As students begin a new academic year, Kojo chats with D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson.
Before “Harry Potter” and “The Hunger Games” there was “The Giver.” Author Lois Lowry and her readers became so invested in the dystopian world she created in that novel that three more followed. The latest — and reportedly last — in the series, “Son,” was recently published. Kojo talks with the award-winning children’s and young adult author about her prolific career.
- Lois Lowry Author, 'Son'; Newbery Medal winner for 'Number the Stars' and 'The Giver'
Watch The Book Trailer For ‘Son’
Told in three separate story lines, Lois Lowry’s “Son” combines elements from the first three novels in her Giver Quartet — “The Giver” (1994 Newbery Medal winner), “Gathering Blue” and “Messenger” —- into a breathtaking, thought-provoking narrative that wrestles with ideas of human freedom.
Lois Lowry Speaks At The 2009 National Book Festival
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Today, we're talking to two icons in the world of children's books and literature. Later in the broadcast, we'll talk with LeVar Burton, the host of "Reading Rainbow" about the public television show's reinvention as an app. But first, author Lois Lowry. It began with "The Giver." Two decades ago, before Potter mania, before "Twilight" fever and long before "The Hunger Games," Lois Lowry was writing a dystopian tale a dystopian tale, both unnerving and encouraging.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt introduced young reader to a world where the government controlled all memories and where no one experienced pain or knew the feeling of love. Then comes Jonas, the story's protagonist who makes a discover that alters the course of not only his life, but the life of a young child named Gabriel. In the fourth and final book in the series, titled "Son," Lowry offers the long awaited conclusion to their story. She joins us in studio. Lois Lowry, thank you so much for being here.
MS. LOIS LOWRYThank you. Great to be here.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850, if you have questions or comments for Lois Lowry. "Son," your latest book is the last in a series that began with "The Giver." How does it feel to finish the story that developed over two decades?
LOWRYIt's been a long time coming. I have written other books in-between these four. But it's kind of satisfying to feel as though I've answered a lot of questions that were still out there. Brought together all the characters from the previous three books. I hope I don’t continue to get letters asking me what happened to, where is, although it's nice to be in touch with readers. But I feel as though this book should satisfy everybody.
NNAMDII -- you want to bet? I bet you do.
LOWRYAnd I ought to mention one other thing. The word, son, is spelled S-O-N, not S-U-N.
NNAMDIThat's correct, it's son S-O-N. 800-433-8850, have Lois Lowry's books affected you, your kids or your students? Tell us how, 800-433-8850. You have said that you tend not to think about the audience when you're writing or the readership, but readers prodding you with questions left unanswered in "The Giver," is what eventually made you curious about the answers which came in two subsequent novels and now in "Son." How has your interaction with readers shaped your work?
LOWRYWell, you know, it's been gradual because it's been since the first book of this series that email became into play. And nowadays, any reader can contact almost any author by email, going to their website. This morning, I got an email from a firefighter in New Jersey. So it's really broadened my horizons too. But it also gives me a since of audience that I didn't previously have.
NNAMDIWell, if there are no more questions after "Son," you won't be getting anymore emails about -- "Son" brings back some familiar characters. But also introduces new ones like Claire, Gabriel's birth mother and in the community they inhabit, the role of birth mother's is tenuous in that community. Do you think our society values motherhood the way it should?
LOWRYWell, as a mother myself, I certainly hope so. But I was writing in the first of this quartet of books about a society very different from ours. One in a future time in which motherhood is an assigned task. Babies are born to these girls who are told to give birth and then assigned to parents. So the whole concept of family takes on a different role in the world of "The Giver." But the book "Son" is in a different community and the boy in the book, the protagonist teenage boy, wants to explore his own beginnings, which required me to go back to the first book and resurrect one of those birth mothers whom I named Claire. She's a new character in this book.
