The Newbery Medal is often considered a seal of approval. Adults see a book with the gold, embossed sticker and buy it for their children with confidence, as if it were the toaster top-rated by Consumer Reports.
Nothing wrong with that. Many of the Newbery winners -- voted that year's best children's book, by the American Library Association -- do go on to become classics. I think the same will be true of "The Giver" by Lois Lowry, this year's winner.
But "The Giver" (Houghton Mifflin, $13.95, 208 pages, ages 12-14) isn't for everyone. Ms. Lowry weaves together several levels of meaning, and some of her subtleties might be lost on 12-year-olds. The ending is as ambiguous as they get, and even a mature 14-year-old might be frustrated by the questions he or she is left with.
OK, the disclaimer is out of the way. Reading "The Giver," I kept thinking how much I would've treasured it as an adolescent. It's the perfect fit for a rebel, ridiculing conformity and exposing the dirty little secrets that hide beneath society's veneer.
It's a science-fiction novel, set sometime in the future. At first it seems that Jonas, 11, and his family live in Utopia. They are the perfect nuclear unit: a caring mother and father, a boy and a girl. Each night, after dinner, they openly discuss their joys or frustrations of the day, and at breakfast they talk about their dreams. They have to -- it's in the Rules.
Their community doesn't know crime or poverty or prejudice or zTC teen-age pregnancy. But readers soon learn the price paid for such security. When Jonas turns 12, he and all the children born within that year go through a ceremony in which they are assigned to their life's duty.
The Elders pick strong, some what lazy girls to be Birthmothers. Boys and girls with an aptitude for taking care of kids become Nurturers. Infants are taken away at birth and placed in the care of Nurturers until they are assigned to their family unit.
The Elders also match spouses. They spend plenty of time observing before making all these assignments, and it seems to work. No one complains. No one has ever known freedom, so no one misses it.
Jonas watches as his friends receive assignments well-suited to them. But he is shocked when he is chosen to be the new Receiver of Memory, the most important position in the community. Then he learns what it means: He must absorb all of the memories that his people have wiped from their consciousness.
Day after day the old Receiver, whom Jonas calls the Giver, transmits the memories to Jonas. He becomes a storehouse of all the things that might upset the order of society: love, hate, pain, hunger and even beauty. He sees colors for the first time.
It isn't long before Jonas can't stand the sanitized lie his people are living.
He learns what happens when old people and imperfect infants are given their "release." Instead of happily moving to another community, as he had been led to believe, they are euthanized.
Jonas and the Giver hatch a plot to give the people back their messy emotions and morality. Jonas escapes, taking with him a baby who is targeted for "release."
As they journey farther from the community, Jonas and the baby move closer to death. The final, gripping chapter leaves readers to draw their own conclusions. Maybe Jonas finds a place where love still exists. Maybe it's a hallucination.
Folks who like their endings neat and tidy will be uncomfortable, but this is supposed to be an unsettling book. That's what makes it so good.
* Next week is National Library Week, and to celebrate, the Enoch Pratt Free Library is kicking off a program called "Read Between the Lines," described as a creative approach to get urban children turned on to interpreting poetry and fiction.
The program, which will begin at 2 p.m. Monday at the Pratt Central Children's Department, was created by Baltimore poet and essayist Bonni Goldberg. She combines an exhibit and storytelling with a chance for kids to write. The public is invited, and there will be another presentation at 10 a.m. April 23. For information, call (410) 396-5494.
* Signing sightings: Junior Editions at Columbia Mall is holding several presentations by authors in coming weeks. On April 22, Marjorie Priceman will introduce her new book, "How To Make an Apple Pie," from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., and dessert will be included.
On May 14, Jerdine Nolan of Lochearn will read and sign her new book, "Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm," from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. On June 10, artist Jerry Pinkney and his wife, author Gloria Pinkney, will sign "The Sunday Outing," a sequel to last year's hit, "Back Home," from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.