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Lois Lowry, 'Son' And 'The Giver' Author, Reflects On Dystopian Novels, Psychopaths And Why Kids Make The Best Audiences

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LOIS LOWRY
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Usually when schools ban your book, it only serves to further solidify the work's cultural significance. In the 1990s, the Harry Potter series topped the American Library Association's list of the most often banned books in schools across the country, but Lois Lowry's now-seminal young adult novel, "The Giver," wasn't far behind.

"The Giver," a novel set in an eerie utopian world of the future, won the Newberry Medal for best American children's literature in 1994, and has since sold over five million copies. Most middle schools in America now teach it -- as well as "Number the Stars," another Lowry classic from 1978 -- as required reading.

I remember finding the book for the first time aged 10 or 11, and feeling like I'd never read anything like it. It wasn't exactly sci-fi or fantasy, but something new and terrifying, unafraid to tackle death and democracy in the context of a children's book; Lowry's story of Jonas and The Community hooked me for life.

In the past decade, dystopian young adult fiction has become all the rage ("Hunger Games," anyone?) and many point to Lowry as the genre's godmother. Now the author is back with a new novel, "Son," the fourth and final piece of "The Giver" series, which has received rave reviews.

The Huffington Post spoke to Lowry, who is now in her 70s and in the middle of a 14-city tour, on the telephone. She talked about how she waited for so many years to conclude the series, getting letters from a psychopath, and why children still make the best readers.

HP: Where are you right now?

LL: I'm in a hotel somewhere in the middle of Illinois. I actually just got an email from a person who identifies himself as a mental patient. He sent me some of his writing and wants me to arrange to have it published.

HP: Does that happen a lot?

LL: Oh, it's part of the territory.

HP: I have to admit, "The Giver" blew my mind growing up. Why do you think certain people still get so angry about it?

LL: It continues to unnerve a lot of people. Perhaps a kid will point out a passage to a parent -- the passage where the father kills an unborn infant, or something else. If a parent hears about that, they might be upset, but if they actually take time to read the book, the parents can probably get around it. Teachers love it because it promotes all sorts of discussion.

HP: Do you set out to provoke people?

LL: I don't set out with an agenda when I write a book. I create a character and want to tell a good story. With "The Giver," at the time [of writing] my father was very old and losing his memory, and I was interested in memory and how it works. And I thought, what if we could control human memory? Though I hadn't ever written science fiction before, I did set it in this hypothesized future time. And that was kind of fun, creating a whole different sort of world.

HP: You started a trend.

LL: It was the first dystopian novel for kids, I am told. Now of course everywhere you look there's a dystopian novel. I think my book is very gentle compared to what's being published now. It's a trend that will probably subside the way vampires gave way to mermaids and mermaids are now dystopias.

HP: Do you think kids, on the whole, have changed since you wrote "The Giver?"

LL: I often compare myself as a kid to my own grandchildren, who are around 11 and 14 now. That's the age kids usually read my book. And I remember myself, we'd gone through a world war. My father was an army officer so I was aware of what was going on. But I wasn't bombarded with images of catastrophe like many kids are today. Every time they turn on the TV or open a paper they're hit with all this scary stuff happening around the world. It's a time, for all of us, of uncertainty and unease. It's not surprising that they're interested in reading about what the world might become.

HP: You've taken long gaps between each book of this series. The most recent was published in 2004, and now "Son" is coming out. What is that like, taking all that time off from this world and then returning to it?

LL: In between all of that, I have written some light-hearted, gentle books, one that is basically a satire. It's not that my interests have changed, but this particular quartet has surfaced at certain intervals.

HP: So these ideas just surface when they happen to surface?

LL: When I create characters, I create a world to inhabit and they begin to feel very real for me. I don't belong in a psych ward, I don't think, but they become very real, like my own family, and then I have to say goodbye, close the door, and work on other things. But these characters have stayed with me. I think about them, and time passes, so finally I sat down to write this last book, there they all were. And I found, to my surprise, a new character appeared and took over the book.

HP: Do you write for an audience that has followed "The Giver" series since the early 90s?

LL: I tend not to think about audience when I'm writing. Many people who read "The Giver" now have their own kids who are reading it. Even from the beginning, the book attracted an audience beyond a child audience.

One of my favorite letters came from a nightwatchman at an oil refinery, lots of misspellings and errors, but he said, "I'm not a reader, I don't read books, but somebody left this book and I sat down and read the whole thing." He concluded by saying, "Man, I'm glad i came to work tonight." I found that very touching.

HP: You must receive a lot of more outlandish letters, as well.

LL: At one point early on there was a letter from a psychopath, which was frightening enough that it ended up in the hands of FBI, and I was told not to go to that particular city. But overall it's been an amazing response to a book that I thought, when i wrote it, as just an intriguing and suspenseful story.

HP: I know a movie version of "The Giver" has been in development for some time now.

LL: Yes, Jeff Bridges still has the rights. Bless his heart, he's been trying to make this movie for a very long time. I have nothing to do with it, but I'm told they're finally succeeded in putting financing together. It's tough because there's actually not much action in the book, though there's more in the fourth than any of previous three. A number of screenplays have been written and they all try to add that action element in. I do hope they do it, as long as they do it well. Fingers crossed.

HP: J.K. Rowling just came out with her first "adult novel." Has writing a book specifically for adults ever interested you?

LL: Early on I came to realize something, and it came from the mail I received from kids. That is, kids at that pivotal age, 12, 13 or 14, they're still deeply affected by what they read, some are changed by what they read, books can change the way they feel about the world in general. I don't think thats true of adults as much. I'm an adult, I read, I'm no longer going to be changed by it. I think writing for kids is profoundly important.

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