My selected book for this week was Lois Lowry's The Giver. Unlike our required book for the week, Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book (which I ranted about extensively in my other response), The Giver is a classic which I've read several times and enjoyed every single time. Not only is it fun to read, but I also think it raises some important questions for kids to ask about individuality and the importance of asking hard-hitting questions.
I talked with my roommates about this book quite a bit over the weekend. All of them had read it at some point or another in school (I read it for the first time as a freshman in high school), but not within the last five years. I was excited to revisit it for this class because a) I described it to my roommates as "Nineteen Eighty-Four for kids," and b) I've matured as a person since the first time I read it, and my attitudes on being an individual (as cliché as that sounds) are pretty firmly cemented on the side of "free expression for all." Jonas, the protagonist, lives in a world without memory or strife, where everyone is happy but identical to one another. All emotional depth has been eradicated from this seemingly idyllic world where society has taken the act of "blending in with the crowd" to an extreme with the Sameness doctrine, and Jonas becomes the apprentice to the Giver, the old man who stores everyone's memories from before Sameness. When Jonas experiences vivid pre-Sameness memories via the Giver's telepathy, he realizes that the world he lives in is devoid of everything beautiful: love, music, even color. He must then make the decision of staying and acting out his place in society as he is told, or breaking out and living life as it was meant to be lived. Ultimately, he chooses the latter, and that's why I love the book: it's a snapshot of a kid (Jonas is only twelve) standing up and making a conscious decision not to follow the herd, to make his own way.
If you went to a private Catholic school like I did, then I'm willing put money on the fact that, like me, you had a dress code or uniforms at your school. I grew up wearing nothing but navy blue, white, and red shirts, the only colors we were allowed to wear in elementary school. In middle school, it became green and white. In high school, we could wear any color, but it had to be a tucked-in collared shirt or sweatshirt, and khakis were a must. Guys' hair could not be longer than their shirt collar, and piercings and facial hair were out of the question. Girls were allowed only one piercing per ear, were not allowed to wear skirts above the knee, and could not dye their hair any unnatural colors (not even black). No one could wear clothing deemed "offensive" by the dean of students and principal, which could be whatever they wanted (I thought I was being rebellious by wearing AC/DC and Led Zeppelin T-shirts under my collared shirt to class every day). Basically, everyone had to look more or less the same. One girl in my class actually transferred schools in our sophomore year because she dyed her hair bright red and would not dye it back to her natural color when ordered by the principal; we had to sit through a long, school-wide assembly where the principal told us (and this is a direct quote) that "if you want to be an individual, go somewhere else." That really stuck with me, and having read The Giver the previous year for freshman English, I thought it was really ironic that a school so obsessed with conformity would require all its incoming freshmen to read a book that did nothing but rail against conformity.
Jonas was easy for me to relate to in high school. He had the special gift of being able to hear music and see color when no one else in his society could; my talent was being a natural on the drumset in a school that placed much more emphasis on sports than music. He began as a regular kid in his conformist society, while I conformed to the fashion and religious practices of my school. Finally, we both made a conscious decision to leave that conformity behind after experiencing something that opened our eyes to how hollow that life was: his impetus was experiencing memories through the Giver, while mine was listening to heavy metal for the first time.
That said, I believe that Lois Lowry fully intended to write this book for disaffected adolescents like me. While The Giver is not a feel-good story, she forces readers to ask themselves how they may be conforming to whatever society they live in. In other words, she uses Jonas to turn the mirror around and show it to the reader, which (in theory) should make them wonder: if that were me, how would I react? I think the message is especially powerful when the reader is under the age of 18. It's a well-known fact that kids are easily swayed by the herd mentality; it's hard to stand up and be an individual at a stage in development when not following the crowd is seen as weird or uncool. I know--it happened to me. But Lowry's choice of a 12-year-old boy for her protagonist is a telling reference to her intent in writing this book (at least in my opinion). The way I see it, Lowry chose to make Jonas a preteen and put him through the worst crisis a preteen can go through--being viewed as "different"--in order to show that, yes, it is possible to not only buck the trend everyone else follows, but also to make your own way. Jonas' choice to flee his home with baby Gabriel at the end of the book represents the final break between him and his old life; he has fully separated from the herd and, for better or worse, makes his own way. The ending is ambiguous--does he or does he not freeze to death? But there is a glimmer of hope in the music that floats from the houses Jonas sees through the snow--the promise that the grass is, indeed, greener on the other side of the fence.