My Bookshelf / Reflections

Why ban the Giver, by Lois Lowry (1993)?

According to the information provided by (updated 9/22/2022) the following appears to be the case. NOTE: Banned means banished from schools or libraries, challenged means some n number of folks have requested a ban. The book has been challenged nearly 11,000 times since it was published. It happens to be one of my favorite stories.

1994CaliforniaViolence and sexual contentTemporarily banned
1995MontanaEuthanasia and infanticideChallenged
1995KansasViolence, sexual content, degrading depictions of motherhood and childhoodRemoved from libraries but available in classrooms
1991Ohio & FloridaViolence, sexual content, infanticide, suicideChallenged
2005MissouriViolence and sexual contentChallenged
2007CaliforniaInfanticide, euthanasia, drug useChallenged

In the Giver, Jonas, who has reached the auspicious age of 12 when careers are assigned, is selected to be the “receiver of memories.” An old man known only as Giver is responsible for mentoring him as the keeper of all memories. Of all the pain, all the joy, all the humanness of how it used to be. Accepting the memories is as real as physically experiencing the event. It is through the memories that Jonas learns he is gifted. He can see color. For the Giver, his touchstone is music, neither of which is acceptable in the structured life of the Community.

Jonas grows in awareness of how his world is put together and how, through decreed medication and linguistic indoctrination, all passion, all sincere emotion, is stripped from the Community’s life. The moment of choice comes when Jonas determines to leave the Community to save the life of an infant (Gabriel) from “release” for the horrible crime of not fitting the acceptable mold. I want you to remember this point. Oh, and “release” is euthanasia and Community propaganda makes it quite the celebration or not discussed at all. For instance, the requested release (suicide) of the Giver’s daughter when she could no longer bear the pain of the memories.

For the most part, the objections lie in sexuality and violence. A mantra that has lost much of its punch since that application is too broad and ambiguous. Granted, Jonas physically suffers during the transmission of horrific scenes, all while being barred from taking anything that would relieve that pain. I would suggest that even though Lowry has a master’s skill in creating these scenes, I’ve seen more violence in cartoons, and a large number of movies and TV shows. Even the nightly news or 24/7 streaming cable channels hold horror stories beyond anything depicted in this book. Lowry does make the memories visceral as Jonus sees, hears, smells, feels every detail when he is receiving.

There are also some who feel the story promotes abortion. There is a “release” of a newborn twin. Multiple births are not acceptable. In addition, babies are required to meet certain landmarks in health and behavioral traits. That is not reproductive health care, that is murder, a price paid in this society for uniformity. For perfect weather, perfect homes, perfect families, perfect lives.

The sexuality charge in nonsense. There is no sex in this book. In fact, there is no sex in this society. Babies are born at specified rates to keep the population stable and are assigned within a predetermined number of days to couples who apply for children (usually the first year). The decreed drug that everyone takes suppresses sexual drive as soon as children reach puberty, like Jonas. However, to become the receiver he must stop taking the pill. He sees his female friend in a different light. Part of his attraction to her is his growing ability to see beyond the grays of his world. He is spellbound when he sees the flash of red hair in the sunlight. No sex, just an exploration of how one deals with unfamiliar feelings when they are not allowed. Something I think every young person could benefit from. I want you to remember this point as well.

There are also objections to the way motherhood is depicted in the Giver. In this community, if a girl doesn’t have a clear aptitude, she is consigned to mothering. Although the details of the system are better described in another book in the series (Son), 12-year-old girls selected for this path are placed in a group home where their health is meticulously monitored. They are impregnated at around 13 by artificial insemination (remember no sex) and give birth to their first child at 14. If the girls have any issues with pregnancy or childbirth, they are abruptly reassigned to some other duty that does not require vigorous intellect. As a side note, the excuse for why motherhood is handled in this way is made clear in Son when a young mother is reassigned without the command to return to her daily dose of the emotion-suppressing pill. Her mothering instincts rage and drive her to do things not acceptable under the Community’s regime. She is Gabriel’s birthmother. I want you to remember this point, as well.

These are the excuses used to ban an exquisitely written book that gives young people a vehicle to understand emotions, social “norms,” and censorship in a story format they can relate to given the current state of education in our country. This targets the very heart of the treatment of children diagnosed with ADHD where 3 in 4 children are treated for the condition. I wonder how many of those children learned to control and moderate emotions they were never permitted to feel. The fact that Jonus develops what amounts to a crush that he needs to learn to control is refreshing – not sexual.

Let me flip the lens a full 180 and introduce you to a different view. Starting with the “perfect” Community. No emotion, no confrontations, every family composed by an AI matching system to ensure perfect harmony, every job selected by AI aptitude tests, every memory suppressed with the caveat that someone must be the keeper of experiential knowledge, hence the Giver. He is the one called to help make decisions when prior experience must be explored. Someone to do the dirty work of knowing the unintended consequences. But whose vision of perfection? I believe this book is such a threat because it is a mirror. Giver provides a multi-layered moment of truth to the reader: wouldn’t it be nice if…

Remember point #1: The mandate to “release” those that did not “fit” and those no longer useful by whatever metric that may be defined. In this grayscale world you can absolutely bet there would be no flamboyant gay people, no varied skin colors (if they could be seen), no variance in spiritual thought, no political or social discourse, nothing outside the range determined by a board whose primary duty is to not make waves. There would be no culture, nothing to celebrate, no reason to dance or sing. There are a number of vocal individuals from the far right faithful that propose scorched earth policies when it comes to “anything not like me.” And they condemn the Giver?

Remember point #2: Dealing with sexuality and raging hormones. In the 1990s (lots of stuff going on in that decade) Evangelicals started something called the Purity Movement. This movement caused more trauma than good. It preached complete abstinence and made girls the temptress (unless they conformed to the standards). Don’t tempt your fellow with slinky dresses or fluttering eyelashes. There was nothing in this whole message that taught young men to control and assess their own feelings. Avoid temptation, don’t learn from it. Don’t let your girls, your wives, present in anything less than total modesty. Avoid the flash of red hair in the sunlight.

Remember point #3: Motherhood. How shall we describe all the good and bad things wrapped up in that one word. To say that the description of mothering in the Giver series is somehow anathema is disingenuous at best. The current explosion of anti-abortion laws in this country results in precisely that scenario described by Lowry. Thou shalt carry to full term regardless of the risk, regardless of age, regardless of your feelings toward that infant once born, regardless of the impact on the mother’s life and health. And birthing is the goal because you will never see the child. The disconnect between what the far right thinks motherhood is and what they create with their draconian lack of compassion is so great we need the Webb telescope to see the other side. Again, a mirror so many do not want to see.

I know this has been long, but the subject matter is of a whole fabric, and one which is pushing so many headlines in the country today. If you haven’t read the Giver, I suggest you do so. Is this really the type of society you would want to live in? A grayscale landscape of perfection by anybody’s scale other than your own.

If you are interested in more of my thoughts on why perfect societies are really not all that perfect, you might check out this post on Pleasantville (1998) with a dash of Nietzsche.

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