11 Things You May Not Know About The Giver

istock collage
istock collage

Lois Lowry’s 1993 young adult hit The Giver has a more complex history than you may have known.

1. A visit to Lowry’s father in a nursing home helped inspire the novel. 

In his later years, Lowry’s father lost much of his long-term memory, which got Lowry thinking about the power and importance of memories: Without them, there can be no pain. She began to imagine a society where the past was deliberately forgotten so that the members could live in “peaceful ignorance.” This version of reality may relieve the people of pain, but its fatal flaw is that it also takes away valuable connections to the past and the possibility of lasting human relationships. 

In a 1994 speech, Lowry touched on this visit and the questions it sparked: “We can forget pain, I think. And it is comfortable to do so. But I also wonder briefly: is it safe to do that, to forget?” 

2. The Giver on the cover was celebrated in his own right. 

In 1979, years before she wrote The Giver, Lowry was working as a journalist when she interviewed painter Carl Gustaf Nelson. The Swedish-born painter had lived in New York and taught painting in Boston before retiring to Maine’s Cranberry Island. Nelson’s art earned him spots in prestigious shows like the Whitney Biennial, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection contains two of his pieces. Lowry visited Nelson at his home off the coast of Maine, and while there she got the chance to photograph him. 

3. Nelson may also have inspired the Giver. 

In her 1994 Newbery Award acceptance speech, Lowry reminisced about meeting Nelson: “I spend a good deal of time with this man, and we talk a lot about color. It is clear to me that although I am a highly visual person—a person who sees and appreciates form and composition and color—this man’s capacity for seeing color goes far beyond mine … Now and then I wish, in a whimsical way, that he could have somehow magically given me the capacity to see the way he did.” 

4. Nelson had something in common with the Giver.

Nelson passed away in 1988, but his face stuck with Lowry. She loved the interesting picture of Nelson so much that she held on to it, and later turned it into cover art. The choice of Nelson as the cover model would turn out to have a deeper meaning for Lowry. The artist had spent the last few years of his life in blindness, which sparked a connection. As Lowry explained in a 2006 interview with Teachingbooks.net, “[His] life was filled with color … for him to lose color, as the Giver in the book begins to lose color, seemed such a wonderful analogy that I’ve always been glad his photograph is on the cover.” 

5. Some readers condemn the book as pro-euthanasia or pro-abortion. 

The book’s concept of “release,” depicted by a man killing a newborn baby with a lethal injection, has been cited as evidence that Lowry is promoting euthanasia, suicide, or possibly abortion, but she debunks these theories. She says that those sorts of accusations are often from people who haven’t read the book thoroughly, and therefore are missing her point altogether.

6. The book received some harsh reviews …

Like many successful YA novels, The Giver hasn’t been a critical darling. Author Debra Doyle complained, “Personal taste aside, The Giver fails the Plausibility Test for me. … Things are the way they are because The Author is Making a Point; things work out the way they do because The Author’s Point Requires It.” 

7. … But it won over other critics. 

On the other hand, The New York Times’ Karen Ray wrote that although there were “occasional logical lapses,” the book is still “sure to keep older children reading. And thinking.” Lowry also claimed the annual Newbery Award for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." 

More importantly, the novel reached its target audience. It resonated with young readers so well that it’s sold over 12 million copies. A 2003 review by Rome, Ga., seventh-grader Michael Butler leads off with a view that’s shared by many of his peers: “The Giver is one of the many great books in our society today.” 

8. Lowry got the news of her Newbery win in an odd place.

Lowry had already won the medal in 1990 for Number the Stars, but the committee had trouble locating her to share the good news about her second win in 1994. Eventually, the committee reached the author by radiogram, a necessary step since she was traveling in Antarctica. “I was feeling on top of the world, though, technically speaking, I was actually at the bottom,” she quips on her personal website. 

