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What do we know of the world, as children? We trust what we are shown, what we are told, the words and voices and stories we hear. The magic of middle grade fiction is that it introduces us to protagonists on the very edge of discovering that the worlds they have always known are, somehow, unsteady. There is upheaval, crisis, and finally resolution—and along the way, a hero is made.
Lois Lowry’s The Giver introduced us to Jonas, a boy living in an isolated utopian community. In Jonas’s world, the powers-that-be have established Sameness, a system by which no one experiences color or emotion or anything different than anyone else. Individuality is absent, except for the one citizen selected as the Receiver of Memory, who possesses the past on behalf of the whole society.
Jonas is chosen to be the next Receiver, and in learning about the true past of his people, he is liberated but also set apart. For the first time, he is individual . . . and it unnerves him. But it also allows him to see that his utopia is a false one. He is able to formulate a plan to open the eyes of his community with the help of his mentor, the current Receiver of Memory who asks Jonas to call him “The Giver.”
Giving and receiving—two sides of the same coin and the essential ingredients for connection.
Like Jonas, Meg McKinlay’s Jena lives in an isolated village managed by elders. But in Jena’s case, all of the elders are women, known as the Mothers. Girls are highly valued in the village, especially those who are born small. They are tightly bound with wrappings in infancy and childhood and trained to navigate the narrow tunnels in the sacred mountain. Girls are dispatched in teams of seven to retrieve mica, which the villagers use for light and fuel. Sometimes, a girl must be left behind. The mountain makes it so, and the villagers obey the mountain.
Jena, too, is chosen. She leads other girls into the mountain, and she is rewarded for her work. But then she discovers that the Mothers have secrets, that the mountain is not the only powerful force shaping her life. Like Jonas, Jena slowly develops the perspective to see the truth of her circumstances and the courage to make her own way.
Both novels depict hard-won individuality, acknowledging the boundaries of the worlds we believe in as children and the new worlds we make as we grow up.