Lois Lowry is one of the most prolific and best-known children’s and young adult writers of our time. Some of her most beloved books include the Anastasia Krupnik series, about a girl “just trying to grow up”; Number the Stars, a historical novel that many people read as part of their studies of World War II and the Holocaust; and The Giver, a dystopian YA novel published in 1993. In September, Lois will release an updated edition of Looking Back, her gorgeous memoir told in photographs.
When Rookie asked me to interview Lois, I was over the moon. To say that she’s a hero of mine—as a writer, as well as a reader who wanted to be Anastasia Krupnik—would be a serious understatement. Then it sunk in that I would actually talk to one of the writers I admire most, and I got incredibly nervous. But Lois put me at ease. I called her up and we had a 45-minute conversation about her books, her journey as an author, and how dreams and memories inspire her work.
STEPHANIE KUEHNERT: This is an honor. I write primarily for young adults, partially because I read and was shaped by books like yours. I truly appreciated how real your characters were, and the way your stories never talked down to your readers—something I was quite conscious of. I’m wondering what drove you to write books about and for kids and teenagers?
LOIS LOWRY: Well, it was actually more or less by chance, and I should preface this by saying that I was a kid back in the ’40s. I was born in 1937, so I was 13 in 1950. I should also add that I didn’t live in the United States when I was 13 and 14, so I didn’t have access to a lot of American literature, but in those days there was not specifically so-called young adult literature. So young people who were readers like myself, and introverts who lived their life through fiction, tended to jump to adult books [as teenagers] from the kiddie books that we had been reading prior to that. I didn’t have that history of good young adult literature.
Jumping ahead to adulthood, I majored in writing in college. I wanted to be a writer, and had not had any other aspirations, but I thought of myself as one does when studying at that age, as a writer for adults. That’s what I was doing, but I had four kids of my own, and at one point a publisher—an editor from Houghton Mifflin—got in touch with me. Having read things I’d written for adults, they said I sounded like somebody who could write for young adults and would I consider writing a book for them? They didn’t promise to publish it, but it was unusual then and probably still is to have a major publisher reach out in that way and ask you to do something. So although I had not considered writing for young people, I did have kids of my own and had spent many years at that point reading to them what was available then. This would have been 1975—my kids were born in ’58, ’59, ’61, and ’62. In 1975, my youngest would have been 13 years old, so [all my kids] were teenagers. Certainly I’d stopped reading to them long before, but I was aware of what they were reading. That was my introduction to contemporary young adult literature.
When the publisher asked me to write a book for young adults, I did that drawing on my own memories of my young years, but without a history of having read those books. I did a book for them, which they published and I found that I loved doing it and that I was pretty good at it—and I can say this in retrospect because the first book that I wrote, [A Summer to Die], got great reviews and won some major awards. The publisher was eager to have me do more. By then I realized that I really enjoyed doing it. I continued writing for adults—for a period of time I did both things—but gradually that part of my writing life semi drifted away. I’m saying “semi” and chuckling to myself because as I sit here at my desk, I have just finished writing a short story for adults for a project I was asked to do. But my major work for many years now has been for kids and young adults, and I came into that by chance. Of course nowadays it is such a popular genre that many people, and probably you’re one, entered it with intention. It was far out on my radar when I first started and only gradually became the thing that I focused on.
It was on my radar, but I was also in school for creative writing and thinking that I was writing for adults even though I was writing about teenage characters. Then I was told by an agent, “You know, I think this would sell better if it was for young adults.”
The books I gravitated to as a 12-, 13-, 14-year-old were adult books, but they were the adult books that were about young characters.
Yep. Me too.
And if those books had been written today, they would be published as young adult books. I don’t know if you’ll even remember or have heard of this title, but a book that was important in my adolescent years was called Marjorie Morningstar. Does that ring any bells?
It was by an adult writer, a famous writer, Herman Wouk, but it was about a young girl. There were many such books at that time but they wouldn’t be published as adult fiction today.