9. It took Jeff Bridges over 20 years to turn the book into a film. 

The actor became interested in adapting the novel for the screen in the early ‘90s but repeatedly got jammed up by studios and battles over ownership rights. The original plan was for Bridges to direct his father, Lloyd Bridges, in the title role, but this plan was canceled with the elder Bridges’ death in 1998. The film remained stuck in development hell for almost 15 years until Bridges was given the green light in 2012. The movie was released in 2014 starring Bridges (as the Giver), Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites, Odeya Rush, Cameron Monaghan, and featuring Katie Holmes, Alexander Skarsgård, and Taylor Swift.

10. Readers inundated Lowry with questions about the ending … 

Lowry loved the novel’s ambiguous ending, but it drove readers crazy. She even mentioned it in her Newbery speech: “Those of you who hoped that I would stand here tonight and reveal the ‘true’ ending, the ‘right’ interpretation of the ending, will be disappointed. There isn’t one. There’s a right one for each of us, and it depends on our own beliefs, our own hopes.” 

Lowry was so sold on the novel’s ambiguity that she even told interviewers that she would never write a sequel to clarify Jonas’s fate even as reader letters requesting closure flooded her mailbox. 

11. ... until she finally gave in. 

The passionate reader reaction made Lowry reconsider her anti-sequel stance. In a 2012 interview in Entertainment Weekly she explained, “I didn’t have any intention of writing a sequel. I liked the ambiguity of the ending. Over the years, though, it became clear that younger readers in particular did not.”  

Lowry set out to give the people what they wanted, a mission that yielded three more novels. Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son round out the “loose quartet” set in this universe, but Lowry did not intend to create a series. In an interview with The Wire in 2012, Lowry said, “I had not intended [Gathering Blue] as even related to The Giver, I was creating another interesting world, to me, where things were different, and as I went along I realized I could answer some questions … I put in, at the end of Gathering Blue, the reference to the boy Jonas. … Four years later I did the third book, and they were not sequels, really, they were set at a different place at more or less the same time.”

8 Proper Facts About Jane Austen

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

More than 200 years after her death, English novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) continues to be celebrated for her sharp, biting prose on love's various entanglements. The strong female characters in books like Pride and Prejudice and Emma are as resonant today as when Austen first pressed her pen to paper. Though her bibliography totals just six novels (alongside some unfinished novels and other works) in all, Austen's books and her insightful quotes have been subject to hundreds of years of analysis and—for the Austen die-hards—numerous re-readings. For more on the writer's life, influences, and curious editing habits, take a look at our compendium of all things Austen below.

1. Austen's dad did everything he could to help her succeed.

Austen was born in Steventon, Hampshire, England on December 16, 1775 to George Austen, a rector, and Cassandra Austen. The second-youngest in a brood of eight kids, Austen developed a love for the written word partially as a result of George's vast home library. When she wasn't reading, Austen was supplied with writing tools by George to nurture her interests along. Later, George would send his daughters to a boarding school to further their education. When Austen penned First Impressions, the book that would become Pride and Prejudice, in 1797, a proud George took it to a London publisher named Thomas Cadell for review. Cadell rejected it unread. It's not clear if Jane was even aware that George approached Cadell on her behalf.

Much later, in 1810, her brother Henry would act as her literary agent, selling Sense and Sensibility to London publisher Thomas Egerton.

2. Her works were published anonymously.

From Sense and Sensibility through Emma, Austen's published works never bore her name. Sense and Sensibility carried the byline of "A Lady," while later works like Pride and Prejudice featured credits like, "By the Author of Sense and Sensibility." It's likely Austen chose anonymity because female novelists were frowned upon for having selected what was viewed at the time as a potentially lewd, male-dominated pursuit. If she was interrupted while writing, she would quickly conceal her papers to avoid being asked about her work. Austen was first identified in print following her death in 1817; her brother Henry wrote a eulogy to accompany the posthumous publications of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.

3. She backed out of a marriage of convenience.

Many of Austen's characters carry great agency in their lives, and Austen scholars enjoy pointing to the fact that Austen herself bucked convention when it came to affairs of the heart. The year after her family's move to the city of Bath in 1801, Austen received a proposal of marriage from Harris Bigg-Wither, a financially prosperous childhood friend. Austen accepted but quickly had second thoughts. Though his money would have provided for her and her family (and, at the time, she was 27 and unpublished, meaning she had no outside income and was fast approaching Georgian-era spinster status), Austen decided that a union motivated on her part by economics wasn't worthwhile. She turned the proposal down the following day and later cautioned her niece about marrying for any reason other than love. "Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection," she wrote.

