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An author with broad appeal, Lois Lowry has never been one to avoid complexity and controversial topics in her novels for young adults. Her books deal with subjects ranging from the death of a sibling to the Nazi occupation of Denmark to the humorous antics of a rebellious teen to futuristic dystopian societies. In her works, Lowry frequently addresses contemporary themes, such as an adopted child’s search for her real mother or the loneliness the elderly face. Although Lowry’s novels explore a variety of settings and characters, all have a common theme: the importance of the human connection in people’s lives.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
The Military Life
Lowry was born on March 20,1937, in Honolulu, Hawaii. The daughter of a career military officer—an army dentist—Lowry lived in many different locations. After moving to New York shortly after her birth, Lowry went to live with her mother’s family in the Amish country of Pennsylvania, at the beginning of World War II in Europe, in 1939. Although her grandfather adored her and tried to keep her from knowing the horrors of the war, Lowry felt a deep sense of loss because of her father’s absence. This emptiness manifested itself in her novels in the form of almost-perfect father figures. At the age of eleven, Lowry briefly lived in Tokyo, Japan, before returning to New York, where she attended high school. By the time she entered Brown University in Rhode Island, her family had moved to Washington, D.C. No matter where she lived, one thing remained constant during her childhood: she tirelessly wrote stories and poems.
In 1956, after finishing her sophomore year in college, Lowry quit school to marry Donald Lowry, an officer in the U.S. Navy. As when she was a child, Lowry frequently moved, wherever the service sent her husband: to California, Connecticut, Florida, South Carolina, and Massachusetts. By the time her husband left the military and enrolled in Harvard Law School, Lowry had four children under the age of five. She was trained as a professional photographer and worked part-time to support her family while her husband finished his law degree. The family then moved to Maine.
Education and Independence
Lowry returned to college and completed her BA degree in writing at the University of Southern Maine in 1972. Later, in graduate school, Lowry wrote two textbooks and had various pieces published in magazines and newspapers. She also produced a book of photographs, Here in Kennebunkport
(1978) , with text by Frederick H. Lewis. Lowry began her career as an author for young adults when an editor at Houghton Mifflin read one of her published short stories about her childhood and asked if she would be interested in writing books for children. Around this time, her marriage ended, and the forty-year-old Lowry moved back to Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Lowry’s first novel, A Summer to Die (1977), inspired by her sister’s death from cancer, established a common pattern in her works: she often translates her life into fiction for the purpose of helping others who may have experienced similar circumstances. Following her successful debut, Lowry continued to explore challenging adolescent topics. In her second novel, Lind a Stranger, Say Goodbye (1978), for example, she documents an adopted child’s search for her biological mother. Although neither Lowry nor any of her children are adopted, she felt that the subject was important enough to be dealt with in a sensitive and compassionate way. Lowry’s darkest version of childhood, Autumn Street
(1979) , is autobiographical in content. Like Lowry, the main character’s family moves to her grandfather’s home in Pennsylvania after America’s entrance into World War II takes her father away to war. Elizabeth, again like Lowry, encounters unfamiliar situations, strange people, and cruel realities of the adult world in her new environment.
More pleasant memories of her childhood, as well as her experiences as a parent, have led Lowry to her most popular character: Anastasia Krupnik, the spunky, rebellious, and irreverent adolescent who stars in a series of books that began in 1979. In the first book of the series, ten-year-old Anastasia faces numerous comic crises, including the arrival of a sibling and a crush on a boy who is continually dribbling an imaginary basketball. The broad audience appeal and lasting interest in Anastasia have prompted Lowry to write a total of twelve books featuring her young heroine.
In 1990, Lowry was awarded the prestigious Newbery Medal for her distinguished contribution to children’s literature with Number the Stars (1989). Based on a factual account, the story is set during World War II against the backdrop of Nazi-occupied Denmark, where ten-year-old Annemarie Johansen and her family are drawn into the resistance movement, and shuttle Jews from Denmark into neutral Sweden, where they are safe from the reach of the Nazis. Lowry received the Newbery Medal a second time for her novel The Giver (1993), a radical departure from her previous works with its futuristic world where every facet of life—birth, death, work, emotions, even the weather—is strictly controlled in order to maintain a society of “Sameness.”
Although Lowry lives and does most of her writing in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she also spends time gardening in Maine, where she owns a farmhouse that was built in 1768. She has published young-adult works consistently over the years; her most recent title in that genre being The Willoughbys in 2008.
