I haven’t checked in my OED (it’s just too hard for someone my age, even with the magnifying glass) but I think the word “prequel” is a fairly recent invention. Sequel: that’s a word we all know. Sequels have been around a long time; I’ve even written several, over the years.
But suddenly I’m hearing the word “prequel” from readers.
In 1993, I wrote a book called The Giver which was intended for a young audience, for readers maybe 10-14 years old. Its almost immediate success (it was awarded the 1994 Newbery Medal, and has sold millions of copies now, in thirty-some languages) took me by surprise. Set in the somewhat distant future, it depicted a world that had gone awry and become devoid of empathy or compassion, a world in which individual human lives had little value. I had thought of it as a fairly straightforward adventure story.
But young people didn’t read it quickly and move on to the next thing, the way they often do. They found something in the book that resonated at the same time that it puzzled them. How had that happened? they asked me—first in letters, now in emails. What went wrong? How can we keep this from happening?
I’ve given them simplistic answers. Verbal shrugs. It would have been gradual, I told them. It would have involved small compromises.
In order to be safe . . . we’ll give up this small freedom.
In order to be comfortable . . . we’ll sacrifice this.
I thought that perhaps the book might be a teaching vehicle, a cautionary tale. Choices are important, I told kids. You will be the ones to vote, in the future. Be aware of what you’re voting for—or against. Weigh the choices. Consider the implications, the compromises. Don’t be silenced. Don’t let your humanity be nibbled away.
Open your eyes, I told them, the way Jonas, the 12-year-old protagonist, does in the story. Become aware.
In his own dwelling, there were the necessary reference volumes that each household contained: a dictionary, and the thick community volume which contained descriptions of every office, factory, building, and committee. And the Book of Rules, of course.
The books in his own dwelling were the only books that Jonas had ever seen. He had never known that other books existed.
The boy lives in a world with no literature, no history. How did this happen? readers asked me.
In April 2020, a school board in an Alaskan borough voted to remove five classic books from the school curriculum. Inappropriate content, they said.
Dear Reader: That’s how.
The boy in the book discovers, suddenly, that the solemn ceremony—a toast, an anthem, a goodbye speech—celebrating the elderly before they are taken though a special door of the Releasing Room is a disguise for something more sinister:
Jonas stared at him. “Release is always like that? For people who break the rules three times? For the Old? Do they kill the Old, too?”
Young readers asked me: Don’t they care? When did they stop caring? How could they . . . ?
Recently our president, despite the prediction by scientists that many more people, thousands of them, mostly elderly, will die in the coming months as a result, urged that restrictions intended to mitigate the pandemic be lifted quickly. On March 9, he said in a tweet:
So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on.
Dear Reader: That’s how.
There are no newspapers in the fictional world of The Giver. No television, no radio. Readers asked me: How do they find out stuff? How do they know what’s going on?
On October 29, 2018, Donald Trump tweeted:
There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news. The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open & obvious hostility & report the news accurately & fairly. That will do much to put out the flame of Anger and Outrage and we will then be able to bring all sides together in Peace and Harmony. Fake News Must End!
The short answer, Dear Reader, is: they don’t. Somehow the free press, the exchange of ideas, the dispersal of information—all of that was gradually gnawed away.
Would you please write a prequel to The Giver so we could find out how all that happened?
Dear Reader: guess what. You don’t need a prequel. You’re living in one.