The Books That Rock the Cradle: Libertarian Themes in Children's Fiction

By Anderson, Stuart | Reason, January 2006 | Go to article overview

The Books That Rock the Cradle: Libertarian Themes in Children's Fiction


Anderson, Stuart, Reason


YOU ARE 12 YEARS OLD, and you're watching your father cradle an infant in his arms. He works for a special branch of the government tasked with population control and ensuring the health of those deemed "normal" He weighs the infant on a scale, then places the baby on a blanket. As you watch, he fills a needle with a clear liquid, then plunges the syringe into the baby's skull. The newborn squirms, wails faintly, and dies. You have just watched your father commit murder in the name of controlling the size and quality of the population. What would you do?

The scenario comes from Lois Lowry's 1993 novel The Giver, which won the prestigious Newberry Medal for children's fiction. If it doesn't strike you as the usual children's fare, you're right.

Many people perceive children's books as the most politically correct genre in all publishing. Look through the kids' section in your local bookstore, and you'll see aisle upon aisle of vanilla. These days, celebrities like Madonna and Jay Leno produce anodyne children's books carefully manufactured to contain nothing offensive to anyone. Although books for older readers will tackle serious issues, these will usually be "safe" themes--say, combating prejudice.

But not every book for young readers fits those stereotypes. During the last 12 years, two popular, critically acclaimed authors have written series that combine the familiar themes of rebellion and coming of age with some of the most subversive story lines seen in juvenile fiction. The novels of Lois Lowry, 68, and Margaret Peterson Haddix, 41, are thoroughly skeptical of the idea that the state should be an all-powerful benefactor. They have gained a large and loyal following, striking a receptive chord in a market not normally associated with anti-government themes.

The Giver tells of a futuristic society where the government directs births, marriages, career choices, food distribution, and more. Women are selected to give birth and their offspring are raised for one year in state-run day care centers. The children are then distributed to families, with each allowed only two kids--one boy and one girl. The Committee of Elders makes all decisions for individuals, who are heavily medicated to manage mood and desire.

A boy named Jonas is selected to train as a privileged adviser to the Committee of Elders, learning to absorb and differentiate good and bad emotions so he can recommend the best course to maintain social control. At one point Jonas, still naive, says, "We really have to protect people from wrong choices." His mentor, The Giver, an adviser to the Elders who has turned into a silent rebel, does not agree, and replies to Jonas with irony, "It's safer." It becomes clear to Jonas that making his own choices about how to live his life is anything but safe. He nevertheless decides to act after witnessing the government brutally wield its power to deal with those who dissent or allegedly impose a burden on society, such as the elderly or underweight infants.

The Giver is taught in many schools, public and private, around the country. The American Library Association ranked it the 11th most frequently challenged book by parents during the 1990S, having been banned for a time by the Bonita Unified School District in Southern California's Inland Empire and elsewhere, despite the fact that the book contains no profanity or explicit sexual references.

Lowry believes The Giver is best used in the seventh or eighth grades, and says some of the complaints have come from parents of younger kids being taught the book. Some of the objections, she says, come from those who are at least subconsciously reacting to the depiction of a boy who, when faced with a set of rules established for seemingly benevolent purposes, rebels and tries to change the rule book. Her rebuttal? That when faced with immoral leadership, "children have the right--and sometimes even the responsibility--to rebel. …

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