Gathering Blue: Color Woven into a Dark and Grey World

"Take pride in your pain," her mother had always told her. "You are stronger than those who have none."

Lois Lowry. Gathering Blue. New York: Bantam Books, 2000.
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Gathering Blue focuses on Kira, an adolescent who has just been orphaned after the death of her mother. Not only is Kira left without a family and a home, she must also live as somewhat of an outcast because her leg was twisted at birth, leaving her handicapped. In Kira's community, the weak are shunned or left to be killed by the 'beasts' that live outside the village, and once she is alone she must fight to keep her place. Important themes like courage and fear emerge from these early scenes that serve as instructive opportunities. Connecting to the contemporary frontline issue of bullying, Kira is threatened by Vandara, a local girl who tries to capitalize on Kira's disability and hopeless circumstances by stealing her possessions and humiliating her. How does Kira react? How do victims of bullying usually react? Justice seems to prevail when Kira and Vandara find themselves an audience with the village council who will decide their fates. Another teachable moment emerges from Kira's indomitable courage to overcome. But is it strong enough to see her through the impending struggles?

The Guardians, a group of leaders for the people, decide in a trial that Kira's life may be spared if she uses her skills in weaving to become the Robe-threader, a job which requires her to repair a colorful robe for the Singer to wear in a yearly gathering, during which the community's history is presented in song. Jamison, one of the Guardians placed in charge of Kira, gives her the task of mending the Singer's robe, as well as filling in new spaces to depict the future as the Guardians dictate it. While at first sanctuary within the Council Edifice seems to be a blessing for Kira turns out to be a window into world full of dark secrets that the Guardians attempt to keep hidden. At first, Kira enjoys new-found comfort and freedom. However, sometimes material wealth belies corruption beneath the surface. Students will weigh Kira's only chance at a somewhat normal life with a road that she takes to higher moral grounds.

As Kira learns more about the world around her, she comes to realize that life in the community is savage and cruel. Adults beat their children and fight with them over scraps of food, and men butt heads like wild rams, trying to prove their strength. Women are not allowed to be educated. Kira gets a potent taste of life for those who live in the Fen, the slum-like place where her young friend, Matt, grew up. In the midst of these struggles, Kira discovers true friendship with Matt, someone who is, at the same time, so different and alike her. Friendship empowers them to overcome obstacles; friendship can do the same for students in your classroom. She also stumbles upon the dark secrets kept hidden by the Guardians inside the Council Edifice, where a young girl named Jo has been locked away and forced to learn to the Singer's part for the annual Gathering, which is prescribed by the Guardians and which Jo will one day take over. Jo, like Kira, has been enslaved by the Guardians because of her gift.

As Kira unravels the Guardians' lies, she discovers murder and oppression. She also discovers within herself a strength that, paradoxically, arises from her battles with fear and disadvantage--an important lesson to us all.Trials will cause Kira to get bitter, or better. At the end of the novel, she has the choice to abandon her community for the freedom of the outside world, or to stay in order to try and make a change for the better. Kira opts to remain with her friends so that she can create a new, brighter future for her people.
Recommendations for Teachers

Lowry's work is resplendent with symbolism and meaning, particularly about how a dominant group oppresses minorities. In the plot, both the dominant and minority groups unmistakably reveal Native American cultural signatures. The use of non-standard dialects further reinforces social castes in the plot (Matt, in particular). Against the tide of usual stereotypes, the author provides certain ironies and twists to remind the reader that the use of fear tactics, might and propaganda are manipulative threads that run through all subgroups of the human tapestry. Following Reader Response and Socio-cultural theoretical frameworks, we offer the following pedagogical suggestions (inspired by Beach et al. and Bernhard). They appear in sequential order.

Front-Loading Activities (Purpose: to motivate inquiry and link to student's personal beliefs before reading a word of Gathering Blue)
*Employ an in-class survey of opinions on the treatment of Native Americans by the United States. Whether your students have bigoted or sympathetic views, whether or not they can recall the history of Indian subjugation from infectious European diseases, broken treaties, the Indian Appropriations Act of 1871, or the Trail of Tears, this exercise engages students with an uncomfortable topic of oppression close to home. A simple five question, yes/no answer survey will serve as a prompt for the next activity.

Overall , how do you think the United States government has treated Native Americans?
Do you think that tax payers should pay for reservations?Do you think the U.S. government should offer more land to Native Americans?
Do you think it's fair for taxpayers to pay for the college education of bona fide Indians?
Should Native American businesses on tribal land be excluded from federal taxes?

*Think-aloud before reading (activating the background of oppression). Show images of Nazi poster of mentally handicapped, the "mobilization" of ethnic groups during the U.S.S.R., an article on the hanging of a homosexual in an Islamic state, or the compliance of gender roles and dress in an Amish village. Facilitate in-class conversation about forms of oppression that student's have experienced by a church, peer group (Jocks, Geeks, Goths, Band Geeks, Druggies, Overachievers etc.), racial group, or culture. What techniques, overt or covert, were used to make them feel like an outsider?