LOWRYBut on page one, at age 14, she's giving birth to something that she is told to refer to as product 36. But it turns out, of course, to be Gabriel. And that's the child that, for 20 years now or 19 years, readers have been asking me about. What happened to Gabe? Where is Gabe? So here he is, 14 years old.
NNAMDIWhy do you think dystopian novels like "Fahrenheit 451," "1984," and your own continue to appeal to readers, decades after their publication?
LOWRYWell, I think we all wonder about the future. But I know that when I was a child and I was a child in the 1940s during World War II, although I knew that terrible things were going on in the world and my father, in fact, was in the Pacific during that war, I was not bombarded with information and violent images every day, today kids are. Today every child, including my grandchildren, see on the television, read in the papers, see photographs of what's going on that threatens their own future. So my guess is that kids today are more worried about the future then I ever was.
LOWRYI just always assumed I would have a rosy future, the war would end, Daddy would come home. Those things happened. But today's kids are faced with a very uncertain future. And so I think reading dystopian fiction or reading futuristic speculative fiction addresses those questions for them, puts out their postulates possibilities for them to think about. And, of course, kids have a wonderful capacity to believe that they can shape the future. And -- and one hopes that that will be true.
NNAMDIProminent theme in all of your books is love, not of the romantic sort, but a familial love, if you will. Why does that emotion continue to be a source of inspiration for you and for your work?
LOWRYThis book, in particular, follows the bond between a mother who has lost product 36, her son and for 14 years looks for him and desperately wonders where he is. But I think it speaks to the bond between all parents and children. Mothers and sons, excuse me, that's probably of particular interest to me because I had a son who was lost. My son died in a plane crash. But this child is out there. And this mother doesn't know how to find him. And that propels the book along, that kind of desperate yearning for something she's lost. And I think I've always been connected to and interested in the bond between parents and children.
NNAMDILet's go to the phones. Here is Michael in Washington D.C.
MICHAELHi, Kojo. Hi, Ms. Lowry, how are you doing today?
MICHAELGood, just wanted to let you know -- so I first came across "The Giver" in sixth grade. But what my sixth grade teacher did was -- he told us a month in advance, we're going to be reading "The Giver," but please don't go out and read it beforehand, we should all read it as a class, as a group. And he had -- but he had such a great recommendation for it and in sixth grade was really when I was starting to fall in love with literature and reading.
MICHAELI just couldn’t resist, I went out, I read it a month in advance, I read it in about a week and just fell in love with it. And then when we read it again, just totally had to pretend throughout the whole class, like, oh, yeah, this is completely new. I've never read this before. But just it was phenomenal and I just wanted to really just thank you for writing it. To this day...
LOWRYOh, thank you.
MICHAEL...whenever I come across someone who says they haven't read it, like, please you have to read this book.
LOWRYI suspect your teacher knew that you were cheating. He probably put that out there to...
LOWRY...and seduce you all into reading that book before he...
MICHAELProbably, yeah. I mean, you know, being in sixth grade, you know, thinking a lot -- I'm a lot more sophisticated than I was. But it was probably pretty obvious that I had already read the book.
LOWRYI love the thought of you doing that. Thanks for telling me about it, Michael.
NNAMDIMichael, thank you...
MICHAELNot at all.
NNAMDI...very much for your call. Lois Lowry, what did you read when you were a child?
LOWRYWell, there weren't the huge number of wonderful books available when I was a child. It was so long ago. They tended to be kind of moralistic stories. But the book that I remember was one my mother read to me when I was 8-years-old and it was published, actually as an adult book, and it was called "The Yearling." I knew it was very special because my mother was reading a grown up book to me, one chapter each night.
LOWRYBut I also realized partway through, when I saw my mother begin to cry while she read it, that had never happened with a child's book. And I realized that that book was something special and it stayed with me, my memory of that book. I've gone back and reread it and it holds up well.
NNAMDIIs that what may have influenced you to understand, when you started writing, that children can understand books that seemed to have adult themes?
