Lois Lowry Still Thinks Kids Need To Read About Terrible Things (and She’s Still Right)
Harvey Weinstein once tried to insult Lois Lowry by calling her a "cantankerous author." She's not losing sleep over it.
Lois Lowry feels sorry for me. “I think it would be tough to be you,” she says in between bites of a crispy BLT. “To be a parent of a young child now must be hard. Things seem to be changing more quickly.”
It’s a bright, breezy afternoon in Bridgton, Maine. We’re sitting in Lowry’s house, a charming country home next to cheerful barn that looks like something from the sort of sunny storybook she’d never write. I’m explaining why I gave my daughter a gender-neutral name between bites. Lowry, the award-winning author of the classic children’s novels The Giver, Number the Stars, and Taking Care of Terrific, made the sandwiches has now gotten some of the tomato slop on her shirt. “You can write about that,” she says sarcastically pointing to the stain. A stain would be, after all, in keeping with her public persona.
Its tempting to think of Lowry as a kindly old grandmother figure; wise and sad like her most famous character. But her vibe isn’t Jeff Bridges in the 2014 movie adaptation of The Giver. She’s more Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski. At 81 years old, Lowry looks like a friendly school librarian or your well-dressed aunt, but her demeanor is a little more rock and roll than her appearance. She carries herself with a loose confidence and has an unusual gravitas. There’s no heaviness, just certitude. Lois Lowry understands herself — a rare trait in a writer — which gives her an edge on understanding others.
Born in 1937, Lowry was 40 years old when her first novel — A Summer to Die — was published in 1977. Her professional life essentially began at a time as she was raising four children. And Lowry’s most famous books — Number The Stars (1989) and The Giver (1993) — weren’t published until more than a decade after that. She didn’t achieve literary fame until well into her 50s. Since then, she’s won the highest honor in children’s literature — The Newbery Medal — twice. The Giver alone has sold over 12 million copies since its publication in 1993 and her newer books (like the Gooney Bird series) continue to dominate kids’ bestseller lists. All of this may account for the way she is. She wasn’t shaped by public accolades. She simply receives them. Put as many laurels at her feet as you want, she’s still going to wear practical shoes.
But, I’m not at her house to talk to her about the past. Not really. I’m curious how she feels parents can help protect their children in an uncertain future. The 25th anniversary of The Giver is looming and I’m a new dad. On some level, I’ve come here on an emotional pilgrimage. Like a lot of kids who came of age in the 1990s, I was deeply touched by both Number the Stars and The Giver, but upon re-reading the books this year, I’ve realized how hardcore they are and how frightened I am for my daughter to finally encounter things the sort of evil Lowry writes about. I’ve got an innocent toddler who will come of age in a changing world. How can I protect her? Can Lowry arm me with some secret knowledge I can use? What does she think the future will look like?
“I’m glad I won’t have to deal with all if.” Lowry jokes when I start spewing questions. I get the sense that she suspects her dystopian futures might become non-fiction. Even if it doesn’t come to that, Lowry thinks it’s going to be tough for my daughter. Why? Because life is tough. There are evils in the world and she’s quick to point out that I can only hold them at bay for a while.
“I don’t think we’re doing children a favor if we protect them from unpleasant facts,” she says flatly. “As authors or as parents, I mean, of course, we need to do that with intelligence and care. But, as they begin to grow, and as they begin to develop personalities, they have to acquire knowledge. And The Giver, of course, was an example of a civilization or a society or community that somehow found a way to avoid that and to protect their children. And in doing so, sacrificed an enormous amount.”
Lowry is not super forthcoming with guidance, but she’s quick to help define my dilemma: I want to raise my kid with sensitivity, but I don’t want to raise a kid so sensitive that she’ll balk in the face of confrontation. I’ve got a little girl who was born in the era of #MeToo and I want her to speak up and fight back if bad things happen to her. And yet, there’s a part of me that is like the members of the community in The Giver, who helicopter-parent so ferociously they remove color from the children’s world.
Reading my mind, Lowry brings up Harvey Weinstein, who is relevant to our conversation in the worst way possible.
She tells me that when the Weinstein Company adapted her book to the screen, producer Harvey Weinstein referred to her as a “cantankerous author.” She was not insulted. She doesn’t think conviction is a bad thing. “I was cantankerous,” she says. “Weinstein is the one who made the director slap on a terrible voice over, which I was vocally against. But now everyone knows Weinstein was wrong. About everything.”
