The Giver’. This isn’t very good science fiction or fantasy; it barely qualifies for them at all. It’s written by someone who appears to have no grounding in classic SFF, mythology, folklore, or even halfway solid anthropology. It’s equally obviously written by someone who consciously set out to write A Very Important Book, and managed to convince other people to accept it as such.
It’s also an able-ist slam against Actual People who are Actually Colorblind. I would know, since one of my best friends has no color perception at all, and is hardly the meek and dull human described in ‘The Giver!
Rather than go into a exhaustive post detailing my observations, I’m linking to this review, which covers most of my major issues.
That this book gets a movie? I’m not that surprised, given Hollywood’s love affair with YA dystopian fiction right now. After ‘Ender’s Game’, ‘The Giver’ couldn’t have been that far away.
*I have even incorporated ‘The Giver’ in my list of books/movies/themes/philosophies I use to sound out potential friends and/or business colleagues. There were SFF literary agents I never bothered querying, for example, because they insisted they loved this book, which told me enough about their experience with SFF.