LOWRYWell, that's an interesting question. It probably was part of that influence. I've been lucky too, that nobody has ever asked me, no publisher, has ever asked me to dumb down a book or to write a book with a message in it, which is to me the kiss of death. I'm sure there are messages that people take away from my books, but there's nothing in it that I've put there to teach them to be better people. I think the reading of literature makes you a better person.
NNAMDIYou're very first novel, "A Summer To Die," was based in part on the death of your sister and you've sense lost, as you mentioned, one of your sons in a tragic accident. Does the writing process help you work through these very personal, emotional issues?
LOWRYYou know, when my son died, I got, of course, a lot of mail, but one that I remember in particular came from a friend who was a Shakespearian actor. And he sent me, simply, a quotation from "Macbeth," which was this, three words, "Give sorrow words." Macbeth says that to MacDuff when, when MacDuff's wife and children are killed. And I think that is something that's important to remember, that strong emotions, given words on a page, help readers or writers or anybody human to deal with loss.
NNAMDIAs I mentioned earlier, Lois Lowry, your books explore adult themes, but you've always written for a young audience. Why do you write and why have you always written for a young audience?
LOWRYWell, actually I did write for adults way, way back, but there came a time when I published a short story in an adult magazine which was a story for adults. But the main character, the narrator of the story, was a child. And a children's' book editor read it, wrote to me, asked me if I would consider writing a book for young people and that's when I wrote my first book. And then not long after that first and then the second book was published, I began to hear from the readers. And I began to perceive what I had not really realized before and that is the difference that a book can make in the life of a young person.
LOWRYI'm an old person myself and I read books about old people and middle aged people. But I am -- although I'm affected by the books I write, I'm not going to be changed by them. And yet I hear again and again from people who are 12, 12, 14. And in fact, one of the callers who called today who said the book "The Giver" changed him. And I hear from readers all the time that something they've read, something of mine has affected the way they view the world. And so that began to seem important to me, more important than writing for adults.
NNAMDIThe fact that it was a publisher who called you and said, would you like to write books for children, implies or I certainly infer from it that after that the publisher never challenged you about the themes about which you were writing?
LOWRYI've been very fortunate that way and I can't speak for other publishers. But mine has never asked me to dumb anything down or avoid any particular themes or topics. And so I've been free to write what I've wanted to write. And some of my books are quite lighthearted and even shallow, but others have hit, as you've described, somewhat hard-hitting themes. And some of my books have been challenged out there by parents who object to them.
LOWRYBut I happen to think that reading a book is probably the best possible way to prepare for life, to rehearse for what you're going to have to face when you get older.
NNAMDISome of them have not only been challenged by parents. Some of them have been banned from school libraries. While at the same time they've been assigned in a lot of classrooms all over the country.
LOWRYIt's quite amazing. And there are churches that use them as part of their religious curricula. At the same time perhaps sometimes in the same town they're being removed by angry people. So I guess what that means is the book has something to say. If a book were bland nobody would care. Nobody would challenge them. And so I'm -- I don't mind being challenged, although I do think book banning is a very dangerous thing.
NNAMDIEileen in Alexandria, Va. clearly cares. Eileen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EILEENThank you so much. My 11-year-old daughter just finished "Son" and she would throw your books on my lap and say, mom read this book. And I just finished "The Messenger" last week and I cried all morning. So thanks, but no thanks. And it was wonderful and I just want to tell you life is complicated, your books are complicated and I've had the most beautiful discussions with my daughter about your books, about so many things. So thank you, thank you, thank you.
LOWRYOh thank you, Eileen. Let me just say that I think a parent and a child sharing a book, discussing a book is just one of the most remarkable and wonderful things that can happen as the result of something I've written or that anybody's written.
NNAMDIWe got several emails and Tweets. We go an email from Melissa that says, "Lois Lowry wrote one of my favorite books. I read my elementary school's copy of 'A Summer to Die' numerous times. I'm now 31 years old and have been thinking about picking it up and re-reading it again recently. Now I'm inspired to do so."
