Find great books for preschool, elementary, and middle school children and teens along with ideas of ways to teach with them in the classroom across the curriculum.
This issue of the Children's Literature Newsletter is sponsored by:
Carol Hurst, Consultants. Storytelling and language arts for your workshop, conference and classroom.
It's fun to write about Lois Lowry but not as much fun as it is to be with her. She's a witty, clever, interesting woman with lots of facets to her life. She's a great conversationalist, she knits, is an avid and eclectic reader and movie-goer, and besides that, she likes to play bridge and garden. She's an excellent cook and her cookbook collection is enormous and varied. Her home is full of bookshelves which, of course, are full of books and, since she has a great need for order, her books are carefully arranged with her own rather eccentric system with no apologies to Dewey.
As a child whose father was in the military, she moved around a lot and spent the years of World War II with her mother's parents in central Pennsylvania before joining her father in post war Japan. You can find out more about that house and town in Pennsylvania for she used it as the setting for Autumn Street. That book, by the way, has a beautiful prologue which sets the tone for the book while foreshadowing its action. Also, the character of the grandmother in Autumn Street, that stern and unbending woman of decorum, provides one of the most touching scenes in Lowry's work as she attends the funeral of a child in an African American church.
Lois is an accomplished photographer (the cover of The Giver is her own work) and she has an artist's eye for composition. She sometimes compares the role of writer to that of photographer saying that the writer carefully chooses the best lens and settings for her work, deciding which things to focus on and which to blur.
Most mornings you'll find Lois seated at her computer and at work by eight o'clock. A brief lunch break and she's back at it again until mid-afternoon, at least. She writes novels, short stories and essays, mostly for young people, but she also writes because it's so much a part of her that she turns to it constantly, both personally and professionally. Recently, her son, an airforce pilot, was killed when his plane crashed on take-off in Germany. Soon after that tragedy, she wrote a sort of newsletter to those of us who knew Lois but not Grey because she needed us to know what a treasure the world had lost. She also put together a book about him with photographs and a brief text for his two year old daughter so that she would remember what her father was like.
A look at Lois's prolific work as a writer is an occasion for amazement. It's so varied and always, so good. Her first book, A Summer to Die, centers around the death of a young girl, Meg, as witnessed by her younger sister. Although the book is not totally based on fact, Lois's own sister, Helen, died young of cancer and she used the memories of that tragic time in the story. Lois calls that her most personal book even though, of course, it addresses the large theme of life and death. The friendship between Meg and Will, her elderly neighbor, sustains Meg and provides lighter moments for the reader as well as Meg. There is, in this book as in most of Lowry's work, a good deal of humor and of hope.
Rabble Starkey gives us wonderful characterization especially in the title character Rabble, her mother Sweet Ho and the disturbed Mrs. Bigelow. Mental illness and its effect on all who must deal with it is one of the themes in this thoughtful book but what makes a family is probably even more important here. When Mrs. Bigelow returns to reclaim her family, Sweet Ho and Rabble Starkey let it go and move on, stronger for what they have been a part of.
Lois turned again to personal experience and memory for inspiration in the writing of her Newbery Award winning Number the Stars. Annemarie Johansen is based on Lois's real life friend Annelise. She used the role played by Annelise and her family during the occupation of Denmark to bring some awareness of the Holocaust to a slightly younger than usual audience. Here the characters, especially Annemarie, call on courage they didn't know they had to help a Jewish family escape.
Her series of books about Anastasia Krupnik and her younger brother, Sam, are unlike many series in that she doesn't rely on stock characters; the plots are well conceived and both Anastasia and Sam grow emotionally as well as physically in these often hilariously funny books. If "functional" is the opposite of "dysfunctional", the Krupnik family is functional. They love and usually eventually manage to understand each other even while reacting to the latest misadventure of Sam or Anastasia.
The Giver is her most ambitious work to date and her acceptance speech for the Newbery Award it received tells of the many rivers of experience and inspiration that led her to write it. One of those rivers of inspiration came from her father who was, at that time, in a nursing home having lost most of his long-term memory. She realized one day while visiting her father that, without memory, there is no pain and began to imagine a society in which the past was deliberately forgotten. The flaws in that supposedly ideal society show the need for personal and societal memory and for making connections with the past and with each other. The ending of The Giver, which is deliberately ambiguous has been the subject of much discussion by readers. All that Lois will say about it is that there will never be a sequel and that she is hopeful about its ending. With its varied interpretations, the book is a wonderful one for discussion groups for middleschool students.
Lois has said that each reader reads his or her own book and that is certainly shown in the varied reactions to The Giver. It is one of the most frequently censored books in the United States today. Ironically, it is attacked for being too Christian, for not being Christian enough, for being "new age" and for being too spiritual. It is criticized for being un-American and for stressing too many American middle class values, too pessimistic and not pessimistic enough. Saner folks seem to recognize it as a skillful and fascinating work of fiction which challenges the reader to re-examine his or her own values and the directions current societies seem to be taking.
Recurrent themes for Lois Lowry seem to be saying goodbye, the importance of making connections with others and finding a place where we belong. The Giver deals with all of these and more.
Lois Lowry's work is wide-ranging, richly varied and right on target for her intended audiences.
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