Review of “The Giver” by Lois Lowry

In the “perfect” world of The Giver, a variety of rules and practices enforce “sameness,” emotional suppression, and strictly directed lives. Children are produced by breeders and then assigned to parents who have been carefully matched to each other on the basis of fit. (Hormonal “stirrings” that might predispose people to make decisions based on love or lust are strictly controlled by a universally administered suppressant at puberty.) At age twelve, all children are given their future career assignments, and they begin, after school, to prepare for their orchestrated lives. These lives are orchestrated, however, without any music. And without colors, or animals, or pain, or anger, or even death. And most importantly, without love.


All this is destined to change after Jonas, a precocious eleven-year-old, is given the assignment of Receiver of Memory at the career ceremony. In the process of being infused with memories of life before “sameness” by the previous Receiver (now called the Giver), Jonas is horrified by the lie of their “perfect” world. He decides that he wants a choice about what kind of life to live. Having “known” (through the transmittal of memories) love, hate, war, betrayal, death, and emotions of all sorts, the repercussions of a rebellion by Jonas are huge.

Discussion: This winner of the 1994 Newbery Medal raises so many questions about feelings, relationships, society, and government that it is hard to imagine a better teaching tool. What is the cost of perfection? Are the things you must sacrifice worth the safety and serenity you gain? If so many people are opposed to diversity, is it really a good thing, or not? How is happiness defined, anyway? Do any of us really use the capacity we have in our imperfect world to see, or do we take the colors and sounds and smells of life for granted? It’s a short book, but the questions I’ve listed are only a small sampling of those raised by the story.

Evaluation: Ah, here’s the rub. I was loving this book all the way until the end, when the author neglected to tie up the plot into a neat box with a ribbon for me; I tend to get unhappy over an ambiguous ending.

But Dear Reader(s), I am not alone! I read an interview with Lois Lowry in which she was asked why she wrote [the subsequent book] The Messenger. This is her reply:

“People didn’t like the ambiguity of THE GIVER’s conclusion. And they let me know it, in hundreds — probably thousands, by now — of letters and e-mails.

Now, I don’t generally cater to the reading public’s whims and wishes. But readers’ reaction affected me, I think, in that it made me want to sort out things for myself. …”

I feel so much better now!

Rating: 4/5

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers, 1993

Note: This book has been rated Middle Grade on up, with the caveat that there is some content of a sexual nature. Opinions seem to be divided between those who maintain the reading level is appropriate for the middle school age group, and those who, because of the content, prefer age 12 as the lower cut-off recommendation.

Some of Many Awards:

Newbery Medal (1994)
Mythopoeic Fantasy Award Nominee for Children’s Literature (1994)
Golden Duck Award for Hal Clement Award for Young Adult (1994)
Garden State Book Award for Teen Fiction Grades 6-8 (1996)
Rebecca Caudill Young Reader’s Book Award (1996)
Buckeye Children’s Book Award for Grade 6-8 (1997)
Grand Canyon Reader Award for Teen Book (1995)
Maryland Black-Eyed Susan Book Award for Grade 6-9 (1995)
Golden Sower Award for Young Adult (1995)
Pennsylvania Young Readers’ Choice Award for Grades 3-8 (1995)
New Mexico Land of Enchantment Award (1997)
William Allen White Children’s Book Award (1996)
Wyoming Indian Paintbrush Nominee (1996)
Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor for Fiction (1993)

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26 Responses to Review of “The Giver” by Lois Lowry

  1. Sandy says:

    The kids and I listened to this on audio awhile ago and we TOTALLY were taken with it. The ending didn’t so much bother us, but instead inspired hours of discussion. See, to me, this is what Middle Grade books are all about. No need to talk down to them. They can handle it.

  2. Trisha says:

    I really need to re-read this one. So many subsequent books draw heavily from its plot and themes that it might be nice to re-familiarize myself with it.

  3. Barbara says:

    I love it that you actually wrote to the Pope to complain. I can remember getting highly irate at something and writing to the highest person I could think of. Even as an adult, I wrote to the CEO of General Motors to complain about my Suburban when paint started peeling off it in big sheets. I’m sure he was really scared. 😀

  4. susan says:

    I loved this book and I didn’t mind the ending but I love foreign films and they typically do not give the audience neat endings. lol

    My daughter read this in middle school. She enjoyed it. In fact, I think I read it because she was so enthusiatic when she was telling me about it. Based on my talk with her and what she said her friends thought about the book, I’d say students sometimes miss nuiasances and implications, not completely rather this is the kind of book a reader appreciates with each re-reading.

  5. BibliophileBytheSea says:

    I liked The Giver a lot as well when I read it. I don’t read much YA, but that and the Book Thief were well woth it.

    Have a great week!

  6. Steph says:

    I really like the sound of this book, and I actually really enjoy ambiguous endings! Dystopian lit is one of my favorite literary indulgences, and ever since I read Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey (which deals with a similar idea of people being assigned particular roles, though in that case its based on what colors you can see), I’ve been curious about this one.

    So, did you ever find out what all three secrets were (from someone other than the Pope), or did you just have to live with not knowing?

    • Steph,

      The Vatican finally revealed the last of the three “secret messages” to the world in 2000. Here’s the deal:

      The first two secrets were revealed in 1941.

      The first secret was a vision of Hell. (that’s a secret?)

