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Lois Lowry | Biography

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Fans of Lois Lowry's writing are often surprised to find that the author did not publish her first novel until she was 40. The urge to write, though, began when she was a child, "endlessly scribbled stories and poems in notebooks," as Lowry puts it. By age eight or nine, she was certain she wanted to be a professional writer, but achieving that goal would take nearly 30 years.

Writer in Waiting

Lowry was born on March 20, 1937, in Honolulu, Hawaii, to Robert E. Hammersberg, a U.S. Army dentist, and Katherine Landis Hammersberg. Lowry was one of three children. Her sister, Helen, was three years older, and her brother, Jon, was six years younger. She said this left her firmly "in-between and exactly where I wanted most to be: on my own."

During World War II when her father was called to serve overseas, the family moved to a small town in Pennsylvania to stay with Lowry's grandparents. When Lowry began attending school there, she found there was no school library and that reading for pleasure was unheard of. Luckily, Lowry had been born into a family that valued books, and her mother read to her often. Best of all, the town library was only a short walk from her home, and Lowry says she lost herself for hours at a time in the world of books and her own vivid imagination.

After the end of the war, in 1948, Lowry's father moved the entire family moved to Tokyo, Japan. There, Lowry attended a special school for expatriates and military families. Although she has fond memories of her time in Japan, she felt stifled by the school's rigid curriculum, which did not encourage any type of creativity. Luckily the family moved again, finally settling in New York where Lowry finished high school. She then attended Brown University but dropped out after two years to marry Donald Grey Lowry, a naval officer. She moved with him to San Diego and then to other locations around the country. The couple eventually had two sons and two daughters and settled for a time in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Don attended law school. Afterward, they moved to Portland, Maine.

The Artist Emerges

"My children grew up in Maine," Lowry said. "So did I." She returned to college at the University of Southern Maine and got her degree in English Literature. She then went on to graduate school, where she also discovered a passion for photography. While still in school she finally began writing in earnest as a freelance journalist, often taking photographs to accompany her articles. During that period she submitted a short story to Redbook Magazine. The story, which was meant for adults but told from a child's perspective, attracted the notice of an editor at educational publisher Houghton Mifflin. The editor suggested that Lowry write a children's book, and she agreed. A Summer to Die, loosely based on the loss of her older sister Helen to cancer, was published in 1977. Her marriage to Donald Lowry also ended at about the same time.

From that point on, Lowry began a career as a writer for children and young adults, eventually publishing more than 40 books. Unlike many other young adult authors, Lowry explored several different genres in her fiction, including realistic fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, and autobiography. More importantly, she did not shy away from the darker experiences of life. In 1980 she published her most autobiographical work, Autumn Street. The main character, whose father is away at war, deals with racism, her grandfather's stroke, and the murder of a close friend. All these events paralleled things that happened in Lowry's own life. Both she and her protagonist survived the ordeals with the love and support of their families.

Lowry's exploration of challenging subject matter continued in other novels. In 1989 she published Number the Stars, which explores Nazi Germany's invasion of Denmark during World War II. The protagonist, a girl named Annemarie Johansen, is friends with a Jewish girl, Ellen. When Jews begin to be rounded up for deportation, Annemarie and her family help hide Ellen from the Nazis. The novel won the 1990 Newbery Medal (a literary award given by the Association for Library Service to Children).

One of her best-known novels, The Giver, was published in 1993. It explores a dystopian future where people's lives are also closely controlled, in this case by a community of "Elders." It was, and still is, considered highly controversial because of its adult themes, exploration of suicide and euthanasia, and subtle sexual content. Since its publication, it has been one of the country's most frequently challenged or banned books. Despite this, it won the 1994 Newbery Medal. Even more noteworthy, Lowry was awarded the American Library Association's Margaret A. Edwards Award, which recognizes one writer and a particular body of work for "significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature." Lowry won the annual award in 2007, with the award citing only The Giver.

Continued Popularity

Lowry says that although her books vary in content and style, they "all ... deal, essentially, with the same general themes: the importance of human connection" and the "vital need of people to be aware of their interdependence" with each other and their environment.

Lowry's risk-taking in her writing may have elevated the importance of her work. Long before series such as the Hunger Games trilogy or the Divergent series, Lowry had realized that she could and should challenge her young readers with concepts as troubling as racism, suicide, terminal illness, genocide, and euthanasia. In the process, though, she also teaches young people how to think critically about those concepts and cope with the emotions and pain they cause. Her work has brought her praise, criticism, and outright condemnation. But it has also encouraged people around the world to remember their past, challenge what they believe to be true, and find strength in the support of those around them.

Lowry, too, has dealt with tragedy: the death of her sister and the loss of her oldest son, Grey, a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force who was killed in a plane crash. These challenges have only reinforced her belief about the importance of connecting with others. As she puts it, "I try, through writing, to convey my passionate awareness that we live intertwined on this planet and that our future depends upon our caring more, and doing more, for one another."

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