NNAMDIRachel, we got a Tweet from, who wrote, "I love 'Number the Stars,' one of the first historical fiction books that got me started reading that genre. Thanks, Lois." We got a Tweet from Sarah Cumby (sp?) Sarah Cumby is a colleague here at WAMU. Sarah writes "'Number the Stars' is my favorite Lois Lowry novel. I've read it so many times and it got me hooked on historical fiction."
NNAMDIEmail from Lois, yes Lois, in Tacoma Park, "Thanks for writing books that have engaged my children and their parents that don't have the violence that Harry Potter and 'The Hunger Games' have. I have read and enjoyed Harry Potter and 'The Hunger Games' series, but it's nice to have stories that are rich in emotion and omit the violence. We have enjoyed so many of your books."
NNAMDIAnd this email from Anne Marie, "I love Lois Lowry's writing. My favorite childhood novel was 'Number the Stars.' The characters were relatable to me yet I learned so much about their situation and how to be empathetic to them. It is a novel that will be forever in my heart." We'll resume our conversation with Lois Lowry after we take this short break. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Lois Lowry. She is the two-time Newbery Medal winning author of young adult fiction. She has written over 30 children's books including "Number the Stars" and "The Giver." Her latest book "Son" concludes "The Giver Series" and we should reiterate that "Son" is spelled S-O-N. If you'd like to have a conversation or join the conversation with Lois Lowry, call us at 800-433-8850. If you are a grownup reader of young adult series, what about these books draws you in? 800-433-8850.
NNAMDILois Lowry, do you think that we, adults that is, underestimate what children can handle? And if so, why?
LOWRYI think too many adults have forgotten what it's like to be a child. I think one of the reasons I'm able to do what I do is because I have such clear memories of what it was like during my childhood. But I know talking to my husband, asking him about his childhood, he views it in a kind of objective way as if he were looking back at a film of it. He doesn't re-enter his childhood self and I do. I see out of those same eyes that I had when I was eight, ten years old and re-experience the same feelings. And that's why I'm able to reproduce them I think in these books.
NNAMDIYou know, I find that when I talk to friends with whom I grew up and I see them lecturing their children about certain things and I only remember them as they were as we were children and feel about them the same way. And I say to them sometimes, you seem to have forgotten the feelings you had when you were a child. Is that something that tends to happen to us as adults?
LOWRYWell, I can't speak for the whole world, but it does seem to happen to some people. And I feel very grateful to be one of the ones who does remember and re-experience childhood. I think it made me relate better to my own children, and now that I have grandchildren, to them. I can understand what they're going through even when other people may be finding them obnoxious. I'm right there in their experiences and understanding why.
NNAMDIA lot of our responders have said that one of the novels that they loved was one of your earliest standalone novels, "Number the Stars." It's about a young Danish girl and her Jewish friend during World War II. Why did you decide to write about the Holocaust and Resistant Movement for a young audience?
LOWRYWell, I had a friend who had grown up in Denmark. She was my age but she grew up in Copenhagen when I was growing up in Pennsylvania. We met as adults. And I remember her telling me what it was like growing up under the Nazi occupation. But she also told me what happened in Denmark in 1943 and how the Danish Christians saved their entire Jewish population. It was such an astonishing and important story that I began to feel that it should be told to kids.
LOWRYAnd so I created the fictional characters of Annemarie, it was interesting that one of your callers was named Annemarie and said "Number the Stars" was her favorite book. I created Annemarie and her Jewish friend Ellen but I based their story on the actual facts of what had happened in Denmark as the Christian population rose up, hid 7,000 Jews and got them to safety in Sweden. It's a remarkable story.
NNAMDIWere you surprised when you realized that you have a following, not only among adults, but especially among adults with no children?
LOWRYI have over the years heard from some of the most amazing people including a Trappist monk. Who would've guessed that he was sitting alone in his monastery reading "The Giver" but also ones from, I won't go into detail here, but the FBI told me not to go to a particular city in the United States because there was a psychopath there who thought he was "The Giver."