4. She took a decade off.

Because so little of Austen's writing outside of her novels survives—her sister, Cassandra, purportedly destroyed much of her correspondence in an effort to keep some of Austen's scathing opinions away from polite society—it can be hard to assign motivations or emotions to some of her major milestones in life. But one thing appears clear: When her family moved to Bath and subsequently kept relocating following her father's death in 1805, Austen's writing habits were severely disrupted. Once prolific—she completed three of her novels by 1801—a lack of a routine kept her from producing work for roughly 10 years. It wasn't until she felt her home life was stable after moving into property owned by her brother, Edward, that Austen resumed her career.

5. She used straight pins to edit her manuscripts.

Austen had none of the advancements that would go on to make a writer's life easier, like typewriters, computers, or Starbucks. In at least one case, her manuscript edits were accomplished using the time-consuming and prickly method of straight pins. For an unfinished novel titled The Watsons, Austen took the pins and used them to fasten revisions to the pages of areas that were in need of correction or rewrites. The practice dates back to the 17th century.

6. She was an accomplished home brewer.

In Austen's time, beer was the drink of choice, and like the rest of her family, Austen could brew her own beer. Her specialty was spruce beer, which was made with molasses for a slightly sweeter taste.

Austen was also a fan of making mead—she once lamented to her sister, "there is no honey this year. Bad news for us. We must husband our present stock of mead, and I am sorry to perceive that our twenty gallons is very nearly out. I cannot comprehend how the fourteen gallons could last so long."

7. Some believe Austen's death was a result of being poisoned.

Austen lived to see only four of her six novels published. She died on July 18, 1817 at the age of 41 following complaints of symptoms that medical historians have long felt pointed to Addison's disease or Hodgkin's lymphoma. In 2017, the British Library floated a different theory—that Austen was poisoned by arsenic in her drinking water due to a polluted supply or possibly accidental ingestion due to mismanaged medication. The Library put forth the idea based on Austen's notoriously poor eyesight (which they say may have been the result of cataracts) as well as her written complaint of skin discoloration. Both can be indicative of arsenic exposure. Critics of the theory say the evidence is scant and that there is equal reason to believe a disease was the cause of her death.

8. She's been cited in at least 27 written court decisions.

As Matthew Birkhold of Electric Lit points out, judges seem to have a bit of a preoccupation with the works of Austen. Birkhold found 27 instances of a judge's written ruling invoking the name or words of the author, joining a rather exclusive club of female writers who tend to pop up in judicial decisions. (Harper Lee and Mary Shelley round out the top three.) According to Birkhold, jurists often use Austen as a kind of shorthand to explain matters involving relationships or class distinctions. Half of the decisions used the opening line from Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." The sentence is often rewritten to reflect the specifics of a case: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a recently widowed woman in possession of a good fortune must be in want of an estate planner," as one 2008 tax court case put it.

Others invoke characters like Fitzwilliam Darcy to compare or contrast the litigant's romantic situation. In most cases, the intent is clear, with authors realizing that their readers consider Austen's name synonymous with literary—and hopefully judicial—wisdom.

5 Facts About Shirley Jackson

Photo illustration: Shaunacy Ferro. Images: Penguin Random House
Photo illustration: Shaunacy Ferro. Images: Penguin Random House
Midcentury American writer Shirley Jackson has long been known for her spooky short story "The Lottery," which caused widespread controversy when it came out in The New Yorker in 1948 and continues to appear in short story anthologies today. Her equally haunted novels are less widely read. But now that her 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House has been turned into a hit Netflix series, her work is on its way to a critical and popular revival more than 50 years after her death. (A well-reviewed 2017 biography as well as new releases of some of her short stories and previously unpublished writings in the last few years have no doubt helped.) If you’re just catching on to Shirley Jackson mania, here are five things to know about the master of gothic horror.

