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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A conversation with famed children's book author Lois Lowry

Posted by on Wed, Apr 21, 2010 at 7:50 AM

Lois Lowry
  • Neil Giordano
  • Lois Lowry
On the phone from Boston, Lois Lowry calls her latest novel The Birthday Ball a “silly little book,” wonders if she should have expanded the last section of her novel The Giver, and asks if the new crop of children’s and young adult authors have rendered her obsolete.

Her modesty is hardly deserved. Since her first children’s book, A Summer to Die, came out in 1977, Lowry has become one of the top children’s and young adult authors in the world, averaging about a book a year in a plethora of genres ranging from humor to drama to science fiction and fantasy.

Lowry, whose stepson Eric Small lives in Cary, will appear at Quail Ridge Books and Music on April 21 and Flyleaf Books on April 22 to promote Ball, a humorous fairy tale illustrated by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer.

The story might seem like a change of pace for those only familiar with the dark SF allegory of The Giver, or her other best-known novel, the WWII-set Number the Stars (both won the Newbery Medal, and both were recently picked as among the 100 best children’s books by School Library Journal), but Lowry says the diversity of her output helps her maintain her enthusiasm for writing.

“That’s the reason I enjoy what I do,” Lowry says. “I’d be bored if I worked on the same kind of thing again and again. At the moment, I have several books finished, and each is different from the next. [The Birthday Ball], of course, is very different in that it’s silly and has no redeeming moral value whatsoever, and is amusing and is very fantasy-like, and kids should enjoy it.”

In her more than three decades of writing children’s books, Lowry has seen the medium grow, both in terms of audience and narrative complexity. “My first book for children was published in 1977, and children’s literature was regarded as fairly benign at that time,” Lowry says. “But soon, Judy Blume had appeared on the scene, and children’s literature began to deal with more complex and difficult topics. And of course, that’s just blossomed now.

“There’s a book called The Hunger Games—terrific book, but it starts out with 24 children and by the end, 22 are dead in horrible ways! You couldn’t have done that in the 1970s, when people weren’t ready to deal with that in children’s literature. So I’m very grateful to have come along at that time, and maybe I’m starting to become obsolete as these harder-hitting authors appear on the scene.”

That scenario is doubtful. Even at 73, Lowry maintains a prolific and diverse output (her next three books, she says, concern talking mice, the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, and the latest in a series about an imaginative second grader named Gooney Bird Greene).

And her work is still taught in many schools, though not without controversy—The Giver is one of the most-challenged books in public schools, and on the day we talked, Lowry had discovered a Turkish translation of Number the Stars had been banned from the curriculum of a school in Tarsus.

Lowry finds these challenges to her work both troubling and ironic. The Giver, her most popular and acclaimed work, is set in a deceptively peaceful near future where most human emotions are repressed. In some school programs, it’s used to introduce children to the concept of censorship, but in others, it’s the subject of censorship itself.

“It’s kind of a mixed blessing,” Lowry says. “If nobody ever objected to a book, it would probably mean the book had nothing to say. But when people rise up in outrage and demand that the book be banned from the school—usually because they haven’t read it, but have heard about it—that, to me, is very frightening. I think a parent has a right to monitor and perhaps challenge what their child is required to read, but to remove a book from the hands of a child is totalitarianism at its worst.

“That’s one of the things The Giver is about, ironically—it’s a world where there is no literature anymore, because it’s been deemed troublesome. There’s nothing allowed that encourages people to think, and that’s why it’s so troubling to me when the book is challenged.”

Ironically, she only saw the book as a simple tale when she wrote it. “I saw it as an adventure story, but I did not see the extent to which people would read things into it,” Lowry says. “Kids get very interested in the issues it raises, but I didn’t think about those things when I was writing it.”

Lois Lowry appears at Quail Ridge Books & Music at 7 p.m. on April 21. This is a signing line ticket event. She also appears at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. on April 22. For more information, visit www.quailridgebooks.com or flyleaf.indiebound.com.

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