The Giver and the Conundrum of a Challenged Book

by Rachel Baker on June 12, 2011

A little background information for those that know nothing about it: The Giver by Lois Lowry is an amazing story about a utopian society (on the outside) that is really very much more like a dystopian society as the story moves on. The Giver is a Newberry Medal winner and has been recommended for children 8 and up.

This book found its way into my house by way of my ten year old friend.  She was reading it in her fourth grade class, and wanted her dad to read it.  I read it and though I found it completely engaging and well-written, I was appalled that this was an option given to her class as a part of a group reading project.  That said, if my young friend’s older brother read this, I probably wouldn’t be writing this post.

I remembered reading Brave New World in both high school and then a few years later when I’d had some life experience to understand what the book was really about.  I thought Brave New World was weird when I read it in high school and really didn’t understand why we were reading it, because none of us understood it.  I remember asking this question of my teacher and her answer was “I’m just trying to expose you to all kinds of writing and stories.”  Okay, fair enough.

Maybe that’s what this fourth grade teacher was trying to do as well – except after extensive questioning about what my ten year old friend got out of the book and what kind of assignments she had, I think its fair to say the book was lost on the kids in her group.  The only thing she understood was a baby was killed (“and Rachel, someone being killed makes a book interesting“).  She didn’t understand why the baby was killed, she didn’t understand the relationship between the Giver and the Receiver of Memories, she just got that a baby was killed.  She also thought everyone got the memories, and the role of receiver was more like a rite of passage.

Really good story with the potential for some really good classroom discussion lost on too young a reader.  Sad, really.

For the first time in my life, I could completely understand how a book could get challenged.  Its completely not that I think the book should be banned in the school system – I just found absolutely no redeeming value in having a ten year old read this book. First, the book has some pretty intense concepts that ten year olds can’t possibly process because they haven’t had the life experiences to think through them.  Secondly, there was no class discussion in this particular assignment, the small group just filled out multiple choice worksheets and when there was a question, the teacher just said (according to my young friend) skip the question and move on to the next. This second reason tells me that either the teacher hadn’t read the book or she was completely uncomfortable discussing it with the children.  You can’t assign a book if you are unwilling to answer the children’s questions about it.  You just can’t.  Especially a book such as The Giver.  Thirdly, I don’t think being disparaging towards motherhood (comments made by a female lawyer in the book), and teaching kids who are at an impressionable age that sexual dreams and urges is a bad thing especially when they haven’t gotten to the age of even knowing what these things are is really what we want to be teaching our children.  (Aside: I know that for some, these are bad things for religious reasons, please don’t send me hate mail because I may be a bit more liberal about it than your beliefs allow – we will just have to agree to disagree here).

The problem for me becomes why some teachers feel this really is a book of significance for a pre-teen child.  IF teachers thought a little bit more about some of the books they were assigning to children, then maybe there wouldn’t be so many challenged and banned books.

There are concepts in the book that are above and beyond anything a child of ten who has no real history or government philosophy background could comprehend because she’s not been exposed to different types of governments and how they affected the world historically. My young friend has just now learned the history of Florida on a vague level.

Before the book is even opened, of concepts a young child will not understand, here’s the description of the book from the author’s website:

It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened.”

Thus opens this haunting novel in which a boy inhabits a seemingly ideal world: a world without conflict, poverty, unemployment, divorce, injustice, or inequality. It is a time in which family values are paramount, teenage rebellion is unheard of, and even good manners are a way of life.

December is the time of the annual Ceremony at which each twelve year old receives a life assignment determined by the Elders. Jonas watches his friend Fiona named Caretaker of the Old and his cheerful pal Asher labeled the Assistant Director of Recreation. But Jonas has been chosen for something special. When his selection leads him to an unnamed man -the man called only the Giver -he begins to sense the dark secrets that underlie the fragile perfection of his world.

Told with deceptive simplicity, this is the provocative story of a boy who experiences something incredible and undertakes something impossible. In the telling it questions every value we have taken for granted and reexamines our most deeply held beliefs.

Just the book jacket description is confusing for a ten year old to understand what he or she is about to read.

I’m not in any way shape or form advocating that this book should be challenged.  However, I am saying that if teachers want to keep books off the challenged and banned books lists, they should use a bit more discretion about which ones they are assigning to which age group.  I guarantee you, if I was an average reader, but engaged in my child’s education and my child came home with that book, I’d pick it up and read it; my very next step after completion would be to call the teacher and then the school board.

Reasons why this book has been challenged since 1995 had to do with the concepts of euthanasia, suicide and murder, as well as the degradation of motherhood and adolescence.  Strangely, I thought euthanasia parts were not near as bad as the idea that mothers are the lowest of the low and being made to take a pill to suppress the adolescent onset of sexuality.  My young friend got that they killed the smaller of the twin babies, but she wasn’t torn up about it and she didn’t understand why.  Her assessment of the situation was just that “that’s what they did.  It was wrong, but it made for a better story.” When I asked her, how so; she responded with “I don’t know, but its always makes for a better story.”  At which point, I had to ask myself how many books has she been reading where killing someone off is an aspect of the story.  Interestingly, I know what books she reads and killing someone off isn’t really a part of any of them. She didn’t really comprehend the whole part about the injection (in fact, she sort of glossed over that part), just that the baby was killed.

What really tweeked me though was the twelve year old receiver took his shirt off, laid on the bed face down and was touched on his bare back by the giver (an older man of non-descript age, if I remember correctly). Interestingly, the memories a child might get in real life if this were to happen would be just as detrimental as those gotten by the receiver in the story – just on a different scale.  I’m completely fascinated that none of the reasons listed for why the book was challenged mentions this specifically. Its never okay for a young child to take their shirt off for an older man so they can touch you and transmit memories (or for whatever else they may want to transmit).  Its just not okay.

Let me be clear – I’m not advocating this book be challenged in my area.  What I do want is teachers to actually read the books critically before giving them to specific age groups.  The Giver is appropriate for high school level readers in advanced classes – it is not in any way shape or form appropriate for elementary and middle school kids.

Good literature is often wasted on kids who were assigned a book in school prior to being able to get the most value out of something they read.  Good literature gets challenged or banned because the wrong age group was given the story to read before they were able to process what the story is really about.  Just because something says its appropriate for specific ages doesn’t necessarily mean it is. Teachers should use some common sense when picking out the reading list assignments.  Teachers don’t have to be literature majors to know this book is not okay for young children. Even if you didn’t read the book from cover to cover, one only needs to do a quick search on sparknotes.com to know that this book isn’t something you assign to young children. I know it won a Newberry Award, and I know those that decide what books are appropriate for what ages say its recommended for 8 and up.

I also know that like everything in life, one should question these things when deciding what is appropriate for children to read.

PS.  The other choice in the class for a small group reading assignment was Where the Red Fern Grows.

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