*Teacher-directed summary of Gathering Blue (post-apocalyptic setting, a justice-seeking plot, the host of characters, the Field of Leaving). During this unit, write vocabulary words on the board, and encourage students to ask for definitions when necessary--this especially helpful for the struggling reader. For example, Day One words: post-apocalyptic, cott, fen, guardian (in the context of this story), talisman, and filch.

*Think-aloud during reading (a Reader Response exercise after the first reading assignment)
What do you expect this book to be about?
What is the meaning of the little patch of cloth in Kira's pocket? Do you have something like this and what does it mean to you?
What is Kira's particular giftedness? Can you relate to this?
What's the connection between Kira's skill and the Robe? Can you empathize with someone using you for your talents, abilities or work? Do you feel exploited? What does exploited mean?

*On-line Activity (understanding the broader palette in the text)
Students can choose from the following topics that are suffused throughout the novel. Have them investigate their subject online , then write a brief paragraph on the applications of their research to the novel's undercurrent subjects.

Meaning and the Art of Color or Dyeing
Meaning in the Art Tapestry <>
Meaning and Sculpture or Carving <>
Meaning and Music (beyond lyrics)
Meaning and Power of Dialect (see link below)

Final Project (a Socio-Cultural approach to the novel, through a post-colonial literary lens)
*students can produce an analytical paper, a video, or a video game concept paper on the subject of the many forms of oppression in the story.
*pass out an informational sheet describing the main points of post-colonial theory: control over the victim's ideology and value system, iron-fisted patriarchy, how the disabled are victimized and expunged from society, the exploitation of gifted members of society, otherness (differentness, savagery, or separateness), tribal-centrism, or cultural identity crisis. Reinforce that post-colonial theory is just one way to interpret a work of literature, but one that fits quite well with the main themes of Gathering Blue.
*introduce this project early on in the unit, so that students can analyze as they read.
*suggest a few potential common threads to weave through there project like: how dialect is used to represent class distinction, or, why is blue used as a metaphor in the story?
*mentioned early, Lowry introduces a keen sense of irony in her story. As you have read-alouds and discussions, discuss the fact that this Native American-like society contains both the oppressors and the oppressed, subjects and objects. For those who might be skeptical, one can also compare this to Africa's long history of inter-tribal slavery--i.e. Africans enslaving Africans. This can be a useful tool in developing student's critical thinking skills.

Works Cited

Beach, Richard, Deborah Appleman, Susan Hynds, and Jeffrey Wilhelm. Teaching Literature to Adolescents. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.

Bernhard, Jennifer. "The Quest for "True Understanding" Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry". Lesson Plans.
n.d. Web. 2/24/2012. [[ Unit.pdf.]]

About Lois Lowry

external image 2493.jpgLois Lowry is an American children's author and former freelance journalist. She was born in 1937 in Hawaii. Her father was an Army dentist, so throughout her youth, Lowry traveled the globe whenever her father was reassigned. After World War II, she moved to Japan with her family for three years. Eventually she married Donald Lowry, a U.S. Navy officer. Together, they have four children. After her husband finished his military career, Lowry was able to finish her degree in English Literature and start on the path that led her to writing children's novels. Lowry currently resides in Massachusetts.

Lowry has won the Newberry Medal for two of her books, Number the Stars (1990) and The Giver (1993). Lowry has been known to tackle controversial issues in her writing, most prominently the idea of challenging authority in her The Giver trilogy. She has published over 30 children's books in her life and has also published an autobiography.

Lowry has said that Gathering Blue acts as a companion novel to The Giver and the follow-up novel Messanger. While each book in the trilogy are set in drastically different times, Lowry said on her website that all three novels speak to the same concern: the vital need of people to be aware of their interdependence, not only with each other, but with the world and its environment.

Because of her propensity for writing about difficult issues, many of Lowry's books have been banned from school districts around the country. At the same time, there are many districts which embrace her novels and the lessons they are able to teach children. Along with writing about challenging authority, Lowry has explored the issues of racism, murder, illness, class separation, feminism, and many others in her novels.

Currently, Lowry is working on a new novel that will be part of The Giver series cannon. It is tentatively scheduled to be published in 2012.


This trailer, created by a seventh grade student, is a great example of kind of multimedia project students can put together after reading a book like Gathering Blue. Using images, text, and music, this student created a summary of the book that is interesting and unique. Providing this as an assignment option after reading Gathering Blue gives the students greater flexibility and allows for creative projects. It encourages outside-the-box thinking and does not limit students to the same old book report they are used to. If a camera is available to students, they could even put together a short live-action trailer of the book where they take on the roles from the book and play the characters as the students interpreted them.

Additional Resources:
10-15 links pointing to credible and relevant information about the author, the work, its critical reception, or the teaching of it. You may further categorize these with subheadings. Each link should have a brief tag describing the resource, as in:
Podcast: Gathering Blue by Marissa Bell, Drew Tocco, Emily Gunsch and William Treat

--William Treat, Drew Tocco, Marissa Bell, Emily Gunsch (Little Brother).