Q&A with Lois Lowry: author of THE GIVER and NUMBER THE STARS

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Melissa Seymour: Hello, Lois! Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.

Lois Lowry: I am a writer who does primarily books for young adults and middle-grade kids. It is my full-time job. I started doing this when my own children were teenagers.  Now, many years later, they are grown…and I have a 30-year-old grandson.  So I have been at this for a lot of years. My first book was published in 1977.

MS: Why is it so important for children to read? Did you read a lot as a child?

LL: Yes, I loved reading, as a child. In those days we had no TV!  Books, for me, were a primary pastime. It’s harder now for kids, with so many choices of how to amuse themselves, how to learn, how to spend time, to focus on books the way I did.  But I do think it’s important that kids read in order to develop their own imagination and creativity.

MS: You create very realistic characters… What’s your process for character development?  

LL: I don’t have any formal process. Characters appear, almost fully formed, in my imagination; and they continue to develop as I write the story.

MS: Your female protagonists are strong characters and great role models for girls. Is this intentional? Do you feel it’s important for children to have strong female role models?

LL: The fact that I am female accounts for the fact that most of my books…not all…have female protagonists. The fact that they are “strong characters” is because such it is necessary to the story always. The protagonist is the one who makes choices, who faces obstacles, who battles through to achieve a goal.  Male or female, that character has to be a strong one to engage the interest and empathy of the reader.

MS: Do you agree with the statement “Girls will read books with female and male protagonists but boys will only read books with male protagonists”?

LL: No, I don’t.  One of my books, NUMBER THE STARS, is very popular with boys, though the two main protagonists are both girls.  It may be a bit of a leap for a boy to pick up such a book…and it has a picture of a girl on the cover….but the important element for a reader of either gender is a compelling story.

MS: Was there ever a time in your writing career when you weren’t taken seriously?

LL: Probably when I was a housewife and the mother of four young children…and trying to write….very few people took my aspirations seriously. The important thing is that I did, always.

MS: How much time do you put into world building before you write a novel? How long did it take you to create your world in The Giver?

LL: Not much.  It builds as I write it…and as I go back and rewrite it.  The rewriting and revision is the important element. I discover the world as it creates itself. Then, as I begin to know it, I can go back and flesh it out.

MS: Who is your hero/heroine?

LL: Stuart Little. I love his indomitable optimism.

MS: What advice do you have for women aspiring to be authors, directors, producers or artists? 

LL: My advice would be to take oneself seriously and to focus on the craft. Not to think about achievement or success but rather the work itself, the joy one can take in it….and the joy one can give to others.

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Q&A with Dr. Meenakshi Gigi Durham: Author of the Lolita Effect

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Melissa Seymour: Hello, Dr. Meenakshi Gigi Durham! Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.

Dr. Meenakshi Gigi Durham: I’m a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Iowa; my research specialization is feminist media studies, and I study and write about representations of gender and sexuality in the media.

MS: Why did you write the Lolita Effect? When did you become aware of these problems? Was there a specific moment?

MGD: I wrote the book for a few reasons: to draw attention to the issue of the sexualization of young girls in the media and the social repercussions of that phenomenon; to make a distinction between “sexualization” and more progressive, open, healthy conceptions of girls’ sexuality; and to translate my research and that of other feminist scholars into a form that was accessible and available to general audiences. I’m not sure I can identify a key moment when I became aware of the issue – it developed gradually, especially during the mid-1990s, when a number of studies were recognizing some of the complications and problems associated with girls’ adolescence in American culture. I began to wonder how the media were implicated in these problems.

MS: What’s the most important thing a parent can explain to their children about the media?

MGD: First of all, that the media, especially the entertainment media, are filled with myths — media images and messages are not “reality” but constructions that seem real, so they should be recognized as something close to fiction; and second, that these constructions of reality are tied to profit motives, so the representations are designed to maximize advertising revenues for the media industries and are not at all in the best interests of the audience members.

MS: Do you think that the media is changing? For better or for worse?

MGD: I can’t say I see any great changes, as the underlying structures — the dependence on advertising, the commercial motivations, the circulation of myths of femininity and sexuality — have stayed the same for decades now. But if anything, it’s getting worse: the media industries are targeting younger and younger children with sexualized and retrograde messages, and the constructions of “ideal” femininity have become even more unattainable and narrowly defined.

MS: Should we try to censor children from the media? Is this possible?

MGD: I’m absolutely not an advocate of censorship. I am much more in favor of open public discussions of important issues that could lead to pro-social change. But some form of regulation might be helpful; this is the case in Scandinavian countries, which are havens for free speech but which also recognize the developmental differences between children and adults.

MS: What are you planning to work on in the future?

MGD: I’m currently writing a couple of academic articles about sexual violence against women and girls. After that, I’m hoping to begin work on a book of essays about media and contemporary girlhood.

MS: How can people take action and try to change the media or advertisements?

MGD: Expressing your views directly to media corporations can be effective. Monitoring your media environment, as well as your child’s, to try to avoid misogynist and harmful media content is another step you can take. Boycotting products that use sexist advertising, and publicizing the boycott, is a good way to challenge sexism in popular culture. I’m also an advocate of media literacy programs that help people develop analytical skills so that they can be active media consumers rather than passive audiences.  I think media literacy should be part of every K-12 curriculum: in today’s media-saturated environment, it’s as important as reading, writing and arithmetic.

MS: Who is your hero/heroine?

MGD: That’s a really hard one! There are so many amazing women — and men — whose activism and brilliant social critiques have changed the world. If I started listing them, it would take all day! But my work is indebted to the work of all the feminists who have gone before me.

MS: Do you have any advice for young women that are hoping to become writers, directors, producers or activists?

MGD: I’d say, let your passion guide and inspire you, and find ways to combine your energy and emotion with articulate analysis. Forge strong bonds with others who are working to change the world — coalitions and networks are important, not only in terms of making a difference, but in terms of emotional and moral support. Read the work of feminist activists whose insights offer depths of understanding as we try to tackle the world’s problems; the brilliance of our feminist foremothers will enrich your own work.  Get involved with grassroots groups in your communities, and start creating the work through which you want to share your vision: short films, essays, plays, dance performances, whatever. These days you can post your videos to Youtube or blog or submit your writing to local literary journals; eventually, you will gain a wider audience. Above all, keep striving for change — there’s so much to be done!

photo credit: Overlook Press