Over the years, Angie and I have had several conversations. When I was getting ready to apply for jobs she offered advice. I appreciated her help then and I continue look forward to future conversations. I am excited that she has finally taken the opportunity to write for the blog. Thanks Angie.
The Giver and Me: A Biblio-Memoir
Angie Beumer Johnson
Bask in your favorite book.
I often switch-up the titles on the syllabus for the YA literature class I teach to preservice English teachers. (With a great deal of choices for books, I’ve added nine new titles to the list of 32 this semester.) But for 20+ years, I’ve always started the course with The Giver, and it’s one of only three titles (along with The Book Thief and Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You) that we read as a whole class. Why The Giver all these years, you ask? In short, it’s timeless, poignant, and it moves English majors who may not be sold on this idea of young adult literature. I’ve written about preservice teachers’ multiple identities (e.g., English major, field experience intern, consumer, family member) and how these identities can impact the perception of the field (Johnson 2011). As one who came to YA literature later in my middle and high school teaching (my preservice teacher education being prior to the acknowledgement of YA lit as crucial), I sadly admit that I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about YA lit. The Giver knocked that chip off with gusto--as it continues to do for my students.
Of course the opening of the novel with a boy fearful of an airplane overhead felt like an imagined déja vu, catapulting us to a much more horrific scenario than Jonas experienced on page one. The grief, the contemplation of freedom vs. risk, and the appreciation of the things we tend to take for granted each day--choices, memories, color, and more--oozed from the students’ responses. Readers contemplated the what-ifs, including the war that had not yet begun. Two students, Jeffrey Kleismit and Antje Williams, joined me in document analysis of the class’s responses, and the impact of The Giver forever tied to our experiences of 9/11 was published in The ALAN Review in 2002.
With the Common Core State Standards expressing the need for complex text (and with some writing off YA lit as not fitting the bill) the students’ responses to The Giver spoke to the power of a young adult novel on adults--on its lasting impact, and on the complexity that even future English teachers did not fully comprehend in their younger years. When adapting The Giver for the screen, the choice was made to age Jonas from twelve to sixteen. In a personal communication, Lowry mentioned that she did not have a particular age of reader in mind when writing the book; however, based on teachers’ experiences, she thought eighth grade and up would be a good suggestion (Johnson, Haynes, and Nastasi, 2013). We agreed, and still advocate for re-reading at older ages. The book, for many, exists on a whole new level of complexity when read even as an adult. (See also Slate’s Eliza Berman’s analysis of her own reading of The Giver as an adult.)
A few years later, I experienced one of my fondest stretches in this relationship with The Giver. I spent lovely autumn days at an alternative school in a large district doing read-alouds with David French’s high school students (many of whom were in transition from detention facilities, or who were not thriving in their traditional schools). We relished seeing The Giver from the fresh eyes of the students as we led them through the textual and human complexities of the book. The read-aloud was crucial for guiding comprehension as well as thinking through ethical and moral implications of the book. I recall a particularly powerful conversation about Sameness and race, as the text references a past when diversity of skin color existed. In these days of white nationalist hatred and bigotry on this rise, The Giver again brings attention to whose lives are valued. (See Johnson and Urquhart.)
It’s tempting, but then I remember Jonas’s thought: “Of course they needed to care. It was the meaning of everything” (Lowry, 1993, p. 157).
Thank you, Jonas. Thank you, Lois. Here’s to several more decades of this relationship.
Angie Beumer Johnson, Professor of English Language and Literatures at Wright State University, enjoys reading, writing, and researching alongside her students who are secondary preservice English teachers. She also enjoys working with inservice teachers through her professional development/personal enrichment group, WORDBridge Now
Johnson, A. B., Kleismit, J. W., & Williams, A. J. (2002). Grief, thought, and appreciation: Re-examining our beliefs amid terrorism through The Giver. The ALAN Review 29(3), 15-19.
Johnson, A. B. (2011). Multiple selves and multiple sites of influence: Perceptions of young adult literature in the classroom. TIP: Theory into Practice, 50, 215-222.
Johnson, K., & Urquhart, J. (2020, September 4). White nationalism upsurge in U.S. echoes historical pattern, say scholars. Reuters. Retrieved January 14, 2021 from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-global-race-usa-extremism-analysis/white-nationalism-upsurge-in-u-s-echoes-historical-pattern-say-scholars-idUSKBN25V2QH
Katz, J., Lu, D., & Sanger-Katz, M. (2021, January 14). 400,000 more U.S. deaths than normal since COVID-19 struck. Retrieved January 14, 2021 from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/01/14/us/covid-19-death-toll.html