Going into the situation, I only knew that The Giver won a Newberry Award and was written by someone I'd heard of. (I couldn't place her until I realized that she wrote the Anastasia books.)
It's a children's version of The Handmaid's Tale, and therefore lighter and more explicit. The situation is similar: sometime in the future, society is highly controlled and people are chosen for professions based on their unique abilities. Individuals are given few rights and are not allowed to make their own choices, as the important decisions are made by the governing council of elders. This seems to work ok for everyone because this is what they know.
Jonas is 12 and is chosen to be a Receiver, the community's vessel of knowledge and memory. He alone is allowed to possess general knowledge and memories of the past, basically the reasons why their society has developed its culture. The Giver is his mentor, and through his lessons, Jonas realizes that he wants to be allowed to make choices and challenge authority.
I can see why this won the Newberry medal. Besides that it's well-written, it tackles a complex concept in a simple way. The lessons reminded me of Ishmael, but were pleasantly more feasible and less annoying. It was clearly using a teacher-student relationship to teach the reader, but that was less obvious than in Ishmael, and made the story a more believable novel.
Also, The Giver spawns discussion of numerous issues, such as the role of government in society, the treatment of the disabled or unwanted, precision (or is it accuracy?) in language, and the trade-off between freedom and responsibility. I think if I were Mrs. Barakat, I'd assign a journal entry on each of these topics while my students were reading the novel. Something to think about, anyway.