Sepetys, Ruta. 2012. Between Shades of Gray. New York, NY: SPEAK. ISBN 014242059X.
Lina is a teenage girl living in Lithuania until the soviet officers in the NKVD arrest her and her family. After she and her other family members are separated from her father, she begins to draw what is happening to them to pass word to her father. Eventually, Lina, her mother, and her little brother, Jonas, are taken to work in Siberia and she continues to document the experiences in hopes of reaching her father.
The story begins in June of 1941 in Lithuania and unfolds before the reader telling the story and daily challenges of the characters. While, it has flashbacks blended throughout the text, it is laid out clearly and naturally progresses with the characters experiences as they travel and end up in a work camp.
Lina is the main character in the book, and she is fifteen-years-old. It is suggested that readers of this book should be at least 12-years-old. This age range I think helps the reader connect with Lina because being close to Lina’s age, or having already been 15, readers can relate and identify with her in the story. Lina also has a little brother who she feels the need to protect and care for. Readers may also have younger siblings and imagine themselves in her shoes and what they would do for their younger siblings. I think what first makes Lina very likeable is when she helps protect her brother from ridicule on the train. In the commotion, Jonas wets his pants and eventually asks his mother to change his clothes. A little girl points at him and says, “he peed.” To which Lina quickly and loudly covers it up by saying, “You peed, little girl? Oh, poor thing.”
This text would not be suitable for young readers because it presents some scenes and information that can be hard to swallow, even for a mature reader. It is obvious that the story is deeply rooted in historical facts and the author does not try to sugar coat the past. Have you ever heard the phrase, “It’s like watching a train-wreck!” That describes this story. Between Shades of Gray is painful and at times morbid, but the reader can’t help but continue. It is sort of a dark curiosity. The reader doesn’t want to stop reading even though the story isn’t pleasant. The gravity of the situation is clear and Sepetys communicates this delicate subject so well that the reader’s heart can’t help but heart for Lina and her family.
Between Shades of Gray is an interesting story and one that may be unfamiliar to young readers. As the book goes on, the reader may begin to wonder how he or she didn’t know much or anything about this situation beforehand. It encourages a sense of wonderful and a desire to know more. This is especially true when the people on Lina’s train think that Hitler will save them from this tragedy. The majority of the books readers are probably familiar with Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust and the horrendous tragedies he is responsible for, so to hear the Lithuanians regard him as a potential hero, can provoke a lot of questions for the reader.
Ruta Sepetys explains how she got the information in the book and how she chose what to include and what to leave out. This story is personal to Sepetys because like Andrius in the book, her father was the son of a Lithuanian military officer. In the back of the book, Ruta discusses her journey to write this book, the people she meet, and the places she went to provide some authenticity to the tale.
In the back of the book, potential discussion questions are included. One of the questions is about describing what this book is about in a few words beginning with “This book is about…”. I think the best way to explain the theme of this story is using that prompt. This book is about hope and the will to survive.
I read Hiroshima by Laurence Yep and reconsidered my opinion of historical fiction. I’m glad I followed up that book with this one. Between Shades of Gray — not to be confused with any of the Fifty Shades of Gray books — is a remarkable page turner of a story. As a person who does not usually enjoy fiction for my own personal leisure, this book is revolutionary. The historical and factual references were enough to pull me in and give me a sense of realism without making me feel like it was just a reprinted diary. Between Shades of Gray is a must read for young adults and in my opinion, should be on every school’s summer reading list.
Awards and Review Excerpts:
A New York Times Notable Book
Carnegie Medal Nominee
“A harrowing page-turner.” – Publishers Weekly
“A gripping story.” – School Library Journal
“Beautifully written and deeply felt… An important book that deserves the widest possible readership” – Booklist
“Heart-wrenching …an eye opening reimagination of a very real tragedy written with grace and heart” – The Los Angeles Times
This story would be a nice addition to an ELA or history class. I think it would be an excellent fit in some sort of unit or display about war crimes or Joseph Stalin. While students receive a lot of information about Adolf Hitler, many may not know much about Joseph Stalin. Younger students may want to read Joseph Stalin by Jeffrey Zuehlke, while older readers may be more interested in Joseph Stalin: Wicked History by Sean McCollum.