Today’s guest post comes from Michelle Andelman, a literary agent with Regal Literary, who recently sold Elana Johnson’s dystopian novel POSESSION to Simon & Schuster. Here are Michelle’s thoughts on dystopian literature and THE GIVER:
My mom was a junior high school English teacher, and she was the one who handed me Lois Lowry’s THE GIVER. She was deciding whether to adopt the book for her curriculum, I think, and she wanted to test it out on me. She wanted to know what I thought. Regarding the cover, I considered myself too old for it. I’d just graduated from junior high, and THE GIVER had just won the Newbery. I dove in feeling self-important, feeling like my mom trusted my opinion, feeling like I was revisiting a place I’d just left. Cracking the spine, I felt adult for the first time. And, then I fell in love.
In the beginning, Jonas describes feeling excited about the impending Ceremony where he’ll receive his Assignment to the role he’ll play in his society. But when he thinks about what might happen, he confesses to also feeling a shudder of nervousness. He decides he’s apprehensive. I felt the same, the whole way through THE GIVER, suspended like Jonas between excitement and nervousness. Suspended? I think I mean trapped. And, in a way I never had before as a reader. By both the story and the storyworld, a dystopia that’s misguidedly drained its society of color, pleasure, and memory in order to drain it of pain. I think I could feel the trap of this dystopian logic, by which well-intentioned ends are meant to justify terrible means, and nothing is gained without everything being lost. That’s what I remember feeling throughout: a sense of loss. And, this is what Jonas comes to as he receives the communal memories The Giver transmits to him: a sense for what good has been lost in the transaction his society has made in order to be better. The most compelling thing about dystopian lit for me is that its storyworlds are the result of authors imagining, with excitement and nervousness, with apprehension, what transactions a society might make in the name of what’s good, and what might happen if a society willfully built itself on those unthinkable losses. We can withstand such losses – of freedom, happiness, knowledge, love – dystopian lit tells us. But are we willing to, for how long, and for what gains? How chilling the question. The genre. Yet also maybe how comforting.
I don’t remember telling my mom I loved THE GIVER. I don’t remember sharing why I thought her students would love it. But I have this proof of the conversation: on the inside cover of my Laurel-Leaf paperback edition, the one on my bookshelf today, my copy is inscribed: “with love to those who read – and remember – and GIVE – Lois Lowry.” I don’t remember and maybe I never knew where or how they met. Lowry dated it 1994. She framed her inscription with three quick stars. Above Lowry’s inscription my mom – in the red ink of all English teachers everywhere, forever – wrote her own name ABlumenrich. She didn’t separate the cursive A of her first initial from the cursive B of the maiden name she used “in school.” She didn’t dot the “i.” She marked up the book in black and blue and, yes, red ink. She underlined line after line. She wrote one word at the top of one page: “pastime,” thinking perhaps to ask her students why Lowry chose to spell it “pasttime” instead. She drew one question mark in one margin, at the end when Jonas “found the sled that was waiting for them at the top of the hill.” The curl of my mom’s question mark doesn’t end in a period. It ends in a star. All over Lowry’s book, my mom drew her own quick stars. She taught from them.
My mom died in 2003. My copy of THE GIVER is hers.