LOWRYSo it's been quite an astonishing array of people of all ages and occasionally I've been called upon to speak to an audience that goes from age, say eight to 80, and realized that the questions being asked, that all of those people whatever their age are listening with interest to the answers. I think it's quite remarkable to find books and some of mine have found an audience that transcends age barriers.
NNAMDII think I remember reading somewhere that you heard from a night watchman who had...
LOWRYWasn't that sweet? It was a night watchman in an oil refinery and sent me an email. And he said, "I'm not a reader but this book was lying here tonight." And he said, "I read it all the way through." One wonders if he was making his rounds but at any rate, I loved his conclusion, which was "man, I'm glad I came to work tonight."
NNAMDIOne insecure oil refinery that night. Here is Susanne in Fairfax, Va. Susanne, you're on the air, go ahead please.
SUSANNEHi, there. I am a longtime listener and a loyal member of WAMU.
SUSANNEAnd I'm also a teacher at a small private school in Fairfax and I teach an English class, a high school English class on the themes of justice and injustice. And we just last week finished reading "Number the Stars" and I really, the kids really enjoyed the themes, you know, about what it means to be somebody's bodyguard and, you know, why do people lie to protect children, if that doesn't make sense.
SUSANNEAnd how do we, you know, be decent to each other. And I just thought it was really a terrific book to use for them for that purpose. And it worked out really well for us.
LOWRYThank you, Susanne. I remember as you were speaking, doing the research for "Number the Stars" and your mention of the bodyguard dialogue. It was something that I actually lifted out of an actual conversation from that time.
SUSANNERight. Right, I read that in the afterword about how they really had said that about King Christian and the whole of Denmark was his bodyguard.
NNAMDIHey, Susanne, thank you very much for your calls. We move onto Ethan, in Alexandria, Va. Ethan, you're on the air, go ahead, please.
ETHANHello, I would like to say that I read "The Giver." I'm 11 years old in elementary school and I just wanted to say that I loved it and I was wondering what inspired her to write it.
LOWRYWell, boy, that's a complicated answer, Ethan. I'm not sure I have time on this one radio show to answer it. But I will say that I was thinking a lot about memory because my father was old and was losing his memory. And I was thinking what if there were a way that a bad government could cause, could manipulate, the memory of their people and get control of them that way. And so that really was the beginning of "The Giver." I hope that you go on to read the other books because I bet anything at the end of "The Giver" you wondered what happened to those people, Jonas and Gabe. And here they are back again.
NNAMDIEthan, thank you very much for your call. We move on now to Lisa in Washington D.C. Lisa, you're on the air, go ahead, please.
LISAHi, I'm only a few blocks from the station and I just want to run over and hug you, Ms. Lowry.
LOWRYWhich one of us?
LISAWell, I could hug Kojo as well.
NNAMDIThanks for throwing me in at the last minute when it was suggested. Go ahead please.
LISAI am a longtime member and I'm a former journalist and my daughter is at a school only about a block and a half from the studio and her fourth grade reading teacher last year had the classes, all three classes at Jenny's school, read "Number the Stars." And I had never seen her so transfixed, I mean, this is I think the book that got her interested in reading and what it did for me, talk about messages, that you weren't quite perhaps, you said you weren't quite aware of the messages your books give out.
LISAWhat you did was allow Jewish and non-Jewish parents to have you explain the Holocaust to kids who nine years old and that opened up a discussion. I mean, how was I going to explain to her, we're not religious but we are Jewish, how was I going to explain that half of her family was murdered in Hungary in World War II. It's a very strange concept and I was like, is somebody going to do this for me? When do I approach the subject and, you know, you did it for me so thank you.
LOWRYWell, you know, all I did Lisa was provide an entry and in Denmark because of what happened there I did not have to address the atrocities and that's why it's a good starting point for kids and why teachers enjoy, enjoy is the wrong word, why they appreciate having it to use in grades like grades four and five. The kids will have to go on to read the much more difficult and heart-wrenching true stories, but "Number the Stars" is a true story that didn't have to include that.