1. Many modern writers cite her as an inspiration.

Shirley Jackson has a number of fans among modern writers. Stephen King has called The Haunting of Hill House one of the two "great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years,” and he has said he wrote The Shining with Jackson’s The Sundial in mind. Writers like Neil Gaiman and Joyce Carol Oates sing her praises, and Donna Tartt has called her stories “among the most terrifying ever written.” Sylvia Plath was a fan, too, and hoped to interview her during summer internship at Mademoiselle in 1953. It didn’t work out, but Plath would go on to write works with plenty of parallels to Jackson’s.

2. Shirley Jackson was her family's chief breadwinner.

Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, was a writer, too. A literary critic who taught literature at Bennington College, it was his job that brought the couple to the small Vermont city, where Jackson often chafed at being placed in the role of faculty wife. Yet it was Jackson’s work that supported the family. (Like many wives of her day, she also did all the cooking, cleaning, taking care of their four kids, and driving the family around town—as one of Hyman’s former students wrote of him, “Stanley never did anything practical if he could help it.”) In addition to the fees she earned selling short stories and novels, Jackson had a lucrative career writing lighthearted essays on motherhood and family life for women’s magazines, which she eventually parlayed two successful memoirs.

3. She claimed to be a witch.

In keeping with the haunted themes in her writing, Jackson studied the history of witchcraft and the occult, and often told people she was a witch—though that may have been in part a publicity tactic. As Ruth Franklin writes in her 2017 Jackson biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life:
"During her lifetime, she fascinated critics and readers by playing up her interest in magic: The biographical information on her first novel identifies her as ‘perhaps the only contemporary writer who is a practicing amateur witch, specializing in small-scale black magic and fortune-telling with a tarot deck.’ To interviewers, she expounded on her alleged abilities, even claiming that she used magic to break the leg of publisher Alfred A. Knopf, with whom her husband was involved in a dispute. Reviewers found those stories irresistible, extrapolating freely from her interest in witchcraft to her writing, which often takes a turn into the uncanny. ‘Miss Jackson writes not with a pen but a broomstick’ was an oft-quoted line."
It’s not clear whether she actually performed any magic rituals, but she referenced them often, usually in a tongue-in-cheek way. She often joked with her editors about bringing about victories for her favorite baseball team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, through her magical abilities. Her interest was definitely real, though. She started studying witchcraft while writing a paper as a student at the University of Rochester, and later took up tarot reading. Her personal library was filled with hundreds of books about witchcraft, and in 1956, she wrote a children’s book, The Witchcraft of Salem Village, about the history of the Salem witch trials.

4. She considered becoming a professional cartoonist.

Jackson wasn’t just good with words. She loved to draw, and even considered becoming a professional cartoonist at one point, according to Franklin. While her favorite subjects were cats, she regularly made minimalist, humorous sketches of herself and the people around her (particularly her husband), keeping a kind of cartoon diary of her life. “They’re Thurber-esque in style, but they’re kind of edgy, too,” her son, Laurence Jackson Hyman, told The Guardian of the drawings in 2016. “There’s one in which she is trudging up a hill carrying bags of groceries, and my father is sitting in his chair, reading. ‘Dear,’ he says, without bothering to get up. ‘You know you’re not supposed to carry heavy things when you’re pregnant!’” Some of these drawings are held with Jackson’s papers in the Library of Congress, including sketches she made of how she imagined the layout of Hill House. Her unpublished illustrated ABC book for kids, The Child's Garden of New Hampshire, is also held there.

5. She died before finishing her last novel.

Jackson died unexpectedly from heart failure in 1965 at the age of 48. (At the time, newspapers listed her as 45, as she often lied about her age, perhaps to minimize the age difference between her and her husband, who was two years younger than she.) A significant chunk of her work has been published since her death, though. When she died, she was in the midst of writing a novel, Come Along With Me, which was published in its incomplete format by her husband in 1968. In 1996, Laurence Jackson Hyman found a crate of unpublished stories by his mother, and, with his sister, Sarah Hyman Dewitt, turned them into a collection called Just an Ordinary Day. In 2015, they edited and released Let Me Tell You, a collection of stories, essays and lectures from her archive that were mostly unfinished or unpublished at the time of her death.

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