|Between Shades of Gray
by Ruta Sepetys
by Franny Billingsley
When I first agreed to be a judge for this, I thought it would be straightforward, but just in case, I immediately read up on previous battles. Strangely, many of the judges said things like “this was harder than I expected” or “unexpectedly complicated!” But the idea seemed simple. You read two books, and you like one of them better. You explain your thoughts in a coherent way, and then you retreat to your kitchen to make cookie dough.
But then it was my turn. And it turned out that I had read both of the about-to-battle books. I know that you’re thinking, yahtzee! Her job’s already done! Only it wasn’t. Because even though I’d read both of them (Between Shades of Gray on a plane from Chicago to Boston, and Chime while sitting on my sofa with a runny nose), I hadn’t been in a judging mindset when I did. I was just doing what readers do. You know. Reading. Moreover, my reading environment could have biased my feelings toward them. Everyone knows that having a runny nose is better than sitting in the middle seat of an airplane next to a man who’s just had tacos before take off. HOW COULD I TRUST MY PREVIOUS JUDGMENT? The simple answer: I couldn’t. So I read them again.
I picked Chime to read first, for reasons I’ll explain later. It’s a vaguely historical, first-person fantasy novel that put me in mind of Madapple. Did any of you guys read that? Like Madapple, the narrator of Chime is an unreliable one, and like Madapple, the timing/pacing felt rather dreamlike. I could tell you what Chime is supposed to be about: a minister’s daughter, Briony, who believes herself to be a damnable witch guilty of multiple crimes, including consorting with swamp spirits, burning down her family’s library, and crippling her stepmother’s body and her twin sister’s mind.
But I’ll tell you what it’s really about: Briony. Just Briony. It is a “voice-y” first person sort of novel, which means we get Briony’s opinions of life in a very stream-of-consciousness way. And she has a lot of them. Thoughts on how the villagers have an idealized view of her family. How she hates herself. How lovely London must be; how she will never see it. How she hates herself. How Eldric, the new boy in town, is shiftless but likable. How she hates herself. How she wishes she could stop pretending that she can’t see the vaguely fey creatures that inhabit their swamp. How she ha— you get the idea. Briony has a long way to go as far as accepting herself, and that character arc is what Chime is all about.
Once I had Chime firmly in my mind again, I picked up Between Shades of Gray. I’d been putting off rereading this one because, like I said about it on my blog, “Even though I found this novel exceptionally well-written, it was not a pleasure to read.” Ostensibly, it is a first-person novel that tells the story of just one of many Lithuanian families who were displaced to Siberian work camps during World War II. In reality, it is about… just that. Not many Americans are aware of this version of the war, and the reveal of the horrors the Lithuanian prisoners endured is the most breath-taking part of the novel.
From the first page of Between Shades of Gray, the reader knows what they’re getting into. Officers arrive to take 15-year-old Lina and her family from their house; Lina says “They took me in my nightgown.” When Lina’s mother realizes what is about to happen, she encourages her two children to pack bags full of essentials and then begins to smash all of her fine china. Lina asks, “Mother, why are you breaking your beautiful things?” And her mother says, “Because I love them so much.”
Lina’s mother was my favorite character in the book. She remains the person we all hope we can be in a disaster: kind, resilient, ultimately decent. Lina, on the other hand, is a fairly passive character. Unlike Briony from Chime, who changes hugely from beginning to end, Lina is mostly the vehicle for the story of the prison camp. If Chime is actually about Briony, Between of Shades of Gray is actually about Lithuania. In some ways, I felt as if Lina’s true purpose in the story was to represent Lithuania itself. She is an artistic, proud, educated girl who maintains her sense of national pride even as her dignity is stripped away. In the end, she has, like Lithuania, permanently lost a certain sort of innocence.
Ultimately, these two books both have their own sort of power. Chime’s is a personal sort: showing just how much damage we can do to ourselves. And Between Shades of Gray is about collective power: how filling yourself up with personal identity can be armor against everything but death, which is only the most obvious of enemies.
Between Shades of Gray wrecked me and changed the way I looked at things, not just the first time I read it, but also the second. Not many novels can accomplish that. And when they do, they definitely get my vote to go to the next round of Battle of the Books.
Now I’m going to go make cookie dough.
— Judge Maggie Stiefvater
And the Winner of this match is……
BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY
While I like both of these books very much, I had always hoped we’d see AMELIA LOST vs. DAUGHTER OF SMOKE & BONE in this round. Ah, well. I’m a bit surprised by this decision because I always figured the winner of CHIME vs. DAUGHTER OF SMOKE & BONE had a free pass to the finals because Maggie writes those kinds of books, too. It just goes to show—yet again—that that kind of logic is not only flawed, but inconsistent. MADAPPLE? Yep, read, remembered, and loved—not least of all for its striking cover, something I would have wished for both CHIME and BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY. Neither their hardcover or paperback covers really do justice to these books. BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY has surprised me in consecutive rounds and becomes the first book to make it to the finals where it will face either DRAWING FROM MEMORY or LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM—and the winner of the Undead Poll.
— Commentator Jonathan Hunt
Ms. Stiefvater provides excellent insights into the powers of both Between Shades of Grey and Chime, and in an extremely conversational way. These “powers,” Briony’s hatred and the Lithuanian power of identity, along with the love that drives them, create both the themes and the characters in the book. Sure, I didn’t like Chime, but Briony’s character of self-hatred and love was almost perfectly made. The pride of the Lithuanians is a great contrast to Sepetys’s harsh writing, and also makes the story just a little bit hopeful. (Billingsley’s book is not hopeful, because of Briony’s self-hatred that continues even when everything ends up being okay.) Because of this conveyance of hope through emotional writing, I am very happy that Between Shades of Gray is in the final.
— Kid Commentator RGN