Books

How an Extraordinary Coincidence Inspired Lois Lowry’s New Book About World War II

Lois Lowry and the cover of On the Horizon.
Chance Yeh/Getty Images and Amazon.

It’s not the war that haunts Lois Lowry. Though the children’s book author did grow up during World War II, the moment that has stuck with her for the better part of a century happened a few years after the war’s end, when she was riding her bike through the streets of Tokyo. In 1948, Lowry’s family moved from the United States to Japan, where her father was stationed as an Army dentist. Lowry felt foreign and awkward, but on her green bike, her blond hair was barely noticeable as she whizzed past, and she felt braver in her boys high-top sneakers. One day, she stopped outside a schoolyard and watched the children play, locking eyes with a boy around her age. Lowry hesitated. Though she didn’t understand it, the distance between their two cultures seemed too great for them to play together. She got back on her bike and rode away.

Nearly 50 years later, that moment took on new significance. It was 1994, and Lowry, blond hair now graying, was being honored at an event in Miami for her bestselling young adult book The Giver, which won the Newbery Medal. Japanese American illustrator Allen Say had won the equally prestigious Caldecott Medal for his picture book Grandfather’s Journey, and the two winners exchanged copies of their works. Lowry signed The Giver in Japanese for Say. When he asked how she knew the language, they realized that they had lived in Tokyo at the same time. Lowry told Say she used to ride her bike past a school in Shibuya. He paused. “Were you the girl on the green bike?”

Lowry has been preoccupied by her encounter with Say for decades, incorporating the story into her Newbery acceptance speech and revisiting it in her new book, On the Horizon. Written in verse and illustrated by Kenard Pak, the nonfiction tale traces Lowry’s childhood in Honolulu and Tokyo, weaving in vignettes of those involved in the bombings of Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima. The book is largely an exploration of the effects of a war, even a distant one, on a child’s psyche. After decades of writing books about childhood, Lowry, now 83, is turning to the moments from her own youth—like that moment with the boy in the schoolyard—that continue to trouble her.

“When I look back on something that was part of my life as a particular young age, I reexperience it. I refeel it. I can taste it, and smell it, and touch it—all the emotions that I felt at that time, instead of looking at it objectively,” she told Slate from her home in southern Maine, where she now lives in a retirement community with her husband and dog. She’s been waiting out the pandemic watching The Morning Show and old Westerns, and researching her next book, another story set in the past. Sometimes she drives to meet her grandson and talks to him through open car windows, six feet apart. And there are always teachers to respond to, those who still write to her all these years later asking for permission to read The Giver in their now-remote classes. Lowry is curious how they’ll teach a fictional dystopia during a real one.

Lowry has a reputation for writing about difficult subjects for young audiences, drawing on her sister’s early death for her 1977 debut novel A Summer to Die and setting her 1989 breakout Number the Stars against the backdrop of the Holocaust. The Giver follows a young boy who must bear all of the world’s memories—including love, war, and grief—for his society, and it is frequently challenged for scenes that involve euthanasia and suicide. For Lowry, discomfort, even personal discomfort, has long been something to analyze rather than avoid. Shy and a self-described “loner,” Lowry moved around a lot as a child because of her father’s career and struggled to fit in. Years after leaving Brown University to get married, she appeared on Jeopardy! at her children’s urging and traveled from her home in Maine to New York City for the show. As a housewife from out of town, she was intimidated by her competition, an Ivy League professor. “I wondered briefly what ever made me think I wanted to get involved in this madness,” she wrote of the experience in the New York Times. “Mostly it was those darn kids.”

Even before she was a published author, when she worked as a photographer, Lowry prioritized children over adults. She ignored the parents who clucked over their kids’ imperfect hair parts and short attention spans in favor of shooting candid moments, which make for better photographs, she argued. When Lowry finally began publishing books at 40, her writing encouraged children to figure out the stickiness of life for themselves. A 10-year-old once wrote to Lowry that she found Anastasia Krupnik’s crush on her female gym teacher inappropriate for a children’s book. Lowry, pleased with her reader’s engagement and certain that a parent was hovering over her shoulder, wrote back to the girl: “I think kids should know about everything and that reading books is a great way to learn.”

Lowry turned to reading herself to learn about another childhood incident she hasn’t been able to shake. For years, she would watch a home video that captured her at 3 years old playing on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu in 1940. It was not until the 1980s, when she rewatched the video with a friend who was a former nuclear submarine captain, that she realized the USS Arizona, which was destroyed by Japanese torpedo bombers one year later, is in the background. “I was a child playing happily and behind me as it turns out were some 1,100 men, who would very soon all be dead,” Lowry said. “I didn’t know what to do with that information.” She began reading through the biographies of all the men on the USS Arizona, whose stories she incorporated into On the Horizon.

Listen to Lois Lowry read an excerpt from On the Horizon, available on audiobook from Listening Library:

Though she often reads to understand the past, Lowry has long thought of reading as a way to rehearse for the future. She remembers lying in bed with her mother reading The Yearling and crying when the protagonist’s best friend died. “I was preparing myself for losses I would face later in my life, griefs I would undergo,” she said. “You’re not having to experience the terrifying situation, but you are preparing to experience the terrifying situation you’re going to experience down the road. All of us do.” Her most famous book was inspired by a visit to her parents in a nursing home, where her mother kept reliving the death of her daughter, Lowry’s sister, Helen, while her father, who was losing his memory, had forgotten Helen entirely. Which was better? The result was The Giver, a testament to the pain and joy of remembering. A year after its publication, Lowry’s own son died in an Air Force accident.

The rehearsal, Lowry knows, doesn’t always prepare you for the show. When we spoke, Lowry had just written a new introduction for one of her books, Dear America: Like the Willow Tree, which follows a young girl in Portland, Maine, orphaned by the 1918 flu pandemic. Lowry reread the first few chapters, alarmed at her own writing: “The father comes home from work, goes into where baby sister is sleeping in her baby carriage, and he leans down and kisses her and I thought, ‘No, no! Don’t do that! Don’t kiss that baby!’ ” Lowry wishes she had asked her mother, who grew up during the pandemic, what it was like. “I so often wish for a telephone to the afterlife, so I could just call up my parents and say, ‘I forgot to ask you this,’ ” she said.

It would be easy for Lowry to look back on her younger self’s lack of awareness with frustration and regret. Lowry and Say, now friends, potentially lost 50 more years of that friendship because of a culture conflict they both internalized. And she knows there’s certainly room for frustration and regret when you’re a child living through a crisis whose effects will ripple into the future. “I wonder how they’ll look back on it and whom they will blame for it, in the same way my generation looks back at World War II, which was our childhood crisis,” Lowry said of children experiencing the coronavirus pandemic today.

But Lowry isn’t interested in assigning that blame: Children have to figure out for themselves whom to hold accountable, a skill that comes once they learn to see outside of themselves. On the Horizon, above all, recognizes the shared experience of the global crisis that shaped her childhood. Lowry was on Waikiki Beach right before the U.S. entered the war. On the other side of the world, Say watched from a town south of Hiroshima as the bombing ended it. “It has taken many years for me to put these things together, to try to find some meaning in the way lives intersect—or how they fail to,” Lowry writes in On the Horizon’s author’s note. Someday, Lowry’s readers will have to do the same for their own circumstances.