A sold-out crowd filled the Carnegie Lecture Hall in Oakland on a recent Sunday afternoon, as middle schoolers, high schoolers, parents and even some adults sans children came to hear acclaimed author Lois Lowry speak in a program held by the Pittsburgh Arts & Lecture Series.
A reception worthy of a rock star was bestowed upon Lowry, who is, in a way, a rock star in the young-adult literary community.
Lowry has written approximately 45 books for children and young adults and is still going strong at 78 years old.
“I was fortunate to grow up in a household that valued books,” she told the audience. Lowry said that her mother read “The Yearling” to her; she calls it the book that changed her life.
Two of her most well-known books are “Number the Stars” and “The Giver,” both of which won the prestigious Newbery Medal, awarded for distinguished contribution to American literature for children. Just last year, “The Giver” was made into a movie starring Jeff Bridges; Pittsburgh native, Michael Mitnick, co-wrote the screenplay.
Besides the Newbery, “Number the Stars” also received the National Jewish Book award in 1990. The book centers around the Danish Resistance and chronicles the intersecting lives of two Danish families, one Jewish and one not, during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. Lowry, who is not Jewish, told the audience that she took the now iconic photo of the blonde girl whose likeness adorns the cover of that equally iconic novel.
The event was co-sponsored by the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. “These books are important for the community; they are part of the Holocaust canon,” said executive director Lauren Bairnsfather. “If you’re studying the Holocaust in middle school, you read these books.”
True to her storytelling roots, Lowry regaled the audience with tales of her upbringing, such as the time she put a dead rodent in the oven to try to “warm him up” and forgetting about it until her mother went to bake something.
Lowry supplemented her stories with a slideshow of photos from her early life to the present day.
Lowry was born in Hawaii, a daughter of a military man who served as the dentist to Gen. Douglas MacArthur. She’s lived in Governor’s Island, N.Y., Carlisle, Pa., and Japan; she now resides in Maine near her children and grandchildren.
During the lecture, Lowry related her inspirations for her body of work. For example, “Autumn Street” was an autobiographical novel inspired by her reaction to the attack on Pearl Harbor when she was just a child; her family left Hawaii just before the incident.
Her fascination with presidents’ children began when her father was the dentist for the entire Nixon family; she had Amy Carter in mind when she wrote the “Anastasia” series. And she started “Bless This Mouse” after finding, and releasing, a mouse in her house.
Lowry has known tragedy in her life — she alluded to losing a husband, a son and a sister. “A Summer to Die,” her first book for young people, was borne out of the loss of her beloved sister.
Lowry also shared with the audience some amusing emails she has received from readers; in particular, one reader challenged the appropriateness of the content of her book series, “Anastasia.” Lowry, who has been outspoken against censorship, responded, “I think kids should know about everything, and reading is a great way to learn.”
Regardless of the audience or the specific subject matter, Lowry’s books focus on the human connection; perhaps that explains why, for example, “Number the Stars” is hugely popular not just with Jewish readers, but also with readers of all backgrounds and ages.
Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.