Talking with Lois Lowry | The Newbery at 100

The  celebrated Newbery Medal-winning author shares thoughts on the new wave of censorship in schools, her deep respect for librarians, and dancing hamburgers in The Giver.

Lois Lowry and her Newbery titles

The marvelously versatile Lois Lowry is the author of more than 40 books for children and young adults. She has written picture books, humorous contemporary stories, historical fiction, and realistic and futuristic novels. No matter the genre, her books tend to feature kids trying to make sense of a complicated world. Lowry has said that all of her books are fundamentally about “the importance of human connections.”

Lowry was awarded the Newbery Medal in 1990 for Number the Stars and again in 1994 for The Giver (both HMH). Her latest books, On the Horizon: World War II Reflections and The Willoughbys Return were both published by Clarion in 2020. She recently published an Op-Ed in USA Today in response to discussions about including books with "opposing views" of events, including the Holocaust, in a Texas school district.  


Having written two Newbery Award-winning titles that have been widely embraced in schools throughout the country (and the wider world, for that matter), did you even have an inkling that you’d also be spending decades as a freedom of speech advocate, justifying the presentation of the books’ important themes in the emotional and intellectual development of young people? How has the reception of these titles in other countries differed from those in the United States?  

I began to respond that although both of these Newbery titles have been translated into 30-plus languages, I’ve never been aware of any attempts at censorship or banning in any other country, even as that phenomenon has become so pervasive in the USA. Then I remembered that there was a time some years ago when I was notified that government officials in Turkey had entered a school, gone to the school library, and removed Number the Stars from its shelves. Turkey at that time had installed a very conservative, increasingly authoritarian, and anti-Semitic government. I remember feeling that that was a chilling reminder of 1933, when in Germany books were publicly burned while bands played in celebration. Just last week, though, happily, I did a Zoom presentation with a classroom in Istanbul. My books seem to be alive and well in Turkey these days, despite that unnerving earlier experience.

Two months ago, amazingly, I zoomed with a school in Tehran. Recently I got a letter from a man in Russia who described reading The Giver with his son. So at the moment it seems to be only in this country that freedom of expression is threatened. I’d like to say that I could not have imagined this—but of course I had, when I wrote a book in 1993 that described a future world where there was no literature anymore.

Some writers actually see being included on a “most frequently challenged” list as a badge of honor. Are you among them? If not, what do you think is going on with the huge jump in the numbers of challenges and bannings here at home in the past year? Do you have any advice for beleaguered school librarians, assuming, of course, that there are librarians in these places?

Badge of honor? No, I don’t experience it that way at all. I read those lists, and my name often on them, with enormous sadness. I read them with a feeling that our children may be losing something very precious as the world of the imagination is increasingly endangered. Of course the jump in bannings and challenges coincides with, and is symptomatic of, the much larger danger as democracy itself wobbles and is threatened. 

Librarians, in my opinion, are the heroes and heroines in this battle. Me, I sit alone in my house, replying to the letters and emails that accuse me of child abuse, or immorality—and once even of being the Anti-Christ. I yawn or chuckle or sigh or groan while I do so. But librarians have no such luxury; they’re out there on the front lines, addressing school boards, splinter groups, and misinformed parents, and doing so with intelligence and wisdom and information, even when their very jobs are at stake. Such courage. Such heartbreak!

I think it’s really rare for books to have even more relevance and impact on young readers 30 years after they were written. Number the Stars was set during World War II, and The Giver in “a somewhat distant future,” but they both have vitally important things to say about personal freedoms, security, and our perceptions of the past. Were you already thinking about the explosion of misinformation in the late 80’s and early 90’s?

No, I hadn’t a clue that we would find ourselves in such a quagmire. In 1991—four years after I had written Number the Stars and with The Giver two years in the future—my older son, a U.S. Air Force pilot, wrote to me from Saudi Arabia, where he was based during the first Gulf War. He asked me to send some paperback books and videos, because the pilots needed ways to spend their time between missions. But he reminded me that anything I sent would have to pass through very strict censors. Though I did round up a batch of bland material to send, I pondered how sadly limited it was, how un-thought-provoking. Yet I never for one second thought that in this country we would begin to move toward such repression. Even when I wrote The Giver, I didn’t realize how woefully prophetic it would come to be. 

At least one of your books, The Giver, has been made into a major motion picture. It has also been adapted for theatrical pieces, graphic novels, and the opera. Have you enjoyed these interpretations? Can you talk a bit about how the experience of reading the book is different from other formats.

And a ballet as well!  I’ve always enjoyed watching the process (of course sometimes I’ve been more privy to behind-the-scenes stuff than others). But I learned early on not to wed myself to verisimilitude. A different genre—drama, musical theater, dance, film, opera—is just that: different. It simply can’t be the same as a book, which always has the advantage of being able to enter the character, to feel what the protagonist feels, understand his/her thoughts. So over the years I have learned to appreciate the fine moments…and there have been many…in the adaptations, but to let go of any yearning that they try to replicate the book.

The Giver was filmed in South Africa, and they kindly invited me there to watch some of the filming. It was a very special time, the same time in 2013 that Nelson Mandela died. Later, when I watched the finished film, there is a scene when The Giver gives the boy visions and memories of strength and courage. And then! There was Nelson Mandela, newly released from prison, dancing with joy in the streets of Cape Town. It was an immensely powerful moment for me, seeing that, and it was something that I could never have portrayed in words on a page.

I do cringe, I confess, when something goes way too far. I remember reading a review of a stage production of The Giver and the reviewer mentioned how much the audience had loved the dancing hamburgers. Oh my, I’m so glad I didn’t go to see that one.

Do you have a favorite Newbery winner? I’m sure our readers would love to know what it is.

I go way back! And I had a mother who had been a teacher before she married. So my childhood was filled with books, and she knew how to choose them—she knew what Newbery meant. As a young child I adored the Eleanor Estes books about the Moffetts—two of those were Newbery Honors. Then, in 1946, when I was nine: Strawberry Girl. And the author, Lois Lenski, shared my name! That did it for me. Maybe that’s not a purely literary reason for loving a book. But I still smile when I get an email, as I do occasionally, from a child who says, “I love your book Strawberry Girl…and I have to write back and explain: “That wasn’t me. I wish it were.”

Luann Toth is a former longtime reviews editor at School Library Journal. She recently chaired the 2021 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committee.

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