Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, September 24, 2012

Monday, September 24, 2012: Kids' Maximum Shelf: Son

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Son by Lois Lowry

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Son by Lois Lowry

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Son by Lois Lowry

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Son by Lois Lowry


by Lois Lowry

With Son, Lois Lowry offers a spellbinding finale to her The Giver quartet, revisiting themes from her earlier titles in surprising, deeply resonant ways. While it is not necessary to have read the previous three books (The Giver; Gathering Blue; and Messenger), it is astonishing to see how Lowry has woven a web that connects all of her characters and their journeys into this moving, climactic finish.

Son begins in the community of The Giver, where children leave the Nurturing Center as Ones (one-year-olds) to be adopted by their new families, and the Chief Elder announces their vocations at the Ceremony of Twelve. Lowry here tells the story of Claire, assigned the role of Birthmother, though she had "secretly hoped for something more prestigious." Her older brother, for example, was selected for the Department of Law and Justice. But life in the Birthmothers' Dormitory with the other Vessels is good; she is well fed and even pampered. And after she produces three Products, Claire will be reassigned. We meet Claire at age 14, as she is being blindfolded in preparation for giving birth to her first Product. But something goes wrong, and they have to carve the Product out of her. "You've been decertified," she is told. Claire is "suffused with a desperate feeling of loss." She asks what the Product's number is, and she's told it's Product number 36. The official also lets slip that "he's fine," then corrects herself, "It... I mean that it's fine." But it's too late. Claire knows she gave birth to a son.

Lowry explores the nature of love between parent and child, the unnamable bond, forbidden in a community that places a high priority on detachment. She begins visiting the Nurturing Center, where they've taken Product 36, then starts volunteering there. She learns that her son has trouble sleeping at night, and that one of the Nurturers takes the child home with him at night, to relieve the strain on the evening shift. She arranges her day so she encounters the Nurturer riding his bike home with the child and overhears the Nurturer whisper the boy's name: Abe. In her new assignment at the Fish Hatchery, Claire sees her colleagues taking pills; everyone in the community takes them to numb their feelings. But the committee forgot to give Claire pills when she left the Birthmothers' Dormitory. Claire realizes it isn't "right" to have these feelings for her son, which grow stronger as the weeks pass. But she "would never, under any circumstances, stifle the feelings she had discovered. She would die, Claire realized, before she would give up the love she felt for her son."

Claire doesn't attend the first Ceremony after her new assignment to the Fish Hatchery, but she learns of two things: Product 36 has been deemed "uncertain" for assignment to a home, given his low weight and difficulty sleeping at night, and a Twelve has been assigned a special role in the community. This special Twelve is Jonas, son to the Nurturer who's been caring for Claire's boy. That's when fans of The Giver will realize that Claire's son is actually named Gabe. When Gabe is deemed "uncertain" for a second year, Claire fears the worst--but before she can think things through, Jonas disappears with the child, and Claire feels compelled to follow them.

Lowry divides Son into three distinct parts. The first lays out the parameters of the community and Claire's growing uneasiness with its strict rules. The second follows Claire's path to recovering her son and, in the process, her own identity. The third takes place in the village that Claire's son now calls home. Claire's journey brings together the heroes of Lowry's previous Giver books: Jonas from The Giver, Kira from Gathering Blue and Messenger. She also reintroduces the villain from Messenger, the Trademaster.

The beauty of the experience comes through in the language, the smells and sights of yet another community that Lowry introduces into the mix. Like Jonas in The Giver, Claire discovers colors, friendship and love as she recollects her memories. Each book in the quartet features a young person with an elder guide. Jonas had the Giver to teach him the community's history and its pooled memories; Kira had Annabella to show her the dyes for restoring the Singer's Robe; and Mattie had Seer to pass on his wisdom of the ways of the world. When Claire washes up in a strange land, Alys teaches her about herbs and healing. Claire lands there with all of her memories erased, and as she helps Alys deliver a baby, she remembers her own son, and her sense of purpose returns to her.

With these threads of continuity, both biological connection and chosen connection--teacher to student--Lowry suggests it takes all of their collective wisdom to overcome their greatest threat. The elders in The Giver and Gathering Blue believed that knowledge should be held by a few for the good of the many. In each of the four books, one brave young person leaves his or her community in order to save it, to make a better life, a better world. Jonas leaves his community in The Giver, Matty leaves his community in Gathering Blue and again in Messenger, and Gabe steps outside the bounds of his community in an attempt to save it. Unlike the elders from whom Jonas and Matty fled, the people of the community where Claire's son lives know--through painful trial and error--that only knowledge shared and freedom of choice can build strength among its citizens. Now they are put to an extreme test. Lois Lowry keeps the suspense mounting until the final pages in this stunning conclusion to her Giver Quartet. --Jennifer M. Brown

