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Reflecting on 20 Years of The Giver

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This post is also the foreward for the latest edition of The Giver.

Twenty years? No kidding: twenty years? It's hard to believe.

Twenty years ago, I was -- well, I was much younger. My parents were still alive. Two of my grandchildren had not yet been born, and another one, now in college, was an infant.

Twenty years ago I didn't own a cell phone. I didn't know what quinoa was and I doubt if I had ever tasted kale.

There had recently been a war. Now we refer to that one as the First Gulf War, but back then, mercifully, we didn't know there would be another.

Maybe a lot of us weren't even thinking about the future then. But I was. And I'm a writer.

I wrote The Giver on a big machine that had recently taken the place of my much-loved typewriter, and after I printed the pages, very noisily, I had to tear them apart, one by one, at the perforated edges. (When I referred to it as my computer, someone more knowledgeable pointed out that my machine was not a computer. It was a dedicated word processor. "Oh, okay then," I said, as if I understood the difference.)

As I carefully separated those 200 or so pages, I glanced again at the words I had typed on them. I could see that I had written a complete book. It had all the elements of the seventeen or so books I had written before, the same things students of writing list on school quizzes: characters, plot, setting, tension, climax. (Though I didn't reply as he had hoped to a student who emailed me some years later, with the request "Please list all the similes and metaphors in The Giver," I'm sure it contained those as well.) I had typed THE END after the intentionally ambiguous final paragraphs.

But I was aware that this book was different from the many I had already written.

My editor, when I gave him the manuscript, realized the same thing. If I had drawn a cartoon of him reading those pages, it would have had a text balloon over his head. The text would have said, simply: Gulp.

But that was twenty years ago. If I had written The Giver this year, there would have been no gulp. Maybe a yawn, at most. Ho-hum. In so many recent dystopian novels (and there are exactly that: so many), societies battle and characters die hideously and whole civilizations crumble. None of that in The Giver. It was introspective. Quiet. Short on action.

"Introspective, quiet, and short on action" translates to "tough to film." Katniss Everdeen gets to kill off countless adolescent competitors in various ways during The Hunger Games; that's exciting movie fare. It sells popcorn. Jonas, riding a bike and musing about his future? Not so much. Although the film rights to The Giver were snapped up early on, it moved forward in spurts and stops for years, as screenplay after screenplay -- none of them by me -- was commissioned, written, and discarded.

In the meantime, though, readers' enthusiasm never waned. I had always received lots of letters from kids, frequently writing for a class assignment (one began, "This is a Friendly Letter"). Over the years, of course, they have more often become emails. But that didn't compare to the mail about The Giver: first of all, for the volume -- the sheer numbers of them -- (even now, twenty years later, they still come, sometimes fifty to sixty in a day). But now the letter writers were different. Sure, many of them were still kids. But a startling number were much older. And the content was no longer the school assignment letter, the obligatory "I thought this was a pretty good book." Instead the letters were passionate ("This book has changed my life"), occasionally angry ("Jesus would be ashamed of you," one woman wrote), and sometimes startlingly personal.

One couple wrote to me about their autistic, selectively mute teenager, who had recently spoken to them for the first time -- about The Giver, urging them to read it. A teacher from South Carolina wrote that the most disruptive, difficult student in her eighth grade class had called her at home on a no-school day and begged her to read him the next chapter over the phone. A night watchman in an oil refinery wrote that he had happened on the book -- it was lying on someone's desk -- while making his rounds ("I'm not a reader," he wrote me, "but man, I'm glad I came to work tonight"). A Trappist monk wrote to me and said he considered the book a sacred text. A man who had, as an adult, fled the cult in which he had been raised, told me that his psychiatrist had recommended The Giver to him. Countless new parents have written to explain why their babies have been named Gabriel. A teacher in rural China sent me a photograph of beaming students holding up their copies of the book. The FBI took an interest in the two-hundred-page vaguely threatening letter sent by a man who insisted that he was actually The Giver, and advised me not to go near the city where he lived. A teenage girl wrote that she had been considering suicide until she read The Giver. One young man wrote a proposal of marriage to his girlfriend inside the book and gave it to her (she said yes). But a woman told me in a letter that I was clearly a disturbed person and she hoped I would get some help.

Somehow, this book, and what it has to say, has touched a lot of people from all walks of life -- and from many cultures, since over the years it has been translated into countless languages, from Czech to Hungarian to Thai. Recently I have reluctantly turned down invitations to speak about The Giver in Kyrgyzstan and Korea, where I am told readers are just as affected by it as they are in Toledo and Tucson.

Will it have the same effect as a film? It's hard to know. A book is such an individual and private thing. The reader brings his or her own history and beliefs and concerns, and reads in solitude, creating each scene from his own imagination as he does.

A movie, by its nature, puts it all out there, makes it visual. It's what I love about film, actually: the composition of each scene, the lighting, the color... or lack of color. But film must incorporate details that a reader might have pictured in another way. A costume designer decided what little Gabriel -- and all the other infants in the Nurturing Center -- wear. Maybe you had dressed them differently in your mind. A set designer created the plans for the dwellings in which Jonas and Fiona and all the other members of the community live. If you imagined a different kind of dwelling, as I did, then you have to adjust your thinking. The landscape through which Jonas travels with the kidnapped baby is not the landscape I saw inside my head; the cinematographer gives us something vaster, more magnificent, and infinitely more hostile to a desperate boy trying to save an infant and the whole world.

The important thing is that a film doesn't obliterate a book. The movie is here now. But the book hasn't gone away. It has simply grown up, grown larger, and begun to glisten in a new way.

The film version of The Giver will be released August 15.