I read Lois Lowry’s The Giver the year it came out. Jonas, the “Receiver of Memory,” was 12 years old, and so was I. I loved the book, though the details of what I loved about it have faded from my memory over the last two decades. When the Huffington Post asked whether Lowry has ever considered writing fiction for adults, a deviation J.K. Rowling attempted in A Casual Vacancy with mixed success, Lowry replied:
Early on I came to realize something, and it came from the mail I received from kids. That is, kids at that pivotal age, 12, 13 or 14, they’re still deeply affected by what they read, some are changed by what they read, books can change the way they feel about the world in general. I don’t think thats true of adults as much. I’m an adult, I read, I’m no longer going to be changed by it. I think writing for kids is profoundly important. (emphasis added)
I agree that writing for kids is profoundly important. The degree to which The Giver changed the way I thought about the world at the age of 12, I cannot say specifically, but I do believe that each and every book I read at the time added to my growing world view in some way. These books introduced me to words, concepts, and lessons that I continue to carry with me today. Given the impact literature can have on the impressionable adolescent, I hold literature aimed at them to a high standard. Ideally, a children’s book would have a worthwhile message, one that isn’t steeped in stereotypes and narrow-mindedness (not that I would support banning if a book does not meet this standard).
One of the books that I remember changing my view of the world is Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, a nonfiction book (sometimes called narrative or creative nonfiction) which I read when I was 20-years-old, when I was admittedly not an adolescent, but was still far more impressionable than I am today. It was required reading in an Asian American history class I took in college.
Fadiman’s book focuses on the heartbreaking case of Lia Lee, a Hmong-American child with epilepsy, which, according to her parents happened when “the spirit catches you and you fall down.” It explores the conflict between Lee’s family and the Western medical and social services systems in Merced County, California in the 1980s. While some of the minor specifics of the story seem dated, such as the fact that the subsequent passage of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) has probably changed the way the medical community may communicate with the Hmong hierarchy beyond the patient, the story is a timeless, balanced example of the tragic consequences of cultural misunderstanding.
It was an eye-opening book for me, even though I was not a young child nor was I from a sheltered, homogenous background. In fact, I was well aware of cultural differences with a Muslim mother from Sri Lanka and an American father of Irish, Sioux, and Basque ancestry who raised me and my two sisters in a predominantly Jewish community on the outskirts of a minority-majority large city. Still, Fadiman’s book encouraged me to think more deeply about ideas that had already been percolating in my mind.
A decade later, I am a public interest lawyer who works on behalf of people with backgrounds different from my own, and now that I have children who have had lengthy hospital stays, I relate to this book a little differently from the way I did when I was 20, still in college, and childless. My sympathy for the Hmong parents versus the Western doctors (and their degree of culpability) has changed over the years, but the book’s lessons of cultural sensitivity and personal autonomy are no less important. This book has affected the way I live my life, the way I practice law, and the way I raise my children.
Now I’m wondering when the next book will affect me as much as Fadiman’s book did. Research tends to support Lowry’s observation that adults tend to be less adaptable than children and younger adults. As a busy mother and lawyer without much free time, I prefer escapist, fun books that have more entertainment value than life-changing potential, but I am hopeful that there may be at least a handful of books out there that will encourage me to change my world view to some extent. I don’t think I’m set in my ways just yet. To think otherwise would make me feel old.