      The second secret is a statement that World War I would end and another world war would start during the reign of a Pope Pius XI, should men continue offending God and should Russia not convert.

      The third secret was revealed on 13 May 2000. In his announcement, Cardinal Sodano implied that the secret was about the persecution of Christians in the 20th century that culminated in the failed assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II on 13 May 1981.

      Shockingly enough, the “secrets” were never revealed until after they were “proven” true. If you read the text of the secrets, which are available online, they are very very ambiguous and vague, said to be decipherable only by those with special training….

  7. Jenny says:

    Did the Pope write back to you? Not very nice if not. My mother wrote a letter to Betty Crocker once asking for a signed eight-by-ten photograph of her, and Betty Crocker sent her one, which is still hanging in her kitchen. Surely the Pope could do no less. :p

    I liked the ambiguity of the ending–in fact, this was one of the first books I remember reading and thinking, Oh hey. Endings don’t have to be completely resolved. Huh.

    (Hang on, did you like Monsters of Men’s ending? Or have you not read it yet?)

    • No, the Pope never got back to me. I’m still waiting for a letter or an 8 x 10 glossy or SOMEthing!!!

      Oh, don’t tell me Monsters of Men has an ambiguous ending! Noooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!

  8. zibilee says:

    I have read so much about this book, and recently bought my own copy. I haven’t found the time to read it yet though. I am not too thrilled to hear that the ending is ambiguous, though sometimes I like those types of endings. I will have to let you know what I think of it! Great review!!

  9. Julie P. says:

    I have this one and I’m very anxious to read it! One of my good friends recommended it to me too. Are you going to read THE MESSENGER now?

    Thanks for sharing!

  10. Belle says:

    I can just see you writing that letter to the Pope! I remember I really enjoyed reading The Giver, and have no memories of being perturbed by the ending, so I’m guessing ambiguous endings don’t bother me much.

  11. The Giver is one of my favorite books of all time! I have read it countless times and I don’t have issues with an ambiguous ending, but I would like to read The Messenger regardless.

  12. Staci says:

    One of my favorite books of all time…you must read the other 2!!

  13. bermudaonion says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever read this book, but my son did, and I remember him saying something about the ending. I guess you’ll be reading The Messenger next.

  14. Nymeth says:

    I completely understand not being satisfied with the ending, but in this case I’d actually prefer not to know! I wasn’t as big a fan of the sequels as I was of this book.

    (PS: I was going to ask the same as Jenny :P)

  15. I hadn’t really thought twice about this book until reading your review. Now I think it would be a great book to share with The Girl. Thanks!

  16. Jenners says:

    Oh My … so much to say.

    First, I love that you wrote to the Pope demanding to know the secrets. (Have they ever been revealed by the way?)

    Second, someone else just recommended I read this book. So true recommendations = must read.

    Third, love your introductory paragraph. Lovely and well-written.

    Fourth, how neat that she responded to the letters from her readers and wrote a follow-up book.

  17. Alyce says:

    I loved this book, and it was one of the rare ambiguous endings that I didn’t mind. I have heard that the second book is not at all good (especially in comparison to the first), so I have chosen to let my imagination run wild with the ending of The Giver and not read the second book.

  18. Amanda says:

    I liked this all up until the end as well. Unfortunately, having read both Gathering Blue and Messenger, the questions I wanted answered never got answered. :/ Through time, though, I came to be okay with that ambiguous end.

    My oldest son read this book with me back in 2008. He was 7, almost 8, years old. I guess I never thought about this as a 12+ book. It’s on both my other boys’ reading lists and they’re 6 and 8 years old…

  19. The Giver has really stirred up my curiosity now, especially since the author wrote a sequel to respond to the needs of her audience. Interesting! Thanks for the review.

  20. stacybuckeye says:

    How could I have gotten to the ripe old age of 38 without having a clue as to what this was about?! Must read ASAP!!

  21. Topher says:

    This was the first book I read as a kid in one sitting. I just loved every minute of it, and I was so invested in what happened that I couldn’t put it down. By the end, I felt satisfied. I didn’t mind the ambiguity, and I decided that it was up to me to figure out what might happen in the future. I was hopeful. I read the next two books about two years ago, and re-read The Giver. The Giver is by far my favorite.

  22. Biblibio says:

    1. I still hold “The Giver” as one of the greatest books I’ve ever read. Since fourth grade and holding its own. But I know some people like it less than I do. I’ve always had trouble understanding why (this review is fascinating in that sense – and excellently thought-provoking as ever).

    2. The ambiguous ending to “The Giver” is one of many, many reasons I hold the book as one of those hands-down greatest books I’ve ever read. Few children’s books (or books at all, for that matter) have such exquisitely open endings.

    3. “The Messenger” is perhaps one of my most hated books precisely because of the crude way it destroys “The Giver”‘s magic. Whether or not Lowry was unsatisfied with her ending, it was an ending. Correcting it with attempted “sequels” to satisfy fans seems to me a cheap, almost pathetic trick. When I recommend “The Giver” to readers, I explicitly warn them off “The Messenger”. On top of its mediocrity as a standalone, it serves only to diminish the power of “The Giver”. And that, no matter what the author would like me to think, is hard to accept.

  23. book_lover says:

    @Biblibio: That’s an excellent point – why ruin the mystery and fascination with The Giver by digging too deep to find an answer that will likely be a let down anyway… It’s like an old memory that is great simply because you can’t remember all the details!

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