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $17.99, 400p., ages 12-up, hardcover 9780547887203; e-book 9780547928517, October 2, 2012

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Son by Lois Lowry

Lois Lowry: The Past Completing the Present

Lois Lowry says that she usually begins a book from a place of wondering about something. She started Son by writing about Gabe, the child Jonas takes with him when he leaves the community of The Giver (Gabe also has a cameo in Messenger). But as Gabe wondered about his past, Lowry did, too. "I became interested in who gave birth to him," Lowry said. She set aside his section, which eventually became the last third of the book. In this final book (she insists she's "calling it quits" with this one) in the quartet begun with The Giver, Lowry explores "the indestructible nature of that bond" between mother and son.

In your Newbery acceptance speech for The Giver, you said, "There's a right ending for each of us," and you mentioned some that were supplied by readers in their letters to you. What has drawn you back to Jonas's world again and again?

I didn't think there would be more books when I wrote The Giver. I liked the ambiguity of the ending. As time passed, the letters continued, as they still do to this day. What happened to me personally also is that I become so close to all my characters because I live with them for a number of months. They begin to feel real to me. I continue to think of them after the book is out there. That was reinforced by the huge amount of mail I got asking about The Giver. Each time I'd read such an e-mail, I'd begin to think about Jonas or Gabe and what that place was like.

Tell us about Gathering Blue.

When I started Gathering Blue, I didn't see it as a sequel or a related book, but more as an investigation of a different kind of community. What if, after some catastrophic event, a part of the world had become primitive or savage? That's what I was exploring. Then toward the end, I realized I could connect it to The Giver and perhaps address some of those questions. When I first completed it, I mentioned Jonas at the end, and my editor asked me to take his name out. Now he's mentioned as a blue-eyed boy. Readers of The Giver recognized him.

Jonas, who had been like a mentor to Gabe, doesn't really help him at the most crucial point in Son. Gabe has to figure things out on his own.

In the third book, Messenger, Seer was the mentor to Matty. He had to let go of the boy, too. Maybe that's part of the process in real life. It has become a recurrent theme in these books.

Some people have, over the years, found religious themes in The Giver. Kids write to me and say, "Are you Christian? Is this symbolism of Christ?" And I tell them, "It can be if you want it to be." People have often told me that they give the book as a Bar Mitzvah gift, as a story of the boy acquiring the knowledge to become a man.

Most of us read 1984 in college, but I think The Giver is the first book set in a dystopia and aimed at young people.

I, too, read 1984 and Brave New World in college. I think The Giver was the first dystopian book for young people. Now every other book has that. I think I created a monster. I hope some new fad will emerge.

I haven't read these more contemporary ones, with the exception of The Hunger Games. Hunger Games has suspense and action, which The Giver is lacking. That's why it's more difficult for the filmmakers who have tried to make a film of it.

Your books allow us to step back from the violence and experience it at a remove.

That may in a way define the difference between The Giver and the current crop of dystopian fiction--it explores those questions without presenting the graphic horrific quality of it.

My daughter-in-law is German. My son met her when he was stationed there. At their wedding in Germany, the service was all in German. I didn't understand any of it, except when a woman stood and sang in English, "Where you go, I will go/ your people will be my people." My husband left Cornell to enlist at the end of World War II, and there we were all sitting together at my son's wedding in this small town in Germany. My only granddaughter has grown up in Germany.

My son was killed in the military and he's buried in a cemetery next to his wife's grandparents. Her grandfather fought on the Russian front. It makes it all seem so pointless, the differences between us. I think that's something the book tries to portray as well, the differences among us being so unimportant as it plays out. I guess that's what literature tries to do is alert and explain and warn. Whether it has any value in that way is hard to ascertain. But we keep trying.

In each book, an elder passes on his or her knowledge to a chosen youth, and that makes them hunger for more knowledge. The role of elder is one of "honor" not "power," as the Giver explains to Jonas. This idea of choice is so central to all of your books in the Giver Quartet. Why?

Power is the thing that isn't important in the long run. It's wisdom and compassion. As George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." I wasn't thinking politically when I was writing these books, but the obsession with power is something that permeates them. I'm thinking back to Gathering Blue now, the Singer who's so revered, yet when we meet him finally, it's clear he's powerless, he's a prisoner, and he's used. It all seems to fit together, one book to the next, and at the same time, to mirror contemporary society in a way that's somewhat depressing.

I hope that the books, each of them individually but certainly as a group can be viewed as optimistic about the future, in view of the fact that young people are always there, and even though each generation blows it in some terrible way, there's another to pick up the pieces and start fresh. There are no answers to that of course. But we who write stories try to put the questions out there--to make it possible to look for answers. --Jennifer M. Brown

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