Jonas, the protagonist of Lois Lowry's Newbery Medal-winning The Giver, seems to be an average 11-year-old, perhaps slightly more thoughtful than some of his age-mates. He is apprehensive about the upcoming Ceremony of Twelve, in which he and all the other Elevens will receive their Assignments; the Assignments determine the careers they will be trained for and fulfill in the highly structured society in which they live. Jonas's father is a Nurturer, who cares for newchildren before they are named and assigned to families in December of the year in which they are born. His mother holds a position in the Department of Justice. Assignments can include anything from birthmother to laborer to instructor to rehabilitation worker.
When Jonas hears his Assignment, it is clear he was right to be apprehensive. He will be the community's new Receiver of Memory, an assignment that the Chief Elder announces will cause him indescribable physical pain. Indeed, the last selection of a new Receiver failed and the person selected was "released." As Jonas starts his training with the current Receiver (who says that Jonas can call him The Giver), we begin to realize fully how constrained life is in this community. The Giver first passes on to Jonas the memory of color--other members of the community have no perception of color. Similarly, he introduces Jonas to snow and sunshine, weather phenomena that have been eliminated for a gray sameness in the weather, and to love, a feeling that has also been eliminated. While these memories are pleasant, many others are excruciatingly difficult--memories of starvation, broken limbs, war, and other forms of destruction. Jonas must have these memories, The Giver tells him, so that he will have the wisdom needed to advise the Council of Elders when they consider changes in the elaborate set of rules that govern the community.
The difficulty of his training makes Jonas resentful of his friends who are blithely living "ordinary lives." Even his family cannot understand what he is going through. Providing some comfort is the newchild Gabe, whom his father has been bringing home every night because Gabe is not progressing well and is disturbing the nighttime Nurturers. Jonas is able to soothe Gabe by sharing some brief pleasant memories. Matters come to a head when Jonas learns what "release" actually means--witnessing his father taking part in the release of a twin (only one twin can be welcomed into the community). His concern that Gabe will be released and The Giver's concern for the future of the larger community cause them to formulate a plan.
As a science fiction reader, I'm operating at about a 12-year-old level, so intellectually speaking I am the "young adult" target audience for Lois Lowry's thought-provoking work. As a civic educator, I think The Giver is a powerful teaching tool for examining the conflicts among values that society's must face: rule of law and order/security versus liberty and justice, for example. I am looking forward to seeing the stage version of The Giver when the Denver Center presents it this fall (for more information, see:http://www.denvercenter.org/buy-tickets/shows/the-giver/about.aspx).
Of course they needed to care. It was the meaning of everything.