Getting into your work, it’s hard to pick, but one of my absolute favorites is Number the Stars. I read that one so many times. I’m curious why you felt like that story, in particular, was important to tell to young readers?
That book came out in 1989. My first book for kids was published in 1977, and this was 12 years later, so I’d published a number of books for young people by that time. That was the genre I was focusing on and at that particular time, I happened to be vacationing with a friend, a woman my age, who had grown up in the same World War II years I did, but she was from Denmark. When we were on vacation, we talked a lot about that period of time and about one other thing. In discussing our childhoods, she and I found out that we both had lost a greatly loved older sister, so we talked about that as well. And when she told me about what had happened in Denmark in 1943, I realized it was probably something I’d learned in a history class, but hadn’t retained, hadn’t paid attention to, and yet it seemed such an important part of history. I thought it would be a good idea to tell that to a young audience and that proved to be true.
I don’t know what year you read it, but that book has been around for a zillion years, and I still hear every day from kids who read it and are affected by it. It’s important to let kids in on important pieces of history in ways that will affect them. I remember the history books of my childhood where you would read a boring chapter and at the end there would be five or six boring questions, and you’d answer those questions to get your A, but then that would be the end of it. So telling something important in a way that people would remember it seemed a valid thing to do, and that’s the reason and the way that I went about writing that particular book.
I have so many friends who cite The Giver as one of the most influential books of their childhoods. It’s viewed by many as the first dystopian YA novel—it was certainly the first I read, and I was in eighth grade when it came out. What do you think of the rise of dystopian YA in the past few years? Why do you think The Giver and these newer dystopian YA books resonate now?
Well, I think you’re correct, and I know this only because I’ve seen reviewers say it, but The Giver was the first dystopian novel for young people. There was certainly dystopian fiction before that, some of which I read in college and graduate school. But The Giver happened along in a time, or was followed by a time, when the future suddenly seemed very uncertain to young people. Some writers jumped on the popularity of The Giver, as always happens when a book becomes popular, and then we all try to figure it out how to write one that will also become popular. But what happened is that now there are too many of them. It would be nice if some other trend would start because publishers are sick of them and everyone seems to be writing them and there is an overabundance. But it was an interesting phenomenon that probably was predicated on the uncertainty of the future. The Giver became part of the curriculum at a lot of schools, so it prompted a lot of discussion about the future and the ways in which the future could be affected by [young people] as they grow older. So that’s probably part of the reason, and a valid one, why it’s been such a popular genre. I just wish at this point that we could come up with some new something, and I’m sure that will happen.
I agree. Part of what is interesting to me about The Giver is that like your memoir, Looking Back, it’s about memory. Memory is something that you’ve looked at from many angles. Can you talk about why it’s so significant to you?
I’m not sure why that’s true for me, but it’s always been a subject that’s of interest to me. There are two things that interest me for the same reason: One is memory and the other is dreams. The reason I’m so fascinated by those two ideas or themes is because they are the only two things that are completely individual. Nobody else has your memories, and nobody else has the same dreams you do. I look back to a book that I wrote—I think it was published in 1980—called Autumn Street, which was one of two autobiographical books. In that book, there’s a scene in which the child telling the story, who is me, is in the bedroom. There are two beds and her sister, who is older, the same as my sister, is in the bed beside her, and the two of them are talking. At one point she realizes that her sister has fallen asleep. And it says right there in that book, “Suddenly I knew that her dreams would always be different than mine.” My spouse equivalent, the man I live with, is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, and of course he’s fascinated by dreams, but also at a certain age, a child begins to differentiate itself, begins to understand that he or she is individual. That’s what that particular sentence represented, but it did so by saying that her dreams would always be different from mine. At any rate, that’s one of the reasons that I have explored this in a number of books. Another one is a book called Gossamer, which focuses on dreams and memories.
I have among my many grandchildren two sets of twins, and one set is identical twin girls. My brother has twin granddaughters as well. Thinking about twins, I’m aware too that their memories are different. They grow up exactly alike, sometimes dressed in the same clothes. They are in the exact same family and have the same place in that family according to their age, and yet their memories are not the same even of incidents or things they shared—a birthday party for example. They remember it differently. So that’s something that interests me, how people form these individual lasting memories. That is one of the reasons why I dealt with that in several books, and certainly in The Giver.