NNAMDILisa, thank you very much for your call.
NNAMDIOnto Chris in Largo, Md. Chris, you're on the air, go ahead, please.
CHRISHi, thank you for show as always, Kojo. Yes, enjoyed the books I've read of yours, Ms. Lowry, and about a year ago read "Number the Stars" with my children and one thing that, and raising my own kids, for some reason stuck with me, years ago I read a book called "Lest Innocent Blood be Shed." It's actually a history of some nonviolent French Resistance against Nazis during World War II.
CHRISAlso protecting Jewish children and they looked at what actually, why did those people do that? And among the conspicuous factors they suspected was that they noted was that that community of people did not shield their children from the injustices they saw around them.
CHRISAnd so I thought it was just, to your credit, that the way you write actually contributes to the consciousness that is what you're writing about, like in Annemarie and "Number the Stars." And I wanted to check that out and thank you for that.
LOWRYThank you. I thank you, Chris. I think you're pointing an important thing, which is to shield a child from the world is not to provide a way for them to deal with it. And one of the best ways to make that available to them when they're young is through books and in the safety and comfort of their home and with their parents nearby.
NNAMDIChris, thank you very much for your call. We got an email from Lauren in Washington, who says, "I love your show and I'm so happy to hear from Lois Lowry today. I loved reading 'Number the Stars' and 'The Giver' as a child. I wanted to ask her if she thinks the giver influenced more recent young adult dystopian books such as 'The Hunger Games.'" Also, well first, can you answer that?
LOWRYWell, I don't know the author of "The Hunger Games" so I can't really answer it accurately. But will say that I've been told that "The Giver" was the first dystopian novel for young readers. The genre has become very, very popular, as you know, and sometimes it seems as if every other book being published now for young readers is a dystopian novel. I think that's a trend which will subside. But I'm glad that mine was the first so it didn't get lost in the crowd.
NNAMDIWhich brings me to this, "The Giver" has been enormously popular since it was published and nearly every popular children's story has, it seems, been made into a movie. Would you like to see "The Giver" on the big screen and have you experienced the hell of the Hollywood development process?
LOWRYFor 16 years, I've been in that very hell and it still is churning around in there. I will say, to his credit, Jeff Bridges has worked very hard to try to bring this particular book to the screen and he would like to star in it and I think he would do a good job. But one of the problems, I believe, that unlike "The Hunger Games" which has nonstop action and violence, "The Giver" is a very quiet book, it's introspective. There's not a whole lot of action going on and so it doesn't lend itself visually quite as well to the screen.
NNAMDIAnd we're running out of time, but you need to know the effect you have had on people's relationships. We got this email from Evan, who said, "The Giver" is the yardstick by which I measure all other dystopian fiction, my favorite genre. I am so glad Lois Lowry introduced this genre to young adult fiction and I once actually began seriously doubting a relationship because I so disagreed with how a then boyfriend interpreted "The Giver."
LOWRYWell, let me tell you something funny and I guess our time is running out but just last...
NNAMDIPlease tell me.
LOWRY...last night I was signing books and this is a first. A person gave me a book to sign and asked me to write in the page where I was signing my name, his proposal to his girlfriend. I had to write "Would you please marry" and then listed his name. And he was going to present that to her on his knees.
NNAMDISee, you not only almost break people up, you also bring people together with marriage proposals. Lois Lowry, thanks so much for joining us.
LOWRYThank you, it's been fun.
NNAMDILois Lowry is a two-time Newbury Medal winning author of young adult fiction. She's written over 30 children's books, including "Number the Stars" and "The Giver." Her latest book, "Son" spelled S-O-N concludes "The Giver" series. We'll take a short break. When we come back, "Reading Rainbow" reimagined. We'll talk with actor LeVar Burton about teaching the joys of reading to young people. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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