Works in Literary Context
Lowry’s primary inspiration has been her personal life, from the perspectives both of a child who grew up without a father and of a mother who observed her children’s adolescent struggles. She has said that she draws from her own past, and that she is always mindful of her inner child when writing. Because of her Anastasia series, Lowry is frequently compared to Beverly Cleary, for her works offer teen readers the solid, charming writing that Cleary’s Ramona stories give younger audiences.
While many of Lowry’s novels contain lively humor, they also address serious and universal themes; Lowry believes that teenagers must be prepared to live in a complicated world and must not be overprotected from life’s realities. Her works are coming-of-age stories, memorable because the main characters endure inner turmoil in their growth and development as human beings. In depicting the difficulties of growing up in a confusing adult world, Lowry helps her readers understand that others have suffered some of the same problems they are facing and have survived.
In the Anastasia books, the older Anastasia gets, the more complex her personal problems are. For instance, in 1995’s Anastasia, Absolutely, Anastasia is troubled by the assignments in her values class at school. She worries that she does not have the right responses to such hypothetical scenarios as what she would do if she saw someone shoplifting or whether she could give one of her own kidneys to save a sibling’s life. Each passing crisis gives Anastasia new insight into herself, and by the end of each novel, she is prepared to move on to a new level of maturity. In The Giver, childhood is left behind at age twelve, when an individual’s adult calling is decided. For Jonas, this passage leads to his knowledge of the darker aspects of human experience—war, death, pain, and euthanasia. For the young child Elizabeth in Autumn Street, her father’s assurance that bad things will not happen now that he has come home from the war means nothing to her because she has already been initiated into the terrifying world of experience. Wise beyond her years, Elizabeth no longer has the innocence of a child, nor the capacity to feel safe in a threatening world.
Works in Critical Context
Most critics agree that Lowry’s strength as a writer is her ability to create strong central characters whose determination, intelligence, and humor overcome the difficulties they face. However, while some critics praise her lively, diverse characters for reflecting the multiplicity that defines America, others contend that Lowry uses stereotypes of racial and ethnic groups, as well as of the elderly, to create humorous situations. Furthermore, some critics find Lowry’s characters too likable and too attractive. For instance, it may seem unrealistic for Natalie in Find a Stranger, Say Goodbye (1978) to have it all: beauty and brains, the perfect family life, and even the most attractive, affluent biological mother and father. Nevertheless, the majority of critics agree with Lowry’s readers who find her adolescent characters admirable in the way they confront their problems.
Some reviewers believe that readers might be disappointed by the ambiguous ending of The Giver, which leaves readers to decide if the boys have safely reached “Elsewhere,” have been intercepted by their community’s security forces, or have died from hunger and exposure. However, in her Newbery Medal acceptance speech, Lowry maintained that the novel has no single “correct” ending. ”There’s a right one for each of us, and it depends on our own beliefs, on our own hopes.” She continues, ”The truth that we go out and come back, and that what we come back to is changed, and so are we.” Reviewer Gary D. Schmidt finds the ending appropriate, explaining that with it ”the reader must do what Jonas must now do for the first time: make a choice.” Overall, The Giver has been praised by many critics. According to Ann Flowers, ”the air of disquiet [in The Giver] is delicately insinuated. And the theme of balancing the values of freedom and security is beautifully presented.” Reviewer Patty Campbell comments that the novel is so unique, ”so rich in levels of meaning, so daring in complexity of symbol and metaphor, so challenging in the ambiguity of its conclusion, that we are left with all our neat little everyday categories and judgments hanging useless.” Even when the novel has ”occasional logical lapses,” says critic Karen Ray, ”The Giver [is] a powerful and provocative novel.”
- Lowry, Lois. Looking Back: a Photographic Memoir. Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
- Campbell, Patty. ”The Sand in the Oyster.” Horn Book (November/December 1993): 717-721.
- Cart, Michael. ”Review of Anastasia Absolutely.” New York Times Book Review (January 14, 1996): 23.
- Cooper, Ilene. ”Giving and Receiving.” Booklist (April 15, 1993): 1506.
- Flowers, Ann A. ”Review of The Giver.” Horn Book (July/August 1993): 458.
- Lowry, Lois. ”Newbery Medal Acceptance.” Horn Book (July/August 1994): 414-422.
- Ray, Karen. ”Review of The Giver.” New York Times Book Review (October 31, 1993): 26.
- Schmidt, Gary D. ”Review of The Giver.” Five Owls (September-October 1993): 14-15.
- Smith, Amanda. ”PWInterviews: Lois Lowry.” Publishers Weekly 229 (February 21, 1986): 152-153.
- Lois Lowry Biography. Lois Lowry Official Web site. Retrieved November 13, 2008, from http:// www.loislowry.com/bio.html. Last updated in 2008.
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