When Lois Lowry published "The Giver" in 1993, she had no inkling that she was sparking a new literary trend.
Today, "The Giver" is widely regarded as the first young-adult "dystopian" novel -- a novel that takes the idea of a utopia and turns it into a nightmare world of totalitarian societies where most people have no real identity or humanity. It's now a hugely popular genre with teens and adults, who have put books such as "The Hunger Games" on the best-seller list.
Meanwhile, Ms. Lowry also had no clue that she would eventually go on to write three more books in what has now become "The Giver" quartet. The fourth -- and latest -- of those books, "Son" (Houghton Mifflin, $17.99, ages 12 up), has just been published, weaving story strands from the previous three books into a gripping and satisfying conclusion.
In a recent interview, Ms. Lowry said that, as far as she is concerned, "Son" will be the final book set in the dystopian world she first created in "The Giver." In 1994, "The Giver" won the Newbery Medal, given annually by the American Library Association to the best written novel for children. It was Ms. Lowry's second Newbery Medal; she won the 1990 Newbery for "Number the Stars."
Now that "Son" is written, "I don't see anywhere to go from here," she said. "Yet I know that I'll get emails from people who want me to write more."
In fact, that's how Ms. Lowry went on to write three books after publishing "The Giver," which has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. Many readers, particularly kids and teens, were dissatisfied -- even distressed -- with the ending and wanted to know what happened next.
"I wouldn't write something just because kids wanted me to," Ms. Lowry said. "But I think that the fact people so often wrote and asked about what happened next must have planted that thought in my own mind."
Several years after publishing "The Giver," Ms. Lowry wrote another dystopian novel, "Gathering Blue," which was published in 2000.
"It was only towards the end of that book that I suddenly realized I could tie the two ["Gathering Blue" and "The Giver"] together. I didn't set out to do that," she said.
That led, four years later, to "Messenger," a third book set in the same world, "which collected characters from the first two books," Ms. Lowry said, adding: " 'Trilogy' has a nice ring to it. I really thought that was the end of it," she laughed.
But Ms. Lowry, now 75, continued to receive emails and letters from readers who still wanted to know more about what happened to the baby saved from certain death at the end of "The Giver."
"I would send out a form letter, telling them to read page 17 of 'Messenger,' which mentions Gabriel [the baby saved at the end of 'The Giver'] at age 8 -- he's fine," Ms. Lowry said.
Once again, however, the huge interest by readers in Gabriel's fate made her wonder if she should write his story. Thus, "Son" was born.
"I started writing a book about him as an adolescent. I had him raising the questions about his own past, and I think that caused me to ask the same questions," she said.
Writing about Gabriel meant writing about his parents, and so Ms. Lowry created a character named Claire, who at age 14 gives birth to the child who eventually is named Gabriel. There's no man in her life; Claire had been artificially inseminated as part of her job as a "birth mother" in the dystopian world in which she lives. But things go wrong at Gabriel's birth, and Claire has an emergency cesarean section. She is then dismissed from her job as a birth mother and reassigned to work at the fish hatchery.
Somehow, officials forget about giving Claire the daily pills that everyone else receives to ensure that they have no deep emotions. Without the pills, Claire begins to long for the child to whom she has given birth, and, through a lucky break, she is allowed to work with him as a volunteer at the nursery in her spare time.
When Jonas, the son of a nursery worker, flees with Gabriel to spare him from death, Claire is bereft. She tries to follow Jonas and Gabriel, spending years trying to reconnect with them. Claire eventually makes a heart-wrenching, desperate bargain with the evil Trademaster just to see her son again.
While Ms. Lowry had planned to focus on Gabriel and his life in "Son," she found Claire such a compelling character that much of the book is about her and her struggle to be with her son.
"I don't plot my books in advance, and this came as a surprise to me," she said. "I think that the book is essentially about the bond between a mother and son and what a mother sacrifices to regain her son.
"I think this probably grew out of the fact that I lost my son a few years ago -- different circumstances, but that pervasive feeling of loss stays with me."
Going back to the colorless, emotionless world of "The Giver" to write about Claire at the beginning of "Son" was a challenge, she added.
"I realized how boring that world was. ... So I was glad to get out of it when Claire did."
Interestingly, Ms. Lowry isn't a fan of dystopian fiction, but she understands why young readers, in particular, find it enthralling, given the challenges of the world in which they live.
"My books ... present to young readers the possibility of a young person saving the world," Ms. Lowry said.
Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.