The Giver famously depicts a world that relieves its citizens of pain by denying them knowledge. If you’ve never read it (which seems impossible) it’s basically a YA riff on Brave New World, except Lowry is better at describing emotional experiences than Huxley ever was. The book’s basic thesis is that learning about the world is a beautiful, but painful process. Bad comes with good. Innocence is lost. Self-consciousness is the first step on the path towards truth. Lowry is a all about truth.
In 2015, The National Coalition Against Censorship gave Lowry the Free Speech Defender award. In accepting the award, she read a letter written to her by a young girl who was upset by “bad things” in Lowry’s novel Anastasia Has the Answers. Essentially, Lowry’s response was that this was the kind of kid she writes for. “She’s the one who has read a book, who has reacted to a book, who’s thinking about a book,” Lowry said at the time. “ She is who is struggling to grow up and trying to figure out who she will become and how she will feel about things.”
Lowry suggested she was happy to have exposed this girl to bad things. She thought it might prepare her. Everyone needs practice.
Lowry doesn’t think children should be coddled. That doesn’t mean she’s not kind or good with kids. She seems like a great mom and kids absolutely love her work. When I told fellow-parents my age that I was going to meet Lois Lowry, they all said the same thing: Number the Stars was their favorite book in grade school. Number the Stars is a book about the Holocaust.
“We learn from earliest infancy to put restraints on the bad instincts which we all have,” Lowry explains. “And if you don’t learn that, as it seems Donald Trump did not, you grow up without any feelings of guilt or shame.”
Lowry has a tendency to do this, to make discussions political. She is not a famous activist, but she is also not bookish in the sense of being removed from the day-to-day violence of social change. She has strong opinions and she states them. She does not care for the President. She does not respect him. She thinks he’s soft. But she’s not one of those “not my president” types. She acknowledges that he’s the president and thinks about what that means for the culture and how that culture will affect children, including my little girl.
Right now, Lowry’s attention is focused writing a play about gun violence, something every parent is terrified about. She tells me she’s “struggling” with the play because it “raises the question of predictability of gun violence.”
“I’m not finished with it,” Lowry says, sounding frustrated. “I can’t tell you how it plays out. But there are seven characters, all of who are teenagers. Which of these characters, down the line, after the play ends, in the future, will pick up a gun and aim at a crowd of innocent people? If such a thing is predictable, is it therefore preventable?”
She doesn’t know the answer to that last question. She’s a legend, sure, but also just a person, just an octagenerian with tomato on her shirt.
After we finish our sandwiches on the porch, we head to her study, where she shows me photographs of children she took over the years, before she was an author and made money as a photographer. For some of the children, Lowry can tell me where they are now, and how old they are, for others she isn’t sure; they’re caught in a kind of Never Never Land in her portraits, adorable and sensitive forever.
The little girl on the cover of Number the Stars was a girl Lowry knew. “She was 10 years old in 1977 when I took that photograph. When I wanted to use it for the cover of Number the Stars, I called her parents, tracked them down in 1989 when that book was published,” Lowry explains, smiling, winding-up to a punchline. “The parents said ‘You’ll have to call her and get her permission.’ Well, she was 10 in ’77. So she would have been 22 then! I was calling her parents! I still thought of her as this little girl!”
Lowry may be a hardliner about teaching children about the ills of the world, but she cherishes childhood. In her mind, kids can cling to it. In reality, that’s tough.
As parents, we tend to obsess over the loss of innocence, that moment when our children learn that not only does the pony ride end, the pony does too. Lowry doesn’t worry so much about this. She doesn’t think that the intrusion of ugly things — even death — ends childhood. She sees childhood as exploratory, not idyllic. She doesn’t think it’s my job to protect my daughter from the truth. She thinks it’s my job to stand behind her when truth arrives. This is comforting in that it seems like a far more workable approach, but it also requires a clear-eyed view of the world in all of its ambiguity.
When The Giver came out 24 years and two months ago, it was a publishing sensation. But everyone had a question: does Jonas die or does he return to the Community? Lowry told me that she’d recently written a sort of epilogue that resolves this intentionally open issue. She also told me that I won’t ever get to read it.
“I wrote a 25-page thing about the Community afterward,” she says. “But the publisher and I decided that the readers would be deprived of discussing the question if I answered the question. And so…it’s still sitting on my computer.”
Here’s the thing about Lois Lowry: She has answers. Whether or not she’s going to hand them over is a different matter.
In my head, I half-believe Lowry has seen the future and can figure out what kind of father I’m going to be and how I’m going to keep my daughter safe from whatever the future might hold. But hope and uncertainty are a package deal. Lowry has learned that as a parent, you have to let go of trying to predict the future. I’m not there yet, but I see the way Lowry is in the world and it gives me a goal.
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